The ancient Egyptians are well known for their worship of cats, although new findings suggest that they also kept felines as pets, just like many of us do today. This new insight comes after the remains of almost 600 cats, dogs and monkeys were unearthed at a pet cemetery that dates back around 2,000 years.
Found at the ancient Red Sea port of Berenice, the cemetery was first discovered a decade ago, although researchers were unsure if the animal bones found here represented genuine burials. Initially, some scholars had suggested that the remains had simply been discarded as trash.
However, a more detailed analysis of the site has led to the conclusion that it was in fact a resting place for beloved pets, making it the world’s oldest known pet cemetery.
Writing in the journal World Archaeology, a team of excavators reveals that the site contained a total of 585 deceased animals, each of which had been laid to rest in a carefully dug pit. Thought to have been in use from the first to the second century CE, the cemetery provides an eternal home to a range of different species, some of which were not native to Africa.
Around 90 percent of the pets buried at Berenice were cats, with small European breeds found alongside the larger Egyptian felines. Many of these sported collars or other adornments, indicating their pet status.
The researchers were even able to analyze the stomach contents of some of these cats, noting that the animals were “fed with ‘selected’ food” that would not have been available to non-domestic cats.
Dogs made up about five percent of the cemetery’s inhabitants, with the majority being of a small Spitz-type. However, the study authors did find the remains of one Maltese “toy dog”, as well as a larger individual with an unusually long skull, resembling the hunting dogs that were popular in Pompeii.
Many of the animals unearthed at the site had clearly lived to old age and showed signs of having lived with injuries or diseases. Some dogs even had gum disease, all of which suggests that they must have been well cared for and fed by human companions.
“As none of these old dogs were capable of finding food independently, one can conclude that they were entirely dependent on human care,” write the study authors.
The team also found the remains of two macaques, both of which were native to the Indian sub-continent. How these creatures wound up as pets in Egypt remains something of a mystery, although the study authors note that one of these monkeys was given an “exceptional burial”, with a number of spectacular shells and pieces of pottery placed around its body.
In conclusion, the authors believe these findings give new insights into life in Ancient Egypt, particularly the “relationships between humans and animals whose only task could have been providing a person with companionship, perhaps emotional entertainment.”