When The Vikings Came

Shrouded in myth, the Vikings have been regarded as both explorers and warriors but, much of what we know about them has changed including the role they played in helping  our four-legged feline friends make their way around the world.

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Recent studies into ancient cat DNA has revealed that domestic cats hitched a ride on Viking boats  (Photo: Shutterstock) Image ScienceNordic

Researchers actually know very little about how cats were ‘domesticated’ so the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA presented this past September in the UK is a big first step towards understanding how our beloved house cats came to be. Eva-Maria Geigl, an evolutionary geneticist at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, and her colleagues analyzed mitochondrial DNA from the remains of 209 cats that lived between about 15,000 years ago and the eighteenth century AD, from more than 30 archaeological sites across Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The first wave of cat expansion is something that most are familiar with – wild cats from the Middle East moved with early farming communities to the fertile Eastern Mediterranean. The cats were attracted by the rodents, who were attracted by the grains being stored by the farmers, and humans seeing the benefits they provided decided to keep the cats around. The discovery of a 9,500 year-old grave in Cyprus containing a cat buried with a human, suggests that the connection between felines and humans go as far back as 12,000 years.

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(Upper right) A human skeleton in Cyprus in a 9,500-year-old grave. Inches away, a cat was carefully buried, as seen in the lower section of the image.  Image – NBC News

During the second wave of expansion thousands of years later, cats descended from those in Egypt (It is generally thought that Ancient Egyptians tamed wild cats about 6,000 years ago) quickly spread throughout Eurasia and Africa. “A mitochondrial lineage common in Egyptian cat mummies from the end of the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD was also carried by cats in Bulgaria, Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa from around the same time.” It is very likely that sea-faring people like the Vikings kept cats on board their boats to help keep the rodent population down said researchers, who also discovered cat remains, with the same maternal DNA lineage present in the Egyptian cat mummies, at a Viking site in northern Germany dating to between the eighth and eleventh century AD.

Upon seeing the results of the first large-scale study of ancient feline DNA at the conference, Population Geneticist Pontus Skoglund from Harvard Medical School told Nature that he “didn’t even know there were Viking cats.” However, according to conservator Kristian Gregersen from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, the Vikings most certainly had domestic cats and that “people commonly wore cat skins by the late Viking Age.”

Interestingly this evidence seems to support the theory that two very popular and robust breeds the Maine Coon and the Norwegian Forest Cat, could have been brought to America and elsewhere by the Vikings. If you are wondering what that journey may have looked like be sure to click on the link or image below to check out this awesome, we wish it were real, flash-video by Joel Veitch.

VIKING KITTENS – by Joel

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Fantastic Little Beasts

House panthers and tiny tigers, these are some of the names we give to our beloved house cats. The domestic cat has retained a close relation to their wild relatives and so much so that we often find ourselves drawn to breeds that exhibit the physical characteristics of the larger wildcats and, once such breed, the Maine Coon, comes as close as you can get to having a Lynx in your home

They are considered to be one of the oldest natural breeds in North America and are the official Maine ‘State Cat’. Their origins range from the mythical and ridiculous (domestic cats mating with raccoons) to the more plausible, they resulted from matings between long-haired type cats sent over by Marie Antoinette, or the Vikings. The Maine Coon is closest to, and resembles the Norwegian Forest Cat, which gives some credence to the idea that the Vikings may have been the ones to introduce the breed. Even if their origins are up for debate what we can agree on is that they are stunningly beautiful, fantastical little beasts.

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All Images – Robert Sijka of Felis Gallery

Photographer, and breeder, Robert Sijka has had a long time passion for Maine Coons and has combined that passion to capture the very essence of what makes these cats so appealing. Robert’s use of a black background, to photograph his two beautiful black cats named Dolce Vita and De La Loo, helped him create his signature style that showcases the breed in an elegant and almost otherworldly manner.

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Robert tells the Cat Behaviorist that the two black sisters, Dolce Vita and De La Loo are his personal favorites (he loves black cats) and are always up for a photo shoot.

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Robert also says that it took some experimentation to come up with his signature style, about several thousand photos worth, and playing with the cats before hand is key to capturing their wonderful expression.

 

For more of Robert’s photos be sure to check him out on Instagram and Facebook as Felis Gallery.