Cats originated in the Middle East, descended from the African wildcat. They were domesticated sometime in the Stone Age, probably around the development of agriculture, when grain stores began to attract rats and other pests to human settlements.
Cats in the wild make almost no sounds to one another, but among humans they have a wide repertoire of purrs, hisses, mews and yowls. These are all designed to communicate with us and research has shown that stroking a cat stimulates the hormone oxytocin in humans, which helps us feel relaxed and happy.
A 9,500-year-old grave in Cyprus has been found of a Neolithic human buried next to a cat. There are now roughly 500 million domestic cats around the world but genetic analysis has revealed that they are all descended from just five females.
Many domestic cats have a semi-feral lifestyle where they will take food from several different households as well as hunting for themselves. To this end, cats still retain most of the hunting skills and instincts of their ancestors. Cats are quite hardy and can get all the water they need from eating meat. Interestingly, they can also drink seawater. Cats mainly hunt at twilight; their eyes can operate with just one-sixth of the light that we would need to see by and their hearing is among the most acute of any mammal. In the UK, cats kill 64.8 million birds a year; indeed, 30 per cent of all sparrow deaths are down to a feline culprit.