The remains of a young bobcat found in western Illinois may be early evidence of feline domestication in the Americas, according to new research.
Some 2000 years ago, a bobkitten was carefully laid to rest in a burial mound near the Illinois River wearing a necklace of bear teeth and shells. Initially thought to be a dog burial when the remains were discovered in the ‘80s, researchers affiliated with several Illinois institutions, as well as the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, recently reanalyzed the sample and now assert that it represents the first wild cat burial documented in archaeology.
The Hopewell Native Americans living in the region might have tried to tame the young bobcat, they write in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, representing an ancient example of cat domestication in North America. Domestic dogs were buried at this time, but not with the ceremonial pomp this cat received. The months-old bobcat was interred by itself near several human funeral mounds, and didn’t have any marks on it to suggest the animal had been killed as a sacrifice.
Yet the researchers are unclear as to whether the animal was a pet, or merely held special significance for the Hopewell that resulted in a higher-class burial than most animals received. And even if it was a pet, that doesn't necessarily mean it was a predecessor of today's house cat. While this burial could be a sign of early efforts toward domesticating wild felines, the cat could also have been a singular outlier among a largely untamed population of bobcats. We can say for sure, though, that someone definitely liked this cat enough to give it a proper send-off.