All living species in today's cat family descend from an Asian genus Pseudaelurus - who lived some 11 millions years ago. Migrations from Asia to Europe, to North & South America and reverse migration produced the distribution of small cat species known today (O'Brien at al, 2008). Many of the species are easy to tame and have been historically valued as pest controllers in different parts of the world - i.e. the Jaguarundi in South America and the Pallas in Central Asia.
It is undisputed that the wildcat Felis silvestris is the sole original ancestor of the domestic cat. Felis silvestris is represented by many subspecies being:
Lybica - the easiest to tame; Ornata - intermediate and Silvestris - almost impossible to tame. The domestic cat, as known today, classified as Felis silvestris catus, derives mostly from Felis silvestris lybica.
Lately, new breeds have been created by hybridizing catus with non-sympatric species, such as the serval (a medium-sized, large-eared wild African cat) to obtain the "Savannah" and the geoffroy (South American wild cat) to obtain the "Safari" - providing the look of the wild with the affection of the domestic ones.
The most widespread is the Bengal , a hybrid originated from the Asian Leopard Cat (very unlikely choice as this species is among the least tameable of all the species). Usually, the animals of these breeds kept as pets contain only a small proportion of non-silvestris genes; i.e. F1-F3 Bengals are generally only kept for breeding, with F4 (6% bengalensis) and subsequent generations are kept as domestic pets. (John Bradshaw et al.)
Domestication started in Egypt by about 4000 BC. Cats were known as Mau and were originally kept because they hunted mice that would eat the stored grains. It was a beneficial situation for both sides. Cats would get a reliable source of prey and the humans got effortless pest control. Undoubtedly, cats were very good at catching mice and rats, reducing disease and deaths and also allowing a larger supply of food for the poor.
This, therefore, changed the quality of living for the Egyptians and cats became a sacred creature representing life. They were associated with the goddesses Bastet, Isis and Pasht. If an Egyptian killed a cat, they were immediately given the death penalty; yet the fear of the all mighty cat itself, made this a rare occurrence. The Pharaohs were mummified and buried with statues of cats, representing good luck and safe companionship to the afterlife. In Ancient Egypt, to have many cats, meant you were very lucky.
The Egyptian word for cat is mau, meaning "to see" . Egyptians were fascinated by cat's eyes, most likely because they believed that cats could see into the human soul.
Towards the end of the Egyptian Empire cats were sold to the Greeks and Persians. In 500 BC, a domesticated cat was given to the Emperor of China becoming the most popular pet of the rich during the Song Dynasty.
The Romans also used cats to control the pest population. Around 100 AD, they were introduced to Britain and were protected by Law by the King of Wales, Hywel Dda, as sacred and valuable animals. Killing a cat could be punishable by death.
Sadly, the fate of cats changed in Europe during the Middle Ages - Medieval Times. During this time, the cat was seen as evil and associated with Pagan churches and beliefs. By 1400 the cat was almost extinct due to bad press from the Church. Ironically, cats were blamed for the spread of the Plague, the Black Death; when in reality, it was the rat who was responsible for the spreading of such disease. Cats had a rough time, they were treated badly, most often killed along with their owners (considered witches).
Cats flourished again in the 20th Century when they were re-introduced as household pets by Queen Victoria of England. New breeds were created such as the Sphynx and Himalayan. During the 1990s, cats overtook the dog as the world's most favorite and common pet.
In Japan, cats are referred as "good fortune" or "good luck", represented by the popular "Maneki Neko", a sitting cat with paw raised and bent. Legend has it that a cat waved a paw at a japanese landlord, who intrigued by the gesture, went towards the cat. A few seconds later, a lightning bolt struck where the landlord had been standing previously. The landlord attributed his good fortune to the cat's fortuitous action. Maneki Neko, symbol of good luck is usually seen in businesses to draw in money.