The relationship between humans and animals has been evolving for thousands of years, and animal companions are just as loved today as they were in the ancient world. The history of pets is fascinating, and it's an important part of human history. We've relied on animals for both their companionship and their work; they have been friends as well as tools, and all the while we've learned to depend on them when we're in need.
It wasn't always just cats and dogs, however. Pets in ancient history consisted of creatures from all branches of the tree of life. Reptiles, birds, fish, and many other creatures have lived with us since time immemorial. Roman emperors and dictators lavished their pets with love and trinkets. The indigenous people of the western hemisphere had unique breeds of dog that managed to survive long after European colonization. These historical pets are as fascinating as ever, and they give us a glimpse into the everyday lives of our ancient ancestors.
Dogs can be found pretty much anywhere humans have settled, and that includes pre-Columbian America. Before the Europeans came over, Native Americans lived with domestic dogs that had genetic roots in Asia. It is likely that Asian migrants traveling across the ancient Bering Land Bridge from Russia to Alaska brought their canine companions along for the journey. Many of those breeds survive today, including the Alaskan Malamute, the Inuit sled dog, the Chihuahua, the Xoloitzcuintli, Greenland dogs, and the Peruvian hairless dog.
Amazingly, genetic testing has shown that these native breeds have been exposed to very little interbreeding with the European dogs that arrived with the first settlers. They are still relatively pure breeds even after centuries of cohabitation.
Everybody loves their pets, but we all know that one person who definitely takes it a little too far. In ancient Rome, that guy was the emperor Caligula. Caligula is remembered for ruling with an iron fist - some say he was insane - and being assassinated just four years into his reign.
Caligula also had a pet horse by the name of Incitatus. The horse was his most prized possession and closest friend, and he treated Incitatus as lavishly as he did himself. According to some ancient sources, the horse lived in a manger made of ivory and his stall was of chiseled marble. Incitatus even had his own house, which was staffed by a collection of slaves that were charged with keeping the horse as comfortable as possible. He had free reign over the furniture, lush purple blankets to keep him warm, and a jeweled necklace made from the finest stones. Some reports say that Caligula, disenchanted by the Roman senate, was planning on making Incitatus an official consul with the authority to negotiate with foreign dignitaries. Unfortunately, this moment in history never got to occur because Caligula didn't live long enough to make it happen.
The ancient Greeks and Romans absolutely loved dogs, even revering them to a certain extent. They were admired for their loyalty and gentle spirits, as well as their hunting prowess and work skills. Working dogs were not the only popular canines of the time, however. Lap-dogs were incredibly common, and the most popular was a breed known as the Melitaean.
Due to their intense popularity, these dogs were heavily imported from a small island off the coast of Italy. This breed is no longer in existence, but we know what they looked like because the ancients left behind plenty of illustrations. They were small and white with a lot of fluff and a pointed nose. Some ancient scholars wrote about the extreme love people felt for these animals. It was said that a woman would gladly see her husband die if it meant saving her dog.
Cats and humans have been living together for nearly 10,000 years. The oldest evidence we have is a 9,500-year-old cat that was found buried along with its master on the island of Cyprus. However, it's the ancient Egyptians who get the credit for turning these ferocious felines into the cuddly creatures we know and love. Researchers have discovered that all the cats alive today are descended from the ones bred in ancient Egypt.
While cats were first introduced to domestic life in order to hunt pests, generations of selective breeding made them more docile and friendly to humans. They started to become revered, with some even being immortalized as mummies. Some of their behaviors began popping up in the mythology, and their personality quirks were applied to their gods. For example, Bes, a god known for being the guardian of all children, was sometimes depicted with cat-like features.