The prehistory of primate-cat relations has always been a rocky one. First there’s the fossa, a Madagascan cat-like predator that eats lemurs, thought to be similar to ancestral cats just as lemurs are thought to be like the ancestors of monkeys and apes. Clearly this relationship has been a rocky one from its inception. And can you be surprised? Both are intelligent and adapted for an arboreal environment – primate ancestors adapted for eating fruit and insects, and cat ancestors adapted for eating, well, primate ancestors.
Then during the Miocene there were a wide variety of large cats with huge teeth preying on the large varieties of apes that flourished in the extensive rainforest that covered much of the Old World.
The hominin fossil record bears witness to the animosity between cats and primates. There are archaeological sites that are basically collections of bones in the lair of large cats with plenty of hominin bones among them. Poor, unsuspecting hominins that ended up as sabre-tooth cat food.
But primates haven’t been just passive victims in all this. There’s archaeological evidence for early humans scavenging lion kill. As in “we may not have big sharp teeth like you, but we have bigger brains and can steal your food.” Some might just say that stealing the food of animals that evolved to eat your kind is a little reckless. But early humans were clever and brave. And as human brains got bigger and bigger, they got better and better at not being eaten by big cats. They developed projectile weapons. In the end, cats had no chance against humans. They couldn’t get close enough for their teeth and claws to be effective if the humans were throwing spears and shooting arrows at them. So it looks like primates finally won the war.
Cats had a plan. Unable to match projectile weapons no matter how big their teeth were, they took a different evolutionary route. A sneaky one. By evolving to be small and good at catching vermin that ate the seeds stores of neolithic humans, they got to share the humans’ food, warmth and shelter. If you can’t beat them, join them, right? Wrong again. That’s what happened in the past. The evolutionary niche they have now is more parasitic than mutualistic.
The domestic cat – aka Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus – is the same size as a human infant. Its mew sounds very similar to the cry of a newborn human baby. It has a round face with big eyes, like a human infant. The domestic cat has gone down the same evolutionary route as the cuckoo, only much further. Its entire life-cycle involves imitating baby humans and being coddled, fed and protected as though it were a human infant. Its success is such that the human knows full well that the cat isn’t a baby human, but loves and pampers it anyway, because it’s cute, cuddly and less troublesome to look after than a real human infant. And even with the huge technological prowess of modern humans, what’s that technology used for more than anything else? Sharing pictures of cats.
Cats have won. Primates have thrown in the towel and taken refuge in cuddling their kitty-cats.
The bonobo (Pan paniscus) is one of our closest living relatives. It’s actually joint closest with the common chimp (Pan troglodytes), as they are more related to each other than either of them is to us. But they are generally considered to be more like humans than common chimps are. They are also quite possibly the most sex obsessed species on earth. You thought humans were bad; bonobos leave humans looking like the prudish maiden aunts of the ape family tree.
Here’s an algorithm for how to function as a bonobo:
There is of course a lot more to bonobos than their sexual behaviour. Bonobos have been taught how to use language, and one named Kansi has even been taught how to make Homo habilis style stone tools, making him better at flintknapping than me. They are considered to be the most human-like of the two species of chimpanzee, on account of their troops having lower levels of violence, more co-operation, a greater ability in language in language than other non-human great apes (common chimps, gorillas and orangutans have also been used in language studies, but bonobos have shown the most ability in this), and also because they use sex for bonding, not just for reproduction. According to wikipedia (yeah, I know…! but I don’t have access to academic journals) bonobos have differences in their brains to common chimps that suggest a greater capacity for empathy and better control of impulses, which leads to a more peaceful social system. (But don’t mistake them for hippies, they can still be violent when they want to be, so they’re kind of like humans in that respect too.) They live in the Congo rainforest, separated from common chimps by the Congo river. There are also some bonobos in zoos, and apparently feeding time is very popular with visitors.