Archaeologists unearth dozens of mummified cats in Egypt

Dozens of mummified cats were dug up this week. This isn't as shocking as you might think.

  • Archaeologists in Egypt have found dozens of mummified cats in the tomb of a royal offical.
  • The cats will join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of previously discovered ancient kitties.
  • While the cats are nothing special, the tomb also held well preserved beetles.

There are three things that everybody knows about ancient Egypt: they had mummies, built the pyramids as tombs for kings, and really liked cats. While there is vastly more to ancient Egyptian culture than these details, they are accurate ones. All three of these conceptions were confirmed again this week when archaeologists in Egypt discovered a tomb full of mummified cats.

Mummified cats? 

Cat statue

Photo: The Ministry of Antiquities.

One of the items found at the dig site. It seems to be a very good kitty and not at all cursed.

The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has announced the discovery of dozens of mummified cats in a 4,500-year-old tomb. Alongside the cats were gilded statues of felines and a bronze icon of the cat-headed goddess Bastet. The archaeologists also found a large sarcophagus filled with mummified scarab beetles.

Other tombs on the site were dedicated to the royal official Khufu-Imhat. A door engraved with the names of two women was also found, though the archaeologists are still working on who they were.

Is this typical?

Mummified Dung Beetles

Photo: The Ministry of Antiquities.

The beetles and the tiny caskets they were found in. Scarab beetles, including the well known dung beetle, were also considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians.

Yes, since the 1890s, mummified cats have been found all over Egypt. According to Dr. Antonietta Catanzariti, who works with Smithsonian at UC Berkeley, a single massive discovery unearthed 180,000 well-preserved felines. Mummified cats are so common that during the 1880s they were sold off to make fertilizer as museums had little interest in buying more of them.

The Facebook post the ministry made about this discovery spends more time on the beetles than the cats, as the discovery of two, large, well-preserved beetles is a rare find.

Forget the beetles. Why would the Egyptians mummify cats?

The Egyptians mummified millions of animals, from beetles to bulls. According to Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol, this was partly because many animals were seen as the incarnations of gods and giving them the honor of mummification was a pious act. This is why many mummified animals were given the same quality of treatment as humans.

Others mummified their animals because they wanted to be buried with their pets. It's no different than how some people today spend way too much money on their dogs, get their cats hip replacements, or include them in their will. Humans seem to love their pets no matter where you go and in what era.

How else did the Egyptians show their love of cats? 

Photo by David Savill/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

December 1936: The Great Sphinx of Giza, representing a guardian deity in Egyptian mythology, with the body of a lion and the head of a woman.

The Egyptian love of cats goes back a long way. Mafdet, the protector against venomous creatures, was depicted as having the head of a cat as far back as 2,800 BCE. This depiction was likely a reference to the tendency for felines to kill snakes, as she was also often depicted as with the head of a Mongoose.

Breeds similar to the African wildcat are depicted as being domesticated as early as the 26th century BCE. After the 10th century BCE, the typical person started keeping domestic cats at home. The love endured to the 1st century BCE when a mob supposedly lynched a Roman for killing a cat. It was only when the Roman empire began to suppress paganism that the view of cats as sacred began to decline.

Cats, other than being wonderful pets, also ate rodents that would spread disease and steal grain. In an era before modern medicine or food storage techniques, both of these functions were indispensable. Just as many scholars view the veneration of cows in Hinduism as a result of the dependence of early peoples on cattle as a source of fuel, many Egyptologists suggest cats were so useful to the Egyptian people that they were treated as sacred as a result.

It's wrong to think that they worshiped their cats, however. According Antonietta Catanzariti's interview with Smithsonian, the ancient Egyptians' attitude was one of reverence to the idea of the divine in animals. She explains that:

"What they were [actually] doing was associating cats to specific deities because of their attitude, how they were behaving in the natural world. Everything had a meaning. A cat protecting the house from mice. Or it might just protect kittens. These were attitudes that were attributed to a specific goddess."

It isn't that the cats were divine, but instead that they reflected the divine and should be respected as such; an observation many cat lovers would agree with.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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