A new study says farmers in Medieval Spain skinned cuts to use their fur in trade and pagan rituals. The study is based on evidence found at the El Bordellet site ((Vilafranca del Penedès) in Eastern Spain.

The site was discovered during works for the construction of a highway in 2010. In excavations that followed archaeologists found nine pits that held crops from Medieval farms and contained bones from sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, dogs and horses. One pit, however, stands out, since it contained an unusual amount of cat bones, in particular 899 bones.

Carbon dating of one bone showed it dated to AD 970-1025. Cut marks and fractions on the bones led scientists to the conclusion that the cats were probably skinned. Most of them were probably 9-20 months old when they died, as the state of the bones indicates. Since at that age the cats are large enough but with their fur still undamaged, they were probably killed for this reason.

Using the fur of cats was not uncommon in Medieval times. Cat and rabbit fur are very similar and the less wealthy would use cat fur in garments. Evidence of cat fur trade has been found in other Medieval sites in Europe.

But the authors of the study claim that the fur of the cats might have been used for a magical pagan rite. In the same pit with the feline remains researchers also found a horse skull, a goat horn fragment and a chicken eggshell. All these have been associated with ritual practices in the Middle Ages and later.

Researchers are not sure, though, whether these animals remains were placed together in the pit on purpose or were found there accidentally. They hope that future discoveries in the area will shed more light on the matter.

The study was published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.