Ancient Maya Captured and Traded Big Cats: Study

by johnsmith

The ancient Maya routinely captured and traded wild jaguars (Panthera onca) and pumas (Puma concolor) for symbolic and ritual purposes, according to an analysis of animal remains from the Maya city of Copan, in present-day Honduras.

The jaguar (Panthera onca). Image credit: Marco Verch / CC BY 2.0.

The jaguar (Panthera onca). Image credit: Marco Verch / CC BY 2.0.

Long before historical records mention Moctezuma’s zoo during the Aztec occupation (1325–1521 CE), the earliest evidence of wild animal use in the New World was recovered at the site of Teotihuacan, Mexico (1–550 CE).

The apex predator sacrifices within Teotihuacan pyramids represented the culmination of a state ritualization process that entailed the effective physical and symbolic manipulation of key symbols of Teotihuacan.

The remains of these empowered carnivores, including golden eagles, pumas, jaguars, wolves, and rattlesnakes, help establish a rich zooarchaeological and isotopic baseline with which to investigate the extent of human-animal dynamics in comparable sites.

The new study, led by George Mason University anthropologist Nawa Sugiyama, situates ritualized animal management of highly symbolic fauna in the broader context of Classic Mesoamerica by examining another core Classic Mesoamerican site, the Maya city of Copan (426-822 CE).

The puma (Puma concolor). Image credit: Jbarreirol / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The puma (Puma concolor). Image credit: Jbarreirol / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Dr. Sugiyama and co-authors analyzed archaeological samples of wild animals excavated from five ritual sites in Copan.

They performed stable isotope analyses on bone and teeth from puma, jaguar and other unidentified felids along with deer, owl, spoonbill, and crocodile, to determine the diet and geographical origin of the animals.

Some of the felid specimens tested, including puma and jaguar, had high levels of C4 intake indicative of an anthropogenic diet despite the absence of indicators of captive breeding.

Oxygen isotope levels in deer and felid specimens suggest that some animals and derived craft products (e.g. pelts) used in ritual practices originated in distant regions of the Copan Valley.

These findings confirm previous research showing that Mesoamerican cultures kept wild animals in captivity for ritual purposes and reveal that animal trade networks across ancient Mesoamerica were more extensive than previously thought.

“Encoded into the bones of jaguars and pumas at the Maya site of Copan was evidence of both captivity and of expansive trade networks trading ritualized carnivores across the dynamic Mesoamerican landscape,” Dr. Sugiyama said.

The study was published online September 12, 2018 in the journal PLoS ONE.


N. Sugiyama et al. 2018. Jaguar and puma captivity and trade among the Maya: Stable isotope data from Copan, Honduras. PLoS ONE 13 (9): e0202958; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0202958

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