Ancient Maya kept animals in captivity, traded them, study suggests

Puma skull from the Motmot burial. Photo: N. Sugiyama, CC-BY
Puma skull from archaeological remains in Honduras. Photo: N. Sugiyama, CC-BY

Ancient Mesoamericans routinely captured and traded wild animals for symbolic and ritual purposes, new evidence suggests.

The discovery was made in the Maya city of Copan, in present-day Honduras, and published  in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Nawa Sugiyama from George Mason University.

Ancient Mesoamerican cultures used wild animals such as puma and jaguar for many purposes, including in symbolic displays of status and power, as subjects of ritual sacrifice, and as resources for processing into venison or craft products.

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Evidence of wild animal use in ancient Mesoamerica dates back to the Teotihuacan culture in what is now central Mexico (A.D. 1-550).

Archaeological findings of how indigenous Mesoamericans related to animals have traditionally been downplayed. That is because of the paucity of large domesticated game in the New World in comparison to the devastating impact of European livestock introduced in the 1500s.

In this study, the research team analyzed archaeological samples of wild animals excavated from five ritual sites in Copan.

The team 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 — such as 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,” Sugiyama summarizes.

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