The Maya Kept Jaguar Zoos For Centuries

In the Maya city of Copán, at the base of a 30-meter-tall pyramid, there’s a beautiful stone slab known as Altar Q. The altar is square, and each of its meter-wide faces preserve carvings of 4 of the city’s 16 rulers, including its final king Yax Pasaj Chan Yoaat, who commissioned the structure in 776. It was as much propaganda as historical record. Though Yax Pasaj wasn’t part of a dynastic bloodline himself, the altar shows him receiving the scepter of kingship from Copán’s founding ruler, thus proving that he was worthy of ruling. The altar was a statement of his legitimacy.

The jaguars probably helped.

There’s a crypt immediately in front of the altar, which contained the bones of several birds, and 16 big cats—jaguars and pumas (cougars) packed so tightly that the people who first excavated them referred to them as “jaguar stew.” It’s likely that these animals were sacrificed on the altar as emblems of power, one cat for each king.

“It’s hard to imagine this very elaborate ritual in one of the hardest times for the Copán dynasty,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an archeologist at George Mason University. Yax Pasaj was the last person to rule the city before it collapsed, and his reign was one of political turmoil and environmental degradation. Amid that turmoil, he somehow managed to acquire 16 big cats, even though the surrounding valley was too small to house more than five jaguars, and even though these beasts are hard to find, much less to capture.

Sugiyama thinks she knows how he did it. By analyzing the chemicals within the buried cat bones, she and her colleagues showed that jaguars and pumas likely came to Copán from distant regions, and were kept in captivity for most of their lives. The city effectively had its own zoo, which was part of a wide trade network that sucked in wildlife from a larger area. For three centuries, wild animals—including the most formidable carnivores around—were brought in, housed, fed, and eventually used in ritual ceremonies.

“These people were interacting head-on with some of the most powerful predators in the landscape—and that’s a feat we don’t see in many civilizations,” says Sugiyama. “We’ve always assumed that people in Mesoamerica only had the dog and the turkey—and camels and guinea pigs further south. But I think the dynamics between humans and animals [in the region] were much deeper.”

“We think of zoos …read more

Source:: The Atlantic – Science

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