Birds, Bees, and Jaguars

I’ve written a while back about using archaeology as a platform for story building, and frankly part of it is that I’m constantly fascinated by anthropology and what secrets of the past we can unlock with new technology. Like this paper on how the Mayans kept jaguars and pumas in captivity for various purposes like shows of power or religious ritual sacrifice.

We’re taught in school (if we’re taught about it at all) that Native American peoples kept very few animals domestically (if any at all). Increasingly, archeologists are challenging many of the preconceptions we’ve held for hundreds of years about the pre-Columbian cultures that existed, how they came into being, and what became of them. But if you learned about the Mayan culture in school, other than the obvious fascination of ripping beating hearts from chests – which they indubitably did, and celebrated in stone – you might have learned that for meat animals they kept dogs. Or you might have learned that other nearby cultures kept guinea pigs for meat. What you probably didn’t know, because we’re just starting to learn about it, was that they also raised turkeys, and kept bees, birds, and Copan deer. In addition to these which were probably mostly raised to eat, they also kept Scarlet Macaws, and bred them for looks, which might explain a lot about those spectacular birds. And we are learning that they kept big cats in captivity, feeding them special diets.

So imagine the life of a woman whose burial looked a bit like this one: “The woman, interpreted to be an accomplished day-keeper, was entombed with the puma, likely her spiritual co-essence or way.” She was also laid to rest with at least two deer skulls, and prepared food which included turkeys, crocodile, other species of birds, and turtles. There were also human remains – possibly loyal servants or family – with her for her planned  afterlife. The visual this provokes is fascinating. Then, as now, the rich and famous sought out exotic pets. Only for them, there was a definite religious aspect to this expensive hobby.

Another burial site yielded an ornate collar worn by a man, made up of mingled deer and crocodile teeth, along with stingray spines. The Mayan legends often involved hybrid animals, like the feathered snake Quetzalcoatl, and in this case the collar likely referred to a “Cosmic Monster” also called “Starry Deer Crocodile.”

With the ability to identify isotopes in the remains of the animals found in burials and at altars, we can develop a new image of the Mesoamerican trade and settlements – one that includes some very difficult creatures being successfully kept in captivity and even bred for the purposes they desired. Jaguars and Pumas are highly unlikely to willingly live in close proximity, so the large number of skeletal remains found can be extrapolated out to astounding numbers of them being available in the cities surrounding Copan and Teotihuacan, cities we are only just now learning exist, much less excavating. It’s a glimpse into the mists of history, and what we can see is far different than we expected.


13 thoughts on “Birds, Bees, and Jaguars

    1. Yes, but this was specific to the Mesoamerican area, while that would be South America. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility of trade between them – we’re slowly discovering that the trade routes were vast, far longer and more extensive than we used to think they were, with travel from South America well into North America and back again.

  1. I’m not sure why it would be surprising that pre-Columbian Indians kept bees and fowl. Seems like that kind of stuff is done all over the world if they are available. That we may not have had evidence of it before is one thing, but shouldn’t be surprising.

    1. I’m really curious what kind of bees they were keeping, honestly. When I have a little time I’ll dig into it – the only citation I saw in this paper is in Spanish, which I can’t fluently read – because honeybees didn’t arrive until well after Columbus and there are no native bees I can think of with hive habits. Now, you can keep some social bees and encourage pollination, but unless they had a much better grasp of pollination than we did even in that era, none of them had the draw of producing honey.

      1. Perhaps it was 1) for wax or wax-like products, or 2) for the larvae for ritual or food uses? (We have houses for native bees at RedQuarters). And it could also be pollination, although perhaps more on the lines of “we house bees and the crops do better, so the bee gods are happier” or “the plant gods smile on us for keeping the bees happy.”

        1. The bees I found (see link in other comment) don’t make a very good wax, it seems. That’s an interesting conversation right there, about candles, and the quality of light correlated to scholarship (haven’t writers always been night owls?).

  2. Stories like this always make me wonder about what might be lying just under our feet, waiting to be discovered. This past summer, my middle daughter was on a dig in Israel when she tripped over what she thought was a rock. After shrieking an obscenity, she and her colleagues found out that what she tripped over was in fact a wall, part of a room in a Bronze Age building. Also, every now and then we read about somebody puttering around in his garden in Britain, only to happen upon a treasure trove of Roman coins. And I’m told the large park area near my home in Northern Virginia is mostly new growth, having been heavily farmed in ages past. What’s still hiding there, waiting to be rediscovered?

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