The Maya Captured, Traded and Sacrificed Jaguars and Other Large Mammals

New archeological findings suggest the Maya city state Copan dealt in a robust jaguar trade

Puma Skull
Puma skull from the Motmot burial. Nawa Sugiyama

In 776 A.D., the last king of Copan eagerly sought to prove his suitability to rule the Maya city state. More than a decade into his tenure, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat built the final version of a temple in the Copan Valley of modern-day Honduras, situated above the tomb of the city’s founder and complete with a monumental altar at its base. The monument remains one of the primary sources of information about Copan’s royalty, depicting Yopaat and each of his 15 dynastic predecessors going back roughly four centuries, built to legitimize his leadership during troubled times.

“It shows how the last ruler is getting power from the founding ruler and all of his ancestors,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at George Mason University in Virginia who was a Peter Buck Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History at the time of research.

To commemorate the completion of the monument and allay the population’s fears during a time fraught with unrest, brought on in part by dwindling local resources, Yopaat needed a grand gesture. In a display of royal right and divine favor, n a display of royal right and divine favor, he set out to sacrifice noble beasts like jaguars and pumas for himself and every one of his predecessors.

The gathering of so many of the elusive jungle predators would have been no easy task in the best of times, but the effort was likely further complicated by centuries of deforestation around the Maya capital of the Classic period—a display of exploitation that may have eventually led to Copan’s demise in the early 9th century.

“There are probably not enough jaguars and pumas in the valley [at the time],” says Sugiyama, the lead author of a study published today in PLOS ONE. The new research shows that to round up all the jaguars needed to appease his dynastic predecessors, Yopaat must have kept the animals in captivity and relied on a vast wildlife trade network throughout Mesoamerica, possibly reaching as far as Teotihuacan some 1,000 miles away in the present-day outskirts of Mexico City.

The Maya had a deep reverence for the animal world around them, and they often sought communion with these creatures which they believed sentient and close companions to the spiritual forces in their understanding of the world, according to David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved in the new study.

Elizabeth Paris, an assistant professor in archaeology at the University of Calgary in Canada who studies the Maya, but who was also not involved in this research, says that jaguars in particular were closely tied with power in various Mesoamerican cultures.

“Our understanding is that you had to be a very high rank to have a jaguar as your spirit companion,” she says, adding that kings would cultivate their relationship with these animals by wearing paws or skulls as clothing accessories or by using them as ritual objects.

Copan Ball Court
The ball court of the Copan ruins in Honduras. Wikimedia Commons/CC 2.0

The jungle cats were also sacrificed in many Mesoamerican cultures. Freidel says that in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, “these animals were being killed by, consumed by, and their spiritual power absorbed by the places in which deposits [of remains] were being made.”

Sugiyama and her coauthors, which includes Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute physical scientist Christine France, set out on a quest that led them to a better understanding of how Yopaat may have gathered these giant cats. The results of their study also provide a new perspective of the ways in which the ancient Maya exploited the wildlife around them long before European colonization.

Sugiyama had previously conducted related work at Teotihuacan on captive animals. That city, which was one of the largest ancient cities in the Americas with a population of at least 25,000 during its heyday from roughly the first century to the seventh, had a special relationship with Copan. Maya inscriptions detail how the southern capital’s first king, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo', visited Teotihuacan during his rule. A number of wares from the great northern city, like ceramics and green obsidian, were excavated alongside royal burials in Copan.

The founding ruler of Copan also brought a taste of the iconography of Teotihuacan back south with him, and the authors of the new study believe it’s possible that Yax K'uk' Mo' witnessed captive pumas and other animals kept in Teotihuacan. Accordingly, the ancestor of Yopaat may have adopted the tradition of capturing large mammals when founding Copan.

Sugiyama examined remains from five areas at Copan spanning the entire history of the site, which she describes as the “Greece or Rome” of Mesoamerica. The work uncovered numerous animal remains including jaguars, pumas, spoonbills, deer and crocodiles. The research team examined these remains using stable isotope analysis, a technique that can determine the origin of elements present in the samples to give researchers an idea of where the animals came from and what they ate.

The researchers analyzed carbon isotopes in the remains of animals buried at Yopaat’s monumental altar and in other burial sites, focusing on the photosynthetic pathways in which some carbon atoms are created. Some of these, called C4s, are often found in crops including the corn that was cultivated by Mesoamericans. C3s, alternatively, are found in this area more predominantly in wild plants.

Jaguars and pumas are strictly carnivorous and wouldn’t have been eating corn or wild plants—but their prey would have. Sugiyama says that the relative quantity of these carbon isotopes can tell archaeologists whether the predators were feeding on wild herbivores like deer or owls, or domestic animals like turkeys fed on corn. In other words, jaguar or puma remains with higher ratios of C4s were likely eating prey which fed on wild plants, while higher ratios of C3s suggest the cats were fed domestic animals in captivity.

Sugiyama and crew also examined oxygen isotopes and found that some of the remains, as well as animal-derived products like jaguar pelts used in ritual practices, came from more distant parts of the Copan Valley—a finding that makes sense in light of the centuries of deforestation around the capital city. Without nearby jungle, Yopaat’s people couldn’t have easily acquired live jaguars. They would have had to get them from other sources, most likely through trade.

Paris says Sugiyama’s work is “really exciting” and gives us an idea of how Maya leaders managed wildlife. “That’s pushing the boundaries of what we can know about highly ritual concepts in the Maya court.”

For his part, Freidel calls Sugiyama’s work “exemplary archaeology as science” and “a very meticulous, very strong article.” He says the isotope work adds to evidence from Teotihuacan murals which often show jaguars and other animals alive in ritualistic and sacrificial contexts. The new research also provides more evidence of the strong relationship between Copan and Teotihuacan.

The next step for Sugiyama is to conduct a strontium isotope analysis of the remains, which will give archaeologists a more detailed picture of where the jaguars and pumas may have come from in Mesoamerica. Continued work and future archaeological discoveries may give us an idea of the level of sustainability of the Mesoamerican jaguar trade. Today, jaguars are considered a near-threatened species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, due in part to the same problems of human encroachment and hunting that may have thinned the big cats’ numbers nearby Copan.

Yopaat’s alter inscriptions may show an image of power and legitimacy, but Sugiyama’s research reveals a different story behind his propaganda. The archaeologists found that the remains buried at the monumental altar included four jaguars, five pumas and one smaller cat that may have been an ocelot or jaguarundi. Sugiyama says the rest of the 16 remains were likely from cats that weren’t actually sacrificed at the time of the ceremony, but rather old ritual objects like pelts or claws thrown in to inflate the number.

“[The analysis] paints a different picture, scrambling to get these 16 felids,” she says.

Whether it was due to these shortcuts is unclear, but Yopaat’s sacrifices to his ancestors didn’t work out in the long run. He ended up ruling as the last king of Copan, and after his reign, the city’s population began to crumble until the great southern city state was eventually abandoned in the late 9th century.

Today the ruins are surrounded by forest once again, but jaguars still have a human problem.

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