Mesoamericans Captured and Traded Wild Animals For Rituals, Evidence Found in the Maya City of Copan


A research team found archaeological samples of wild animals from different sites in the Maya city of Copan, in Honduras. Analysis of the animals remains showed that the ancient Mesoamericans captured and traded them for symbolic and ritual purposes.

The study was published on 12 September in the journal PLOS ONE by researchers at the from George Mason University, Virginia, USA. One of the researchers of the study was archaeologist Nawa Sugiyama, who offered some details on their find:

“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.”

Live Wild Animals in Sacrificial Rituals

Mesoamerican cultures used pumas or jJaguars for many purposes, including ritual sacrifice, display of power and status or resources to process venison and craft materials. Wild animal use in ancient Mesoamerica was found in the Teotihuacan culture – who lived in A.D. 1-550 in what is now central Mexico.

The study analyzed the samples of wild animals excavated from the ritual sites in the Maya city of Copan (A.D. 426-822) and performed stable isotope analyses on different bones and teeth (puma, jaguar, other felids and deer, owl, crocodile, and spoonbill).

Sugiyama explains 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.”

Some felid specimens had a high level of C4 intake, which meant that their diet was anthropogenic, but there were no indicators of captive breeding, which meant that Mesoamerican cultures would keep wild animals in captivity for rituals and animal trade. Previous research also found the same theory, but this study shows that rituals and wild animal trade were more extensive than scientists previously thought.

Although not involved in the research, David Freidel (Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri), an anthropologist and expert on Maya culture, stated that the study “adds to evidence from Teotihuacan murals which often show jaguars and other animals alive in ritualistic and sacrificial contexts.”


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