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A Mayan zoomorphic ceramic of a chihuahua with a corn cob in its mouth.

Corn Dog Was on the Mayan Menu but Was Very Different to Today’s Handheld Snack


A new study shows that animal domestication was not only a question of food for the ancient Maya. Remains of a variety of species, including small dogs, large cats, and some turkeys, suggest the Maya domesticated animals as symbols of social and political strength, traded them, and also used them in ceremonies.

Middle Preclassic period (700-350 BC) animal bones and teeth were found near the central plaza in Ceibal, Guatemala . When the remains were analyzed, National Geographic reports, the researchers found the earliest known indications of Mayan animal trade and management.

The observatory at Ceibal, Guatemala.

The observatory at Ceibal, Guatemala. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

According to Science, bones and tooth enamel from 10 species, including deer, dogs, cats, opossums, peccaries, turkeys, and tapirs, were examined with isotope analysis to identify what the animals ate. The researchers looked at the levels of carbon and nitrogen isotopes. If they were low, the animal consumed more forest plant material (or prey which ate that). But if they were high, the animal was found to have had a diet including maize which was probably given by humans.

The research article published in PNAS shows that all of the dogs, one of the large cats (possibly a jaguar), and two of the turkeys had been fed maize. The rest of the animals, “including the 14 deer, the three other peccaries, a tapir, a large feline, a margay, and an opossum” all had low carbon isotope values and were plant fed and hunted by the Maya.

Dog with a corn cob, replica of a ceramic from Colima, Mexico.

Dog with a corn cob, replica of a ceramic from Colima, Mexico.( Novica)

The results also showed two of the dogs were from a drier, mountainous region. The researchers believe the non-local dogs may have been exchanged in trade or gifted as pets to people who traveled on an obsidian trade route between Ceibal and the highlands. As they wrote ,

“Our results suggest that captive animal rearing and long-distance trade took place in Mesoamerica far earlier than has been believed, and that such activities were integral for the development of ceremonial and political power in the Maya region.”

Spiked vessel or incense burner in the form of a dog, Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, Maya, 900-1200 AD, earthenware - De Young Museum. (Public Domain)

Spiked vessel or incense burner in the form of a dog, Guatemala, Lake Atitlan, Maya, 900-1200 AD, earthenware - De Young Museum. ( Public Domain )

The two non-local dogs and the large cat stood apart from the other animals because their remains were buried in two large Middle Preclassic pyramids at Ceibal’s Central Plaza around 400 BC– suggesting the three animals may have been used in ceremonies. Study co-author and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute archaeologist Ashley Sharpe told National Geographic,

“In Asia, Africa, and Europe, animal management went hand-in-hand with the development of cities. But in the Americas, people may have raised animals for ceremonial purposes. The growth of cities doesn't seem to be directly tied to animal husbandry.”

Ceibal temple, South Plaza.

Ceibal temple, South Plaza. ( CC BY 2.5 )

The PNAS article points out that this is not the first known instance of the Maya having used animals in ceremonies - jaguars, pumas, wolves, and eagles were also buried in the Moon and Sun Pyramids by the Maya during the Classic period at Teotihuacan.

Spotted felines were also depicted on several Classic period stelae from Xultun, suggesting the importance of this animal to the Maya. Maya kings were also sometimes depicted alongside large cats, which Sharpe explained to Science: “It was probably a kind of show off item. Like showing everyone, ‘Look, I’ve got a jaguar.’”

Maya jaguar-man.

Maya jaguar-man. (Chatsam/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

But not all the animals were used in ceremonies. Sharpe told Science that the small chihuahua-like dogs were probably a food source for the large Ceibal population, which may have numbered as many as 10,000 people between 1000 BC and 950 AD.

She says that despite the lack of obvious butchering marks, “Unfortunately, most of them were probably food dogs.” Similar domesticated dog bones found at other Mayan archaeological sites have cut marks and it has been shown they were raised for slaughter. Nonetheless, Sharpe points out that little cutting was probably needed “to process the meat from these small dogs.”

Finally, the maize-fed turkeys came to Ceibal following the decline of the maize-fed dogs, around 175 - 950 AD, likely replacing them in the ancient Maya diet at the site in the Classic period. This provides evidence which supports other studies showing wild gamebird domestication took place around this time.

Ocellated Turkey, Gautemala.

Ocellated Turkey, Gautemala. (Dennis Jarvis/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Top Image: A Mayan zoomorphic ceramic of a chihuahua with a corn cob in its mouth. Source: Orientalizing/ CC BY NC ND 2.0

By Alicia McDermott

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