Elaborate Native American burial of a bobcat in a funeral mound reserved for humans
About 2,000 years ago, the Hopewell people of western Illinois buried a bobcat on the outer edge of a burial mound that was usually reserved for humans. In a touching gestures, the creature was adorned with a necklace of bear teeth and sea shells. The mound is one of fourteen located on the top of a bluff overlooking the Illinois River, about 80 kilometres north of St Louis.
The Hopewell People lived along rivers in the north-eastern and mid-western United States between 200 BC and 500 AD in what is known as the Middle Woodland Period. The society consisted of a number of communities linked by a trade route network called the Hopewell Exchange System. They buried their dead in mounds arranged in groups, one of the most impressive of which is the Mound City Group in Ohio. Their villages generally consisted of rectangular buildings made from wattle and daub. They often used exotic materials such as copper, micah and obsidian to craft their works of art.
Hopewell expert Kenneth Farnsworth says that the villagers would gather together to bury people in the mounds which also served as markers signifying that the locality belonged to the tribal ancestors. The mounds were initially excavated in the 1980’s in the face of a highway construction project proposed for the area. The largest of them, 28 metres across and 2.5 metres high, contained the remains of 22 people who had been laid to rest around a central tomb containing the skeleton of a child. The remains of a small animal were also discovered, along with sea shells and bear teeth pendants. The archaeologists initially thought the animal was a canine, although the Hopewell usually buried their dogs in or around the village, not in a mound.
Ancient Native Americans buried these bone pendants and shell beads together with the bobcat. (Kenneth Farnsworth)
Angela Perri, a Ph.D. student at the University of Durham in the UK, discovered some years later that the animal was in fact a cat. She was interested in ancient burials of dogs and was doing some research at the museum when she encountered the remains of the animal.
“As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy.” she said. “It was a cat of some kind.” Ms Perri is now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. After analyzing the bones, she found that the animal was a bobcat, aged between 4 and 7 months at time of death. There was no evidence that the bobcat had been sacrificed or violently killed in any way. Moreover, it had been placed in the mound with a great deal of care. For one thing, its paws had been placed together, so it was obvious it hadn’t just been thrown into its grave.
Kenneth Farnsworth was astounded when Perri told him about this. He had never seen anything like this before, as the mounds were reserved specifically for humans. This meant that someone had appealed specially to someone else in order to have the bobcat buried there.
Bobcat kittens (Wikimedia Commons)
The bobcat (Lynx rufus) often appears in Native American legends in association with the coyote, the two animals being linked with fog and wind respectively. For example, they are depicted in the mythology of the Nez Perce as being opposites as part of a philosophical concept of dualism. The bobcat is also mentioned in Shawnee legends as having been outwitted by a rabbit who takes refuge in a tree. The bobcat tries to smoke the rabbit out with a fire, but the embers fly all over the place covering the bobcat’s fur, thereby giving the bobcat its distinctive spotted markings. Another tribe, the Mohave, practiced ritualistic dreaming of the bobcat and the cougar in the hope that this would help them to develop superior hunting skills.
Perri believes a member of the community had brought the bobcat in from the wild and tried to rear it, as bobcats can easily be tamed when young. She also believes that the necklace was a form of collar and that therefore it is likely the animal had been a pet. However, the fact that it had been placed in the burial mound, rather than along with the domesticated dogs in a separate location, suggests that it may also have had a spiritual significance, perhaps representing the spiritual nature of the wild landscape in which the Hopewell lived. The discovery might also provide information about the domestication of other animals, such as dogs and the modern domestic cat.
“It’s surprising and marvelous and extremely special” zooarchaeologist Melinda Zeder told Science Magazine. Ms Zeder works at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
The discovery has now been published by Perry, Farnsworth and a colleague in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology.
Featured image: A Hopewell culture burial mound from the Mound City Group in Ohio. (Flickr)