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This puma skull was amongst the many animal bones at the Motmot burial of a young Maya woman who sat cross-legged in her tomb.

Crocodilian Teeth, Stingray Spines and Puma Skulls All Discovered in One Ancient Maya Royal Tomb


A monumental Maya royal tomb has been explored in the ancient Maya city of Copán, in the Copán Valley of modern-day Honduras, containing the reminds of elusive jungle predators including crocodile teeth and a complete puma skeleton, which had been ritually slaughtered at the burial.

Teeth, Spirits and Animism in a Classic Maya City

The classic Maya city of Copán is located just east of the Guatemalan border in Honduras and was the premier site in the southeastern frontier of Mesoamerica between the 5th and 7th centuries. Embedded within an expansive network of population centers connected by political and military alignments, trade flows and monumental inscriptions, this city has the longest contiguous Maya text known - the famous Hieroglyphic Stairway - recording the dynastic lineage and key historical accomplishments of each king.

Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan, Honduras. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan, Honduras. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at George Mason University in Virginia, and lead author of a study published today in PLOS ONE wrote that that the tomb held “Five assemblages spanning… from the founder to his son on AD 435 and ending with an offering placed during the reign of the sixteenth and final ruler on AD 776.” The “crocodilian teeth are of the American crocodile” and archaeologists also found “five stingray spines and a sprinkle of red cinnabar dust.

Plan view drawing of deer mandibles and crocodile teeth collar from Burial VIII-36, Plaza A of group 9N-8.  Crocodile teeth are in blue. (Image by N. Sugiyama)

Plan view drawing of deer mandibles and crocodile teeth collar from Burial VIII-36, Plaza A of group 9N-8.  Crocodile teeth are in blue. (Image by N. Sugiyama)

David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri is a renowned anthropologist and expert on Maya culture, who was not involved with this study, but told reporters at Live Science that “the Maya held ‘deep reverence’ for the animal kingdom” and that in the ancient Maya 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,” according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine about the discovery in Honduras. Elizabeth Paris, an assistant professor in archaeology at the University of Calgary in Canada told reporters that “jaguars in particular” were closely tied with power in various Mesoamerican cultures and she added “Our understanding is that you had to be a very high rank to have a jaguar as your spirit companion.”

Researchers have reason to believe the cat remains discovered in the tomb “might have been tamed” for the bones of jaguars and pumas at the Maya site of Copán revealed evidence of both “captivity and of expansive trade networks.” Speaking of the puma skeleton lead archaeologist Sugiyama said, “There were probably not enough jaguars and pumas in the valley [at the time]” and this new research shows that to have rounded up all the jaguars needed “to appease his dynastic predecessors, Yopaat [the king] must have kept the animals in captivity and developed an expansive wildlife trade network throughout Mesoamerica. “The researchers suspect that the animal network possibly reached as far as Teotihuacan over 1,000 miles away in the present-day outskirts of Mexico City.

Some of the Copán ruins in Honduras. (Image: © evenfh / Fotolia)

Some of the Copán ruins in Honduras. (Image: © evenfh / Fotolia)

The evidence for domestication was revealed in the bones of the jaguars and pumas. Being carnivorous they wouldn’t have eaten corn or wild plants, but their prey certainly did. Sugiyama said:

“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 layman’s terms, jaguar or puma remains with higher ratios of C4s were likely eating prey which fed on wild plants and corn, while higher ratios of C3s suggested the cats were fed domestic animals in captivity. However, after centuries of deforestation the experts think the Yopaat’s people must have acquired their live jaguars through trade.

According to the Smithsonian report, Elizabeth Paris says Sugiyama’s work is “really exciting and gives us an idea of how Maya leaders managed wildlife” and she added “it was pushing the boundaries of what we can know about highly ritual concepts in the Maya court.” And David Freidel also praised Sugiyama’s work calling it “exemplary archaeology as science” and he says the work on the isotopes “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 the ancient Maya cities of Copan and Teotihuacan. But taking the whole project to a new level, Sugiyama and her team are now planning to conduct strontium isotope analysis of the wild cat remains, which basically means they can see what the animals genes are made up of enabling experts to pinpoint where exactly the jaguars and pumas came from, and also giving them a better idea of the scale and sustainability of the Mesoamerican jaguar trade in the early medieval period.

Top image: This puma skull was amongst the many animal bones at the Motmot burial of a young Maya woman who sat cross-legged in her tomb.             Source: N. Sugiyama

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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