Mesoamericans at Teotihuacan kept Ferocious Animals Captive and May Have Fed them with Humans
Much has been written about human sacrifice in Mesoamerica, but a new study says the people of Teotihuacan up to 2,000 years ago had a wild animal captivity and sacrifice program that included jaguars, pumas, lynxes, foxes, eagles and rattlesnakes. And, the researchers say, it is possible people were fed to some of the carnivores.
A team of archaeologists excavating at Teotihuacan found at least 194 bones of animals that were sacrificed and placed inside pyramids to dedicate the buildings. The period in question dates from 1 to 550 AD. Also among the animal bones and ritual objects were sacrificed human remains.
Nawa Sugiyama and other researchers wrote an article for the journal PLOS One in September as part of Sugiyama’s dissertation project. They wrote:
Recent tunnel excavations inside the Moon Pyramid and the Sun Pyramid encountered a series of dedicatory offerings that were put in place at various stages of their building sequences. The contents of these offerings were premier expressions of state ideology and militarism, containing symbolically powerful artifacts such as carved obsidian, shell and greenstone objects, human sacrificial victims, and the remains of many carnivores.
… There was an impetus to bring live carnivores into the city as cubs/chicks to be raised within the urban metropolis as sacrificial victims par excellence. It is not a coincidence that such active animal management programs coincided with the development of large monumental structures where animals were embedded into pyramids as key symbols of the Teotihuacan state.
The authors point out that human use of predators and carnivores has a long history, going back to ancient Egypt, where some wild animals were mummified, and ancient Rome, where large carnivores were used in gladiatorial combat.
Their research seeks to identify the time and place where wild animals became more than just food “but ritual symbols and social actors in the New World.
Line drawing of a puma devouring hearts from the Tetitla apartment compound, Portico 13, Mural 3. (Drawing by N. Sugiyama/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0135635.g004)
“This paper argues the presence of skeletal pathologies of infectious disease and injuries manifest on the carnivore remains show direct evidence of captivity. These results push back the antiquity of keeping captive carnivores for ritualistic purposes nearly 1,000 years before the Spanish conquistadors described Moctezuma’s zoo at the Aztec capital. Mirroring these documents, the results indicate a select group of carnivores at Teotihuacan may have been fed maize-eating omnivores, such as dogs and humans.”
The Ancient site of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Source: BigStockPhoto
The authors think it’s possible, though we may never know for certain, that wild animals ate humans at Teotihuacan because chemical analysis of the bones and teeth of some of the carnivores contain high amounts of C₄, which is found in high concentrations in maize or corn, a staple of the Mesoamerican diet. Also, at Tenochtitlan many years later humans were fed to carnivores during sacrificial rites. The authors of the new study write:
“In fact there is a long tradition associating wild carnivores to human sacrifice throughout Mesoamerica. At the post-Teotihuacan sites of Tula and Chichén Itzá, felids are depicted devouring human hearts on stone and stucco friezes in the ceremonial center. Ample iconographic evidence at Teotihuacan similarly depicts the active role of carnivores in human sacrificial rites. Carnivores are illustrated in procession holding large sacrificial knives, in military regalia and even devouring human hearts. The felids from the ritual deposits at Teotihuacan that were interred alongside beheaded human sacrificial victims may have been actively involved in state-ritualized activities beyond their roles as sacrificial victims.”
Teotihuacan was one of the largest cities in the New World. It is about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from Mexico City and is a World Heritage site. It has three major pyramids that “testify to Teotihuacan’s role as an important political and ritual center,” the authors wrote.
An schematic of the placement of animal bones and human remains at Teotihuacan, Mexico (Human reconstruction drawn by G. Pereira, animals drawn by N. Sugiyama/PLOS One).
In the ritual caches in the pyramids, the animals were grouped in quantities that correspond to cosmologically significant numbers in the Mesoamerican calendar, they wrote.
“With at least 194 animals deposited in the offerings at the Moon Pyramid and Sun Pyramid, this assemblage attests to the important role animals played in state-level ritualized activities. Furthermore, it provides one of the most prominent examples of mass animal sacrifice in Mesoamerica and is only comparable to the aforementioned Late Post-Classic caches at the Aztec ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan (A.D. 1325–1521),” they wrote. Mexico City was called Tenochtitlan before Europeans arrived.
Some of the sacrificed animals were kept for prolonged periods, while chemical analysis shows others were captured from the wild. The animals that were used to prepare ritual objects were caught from the wild, they concluded.
“Caring for and manipulating the region’s most dangerous apex predators sometimes required the use of brute force as evidenced by an unnaturally high frequency of healed fractures, violent injuries, bone deformity and disease,” they wrote.
Featured image: Part of the facade of the Temple of the Feathered Serpent of Teotihuacán, now at the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology; eagles and rattlesnakes were among the animals kept and/or sacrificed at the ancient city. (Photo by O.Mustafin/Wikimedia Commons)
Citation: Sugiyama N, Somerville AD, Schoeninger MJ (2015) Stable Isotopes and Zooarchaeology at Teotihuacan, Mexico Reveal Earliest Evidence of Wild Carnivore Management in Mesoamerica. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0135635. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0135635
By Mark Miller