Archaeologists have discovered the remains of the earliest known captive carnivores in Mesoamerica, after excavating the pyramids at the ancient city of Teotihuacan in Mexico. Among the findings were the bones of pumas, eagles and wolves, many of which displayed markings which probably correspond to brutal treatment by their human captors.
Remains of almost 200 animals were found in tunnels underneath the famous Moon Pyramid and Sun Pyramid, during excavations carried out between 1998 and 2004. It is believed that the creatures were placed there as offerings at various stages of the temples’ construction. As such, they predate all previous evidence for captive carnivores in the region, such as the famous descriptions of Aztec zoos and breeding programmes provided by early conquistadores and missionaries such as Hernán Cortés and Bernardino de Sahagún.
The latest findings, described in the journal PLOS ONE, are thought to date back to between 150 and 350 CE, and therefore suggest that the domestication of these creatures was prevalent more than 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The position of the discovered animals, combined with depictions of pumas and wolves dressed in military regalia while devouring human hearts, suggests that they were probably involved in sacrificial ceremonies, and may well have eaten humans who were offered to the gods. To confirm this, the researchers conducted isotope analysis on the bones they found. This involves the study of the atoms in organic remains, focusing particularly on isotopes – atoms with particular numbers of neutrons in their nuclei – which give clues as to what the animal may have eaten.
Drawings of pumas devouring human hearts suggest that they may have been involved in sacrificial rituals at Teotihuacan. Credit: Nawa Sugiyama
Many of the specimens found at Teotihuacan contained high levels of certain nitrogen isotopes that indicate they probably fed on omnivores such as humans or dogs. Furthermore, the presence of a carbon isotope called C4 suggests they ate large amounts of maize, implying that they were raised in captivity rather than in the wild.
Additionally, many of the animals displayed injuries that were probably inflicted by humans attempting to manipulate them. For instance, a number of eagles were found with fractures and other lesions on their legs, probably suffered as a result of being tethered. In addition, many of the skeletons were found to have been preserved using techniques resembling taxidermy. From this, the study authors hypothesize that these animals were probably accidentally killed before they could participate in ritual sacrifices, and were then stuffed so that they could still be used in these ceremonies.
Eagle remains discovered at Teotihuacan displayed injuries that were probably inflicted by human captors. Credit: Nawa Sugiyama
Adding up all of this evidence, the team concludes that the treatment of these captive beasts provides an interesting insight into the challenges involved in ancient Mesoamericans’ “initial experimentation in manipulating dangerous and specialized carnivores.”