How the Mayans Brought Sharks to the Jungle

December 10, 2016

The peoples of Classic Maya civilization were obsessed with sharks. Images of shark-like monsters appear in Maya cities throughout the regions known today as Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala—even deep in the continent’s interior, where people never saw the ocean. Now one archaeologist has suggested these mythic symbols may have been based on real experiences Mayans had with sharks, as well as a brisk trade in shark jaws and giant shark tooth fossils.

Shark teeth have been found in some of the earliest Maya sites in the interior, going back to 100 CE. Some are perforated, as if they were worn as jewelry. Others seem to have been attached to weapons or used in bloodletting rituals. Sea monsters with shark-like features appear on pottery and the walls of ceremonial buildings. An ancient Maya creation story features the Maize God defeating a shark in battle and sometimes being born from the creature’s toothy jaws.

The question is, how did sharks become such an important part of the culture in landlocked cities? Writing in the journal Antiquity, James Madison University anthropologist Sarah E. Newman explains that coastal Maya peoples probably hunted sharks. Because sharks sink when they die, their teeth sink with them—so shark teeth among the Maya almost certainly came from the spoils of the hunt. There are accounts from Europeans who witnessed sixteenth-century Maya in the Yucatán hunting sharks using remoras, or suckerfish, to snag the great fish from their canoes. Others used massive hooks baited with chunks of meat.

It’s likely that traders from coastal Maya cities journeyed to the interior with shark teeth and jaws, bringing stories of the fearsome animals along with them. That said, long distance travel would have been very uncommon among people of Classic Maya civilization. Shark teeth might have been passed from trader to trader on their way inland, rather than coming directly from a person who hunted them. For inland city residents, firsthand knowledge of sharks would have been rare. Perhaps that’s why they took on a special significance.

Odd symbolism explained

In Classic Mayan writing, the logograph for shark is “xook” or “xoc,” pronounced “shok” (rhymes with “woke”). Though some linguists have suggested that the English word for shark is borrowed from Mayan languages, there is at least one example of English speakers using the word “shark” to describe these fierce fish before making contact with the Maya.

There were a number of symbolic conventions among the Maya when it came to representing the xook. Often it was portrayed as having a single, large tooth, emblazoned with icons meant to convey shiny hardness. Sometimes the xook had razor-sharp teeth lining its upper jaw and practically no lower jaw at all. These creatures, explains Newman, were viewed as deities.

“Classic Maya rulers associated themselves with the powerful, semi-divinity of sharks by incorporating the creatures into their names, such as Tikal’s dynastic founder, Yax Ehb Xook (“First Step Shark”) and Ix K’abal Xook (“Lady Shark Fin”), an eighth-century queen of Yaxchilan,” she writes.

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