The Maya Captured, Traded and Sacrificed Jaguars

September 14, 2018

In 776 A.D., the last king of Copan eagerly sought to prove his suitability to rule the Maya city state. More than a decade into his tenure, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat built the final version of a temple in the Copan Valley of modern-day Honduras, situated above the tomb of the city’s founder and complete with a monumental altar at its base. The monument remains one of the primary sources of information about Copan’s royalty, depicting Yopaat and each of his 15 dynastic predecessors going back roughly four centuries, built to legitimize his leadership during troubled times.

“It shows how the last ruler is getting power from the founding ruler and all of his ancestors,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at George Mason University in Virginia who was a Peter Buck Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History at the time of research.

To commemorate the completion of the monument and allay the population’s fears during a time fraught with unrest, brought on in part by dwindling local resources, Yopaat needed a grand gesture. In a display of royal right and divine favor, n a display of royal right and divine favor, he set out to sacrifice noble beasts like jaguars and pumas for himself and every one of his predecessors.

The gathering of so many of the elusive jungle predators would have been no easy task in the best of times, but the effort was likely further complicated by centuries of deforestation around the Maya capital of the Classic period—a display of exploitation that may have eventually led to Copan’s demise in the early 9th century.

“There are probably not enough jaguars and pumas in the valley [at the time],” says Sugiyama, the lead author of a study published today in PLOS ONE. The new research shows that to round up all the jaguars needed to appease his dynastic predecessors, Yopaat must have kept the animals in captivity and relied on a vast wildlife trade network throughout Mesoamerica, possibly reaching as far as Teotihuacan some 1,000 miles away in the present-day outskirts of Mexico City.

The Maya had a deep reverence for the animal world around them, and they often sought communion with these creatures which they believed sentient and close companions to the spiritual forces in their understanding of the world, according to David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya expert at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who was not involved in the new study.

Elizabeth Paris, an assistant professor in archaeology at the University of Calgary in Canada who studies the Maya, but who was also not involved in this research, says that jaguars in particular were closely tied with power in various Mesoamerican cultures.

“Our understanding is that you had to be a very high rank to have a jaguar as your spirit companion,” she says, adding that kings would cultivate their relationship with these animals by wearing paws or skulls as clothing accessories or by using them as ritual objects.

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