A bobcat kitten wearing a necklace made of shells and bear teeth was unearthed during an excavation of a 2,000-year-old funeral mound that’s usually reserved for humans. It is the only decorated wild cat burial in the entire archaeological record, according to work published in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology this week. And it may have been a cherished pet, Science reports.
This mortuary mound is located at the top of a bluff that overlooks the Illinois River. Over a dozen of these domes were built in the Middle Woodland Period about 2,000 years ago by traders and hunter-gatherers of the Hopewell Culture known for their artwork. “Villages would come together to bury people in these mounds,” says Kenneth Farnsworth of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. “It was a way to mark the area as belonging to your ancestors.”
The mounds were excavated in the 1980s. The largest of these held the bodies of 22 people buried in a ring around a tomb containing an infant’s skeleton. The bones of an animal were separately buried here as well, and it was wearing a necklace (or collar) of shell beads and pendants made of bear canine teeth. The small animal was originally thought to be a dog. After all, the Hopewell did bury their dogs, albeit in their villages and not in these mounds. The skeletal remains were labeled “puppy burial” and shelved away. Decades later, Angela Perri of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology came across the box. “As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy,” Perri tells Science. “It was a cat of some kind.”
An immature bobcat (Lynx rufus) to be exact. Because it was only a few months old, the bobkitten was possibly orphaned, brought in from the wild, and raised by the villagers. Without any cut marks or indications of trauma on the bones, the cat likely wasn’t sacrificed, and its careful placement suggests it was intentionally buried there. “It looked respectful; its paws were placed together,” Perri says, based on the excavation photos. “It was clearly not just thrown into a hole.” The bobcat may have been tamed, and it received a human-like interment. “Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done,” Farnsworth adds. “I’d give anything to know why.”
Perri and Farnsworth, together with Terrance Martin of the Illinois State Museum, reevaluated eight other purported animal burials from Illinois Middle Woodland mounds: seven dogs (Canis familiaris) and a large, pretty wading bird called the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja). Only the bobcat and the spoonbill were Hopewellian mortuary interments. But unlike the bobcat, the spoonbill was decapitated and placed next to a double human burial.