Ancient Mayans Probably Kept Jaguars As Pets And Raised Dogs For Food

Consisting of plazas, pyramids, ball courts, and stone monuments, Ceibal is the largest archaeological site in the southwestern Maya lowlands. Milton-Sosa/Shutterstock

The ancient Mayan city of Ceibal was once a world where dogs were served up as food and big cats kept as pets. Today, it's an archaeological goldmine. Buried beneath its surface are the bones and teeth of more ancient animals that researchers say offers some of the earliest evidence for trading and domesticating animals in the Americas.

They used a multi-isotopic approach to date the remains found at Guatemala's 3,000-year-old site. Based on an animal's diet, the isotopic levels – or chemical elements – found in their bones and teeth will vary. Researchers analyzed the ratio of isotopes in the bone collagen of two dogs and one large cat that date back to the Maya Middle Preclassic period (1000-350 BC). The remains were high in carbon and nitrogen isotopes, which indicate the animals were fed corn by humans and possibly beginning at an early age.

Isotopes found in this jaguar tooth indicate the big cat was fed a corn-based diet. Ashley Sharpe/Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Strontium isotopes were also found in tooth enamel, meaning some of the dogs probably came from distant volcanic highlands. 

"The study shows that the ancient Maya likely managed wild animals and moved animals, such as dogs, long distances as far back as 2,400 years ago," said study author Ashley Sharpe in an email to IFLScience. "These 'exotic' and captive animals might have been used for food, but because some were found in special contexts (pyramids), it seems more likely that they were used for ceremonies and for the elites to show off as demonstrations of their power."

Because these remains were found in the city’s ceremonial core, researchers believe they were "significant" in some way. Whether the animals were raised as pets, eaten as food, or used as sacrifices remains a bit of a mystery. 

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