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The ancient art of domesticating animals

The ancient art of domesticating animals

New evidence suggests Mesoamerican cultures kept both cats and dogs, yet how they were used is unclear.

If you were a top dog of the ancient Maya, you might be welcome as an honored guest at the king’s feast. If not, you’d likely end up as the main course of someone else’s. That’s the conclusion drawn from a recent scientific analysis of animal remains found in a 3000-year-old Mayan city in Guatemala, which provide the most compelling evidence yet that the Maya coexisted with domesticated animals much like our own domestic pets.

The domestication of animals began with the wolf (Canis lupus) at least 15,000 years before present (YBP), which then led to a rapid shift in the evolution, ecology, and demography of both humans and numerous species of animals and plants.

In a study published by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, author Lesley Sharpe shows that the Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization that existed be- tween roughly 2000 BC and the 16th century AD, had close contact with both cats and dogs and that the animals may have been involved in religious ceremonies.

Skeletons of what appear to be small, Chihuahua-like dogs have been found in many Mesoamerican archaeological sites in southern Mexico and Central America over the years, yet what role these animals played in pre-Hispanic society has always been disputed. The study also suggests that the Maya kept big cats —either jaguars or pumas—for ceremonial purposes.

Sharpe came to these conclusions after studying roughly 25,000 animal bones collected in and around Ceibal, an abandoned Mayan city in modern-day Guatemala. e majority of bones came from what appear to have been garbage dumps on the outskirts of the city while others were found in its former ceremonial center. Sharpe and her colleagues identified bones belonging to white-tailed deer, peccaries, two species of turkey, some large cats, opossum, and tapirs, as well as dogs. As in other Mesoamerican sites, the dogs re- sembled the modern-day Chihuahua breed.

To find out more about the remains, the team subjected 78 of the bones, each from a different skeleton, to two different types of isotopic analysis. Dozens of dogs and turkeys, as well as one large cat—possibly a jaguar—had isotope levels that indicated they were raised on maize-based diets. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the dogs may have interacted with the Maya as early as between 450 and 300 BC. Furthermore, a pair of canine remains that dated back to the era had strontium isotope levels suggesting they hailed not from Ceibal, but from Guatemala’s volcanic highlands roughly 60 miles away.

Much previous evidence suggested that dogs in the ancient Maya world were raised for slaughter. Although the bones analyzed in the study showed no signs that the animals were butchered, Sharpe says it might not have taken much cutting to process the meat from the dogs. “Unfortunately, most of them were probably consumed as food,” she says.

Yet their burial location near a large pyramid in Ceibal’s central plaza suggests the dogs might have also been used in religious ceremonies. Maize-reared large cats, which lived between 450 and 350 BC, may have been similarly revered, Sharpe says, pointing to the fact that Mayan artifacts frequently depict kings posing with feline mammals. “It was probably a kind of show-o item,” Sharpe said. “As if to say to every- one, ‘Look, I’ve got a jaguar.’”

The debate over the extent to which cats and dogs were revered by the Maya, and to what extent they were raised for slaughter and consumption, thus remains. Talking to Science magazine, Lori Wright, an anthropologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, said she was excited by the findings but not necessarily surprised that the Mayans were domesticating animals so early, adding that without evidence of butchery marks on bones with maize-eating isotope signatures, it’s impossible to say for sure if the animals were eaten.

Judging by both the geographical regions the dogs appear to have come from and the locations at which their skeletons were recovered, there is little doubt that the animals were in some way important for the Maya. All three—including turkeys—may have been pets, or simply formed part of some sacred ritual.