Mesoamerican pyramid yields evidence of captive carnivores 1000 years before previous date

Carnivores have long been used as a display of power across human societies, whether in the blood-washed sands of the Roman Colosseum or in the room where Jada Pinkett-Smith auditioned for Gotham, with a man on a leash in tow*. It’s not entirely certain when this practice began—but the timeline in Mesoamerica has now been set back another 1000 years, according to a new study in PLOS ONE.

The researchers investigated a cache of about 200 carnivorous animals, human sacrificial victims, and other symbolic artifacts found within the Sun and the Moon pyramids of Teotihuacan—one of the largest pre-Hispanic cities, containing a population of at least 25,000 people at its height.

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The pyramids date from 1-550 CE, and the cache found inside is evidence of one of the largest known animal sacrifices in Mesoamerica, indicating that the animals played an important role in state-level ritual activities. Inside were the remains of carnivores like wolves, eagles, jaguars, and pumas, and researchers wondered if they might point to a sort of carnivore menagerie.

Previously, though, the only strong evidence of captive carnivores were the accounts of infamous Conquistador Hernán Cortés, who documented the extensive breeding facilities of the Aztecs in his 16th century letter Segunda Carta de Relación. The Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, hired 300 specialists to capture, breed, and care for carnivores ranging from jaguars to rattlesnakes—and this was in the capital city alone. Other programs existed elsewhere in the Aztec Empire, too.

Bones to pick

To investigate the possibility of captive carnivores 1000 years before Moctezuma, the team used inspected the bones using, among other things isotope analysis—with promising results.

The physical condition of the bones themselves points to captivity; signs of stress and bone breaks characteristic of being tied to prevent their escape are evident on many of the skeletons. For example, three of the eagle skeletons have evident stress on the lower part of their legs congruent with being tied to a perch.

Moreover, many bones reveal deformities like abnormal growth that is evidence of infection—the kinds of which usually only occur when animals are kept in close quarters in captivity.

The isotope analysis added weight to these discoveries. Certain chemical isotopes may be absorbed into an animal’s bones from the foods they consume—and many of the animal bones had high levels of the isotope specific to maize, carbon isotope C4. Since maize was typically something cultivated by humans—and since these animals were carnivores—it’s unlikely they consumed the maize in the wild.

Human sacrifices?

There were also interesting levels of nitrogen isotopes—the ratios of which can indicate where an animal is on the food chain. The higher you are, the greater the level of nitrogen isotopes.

In two of the pumas found in the cache, the levels of both nitrogen and C4 isotopes were very high—suggesting that the cats were fed both maize and herbivores that were also fed maize (for the carbon), as well as omnivores that were higher up the food chain—like dogs.

Or maybe even humans.

Carnivores seem to have been linked to human sacrificial ceremonies, based on the art found throughout Mesoamerica. At Teotihuacan alone, there is what appears to be a depiction of a puma eating human hearts:

Of course, we don’t know for sure if this was the case, but there is definitely strong evidence that many of the carnivores were kept in captivity, and were eventually used for state offerings.

“These data also speak to a direct connection between carnivore manipulation and state power,” wrote the authors. “There was an impetus to bring live carnivores into the city as cubs/chicks to be raised within the urban metropolis as sacrificial victims par excellence. It is not a coincidence that such active animal management programs coincided with the development of large monumental structures where animals were embedded into pyramids as key symbols of the Teotihuacan state.”

* “But humans are omnivores!” Usually the agreed definition, although some studies define humans as carnivores based on the amount of meat they consume. Regardless, a man on a leash is definitely a meat-eating status symbol, although we appreciate your exactitude, Orbitals.

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