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Ancient Mayans raised dogs for food and sacrifice

Researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have discovered the earliest evidence that the Mayans raised and traded dogs and other animals, most likely for food and ceremonial use.

Archaeologist Ashley Sharpe and colleagues found that the ancient animal trade began in Maya around 2,500 years ago during the Preclassic Period, and became more widespread during the Classic Period.

The experts believe that raising animals for food and organized ceremonies played a major role in the development of the Mayan civilization.

“In Asia, Africa and Europe, animal management went hand-in-hand with the development of cities,” said Sharpe. “But in the Americas people may have raised animals for ceremonial purposes. The growth of cities doesn’t seem to be directly tied to animal husbandry.”

The team analyzed the isotopes of animal remains from a Mayan dig site in Ceibal, Guatemala. Most of the bones and teeth they examined dated back to between 700 and 350 B.C., during the Maya Middle Preclassic period.

“The animal remains fall into two categories, those with lower carbon isotopes, indicating they were eating mostly wild plants, and those with higher isotopes, which were probably eating corn,” explained Sharpe.

Two northern turkeys, one large cat, and all of the dogs observed in the study had higher isotopes, indicating that they ate corn or other animals that fed on corn. Deer bones that showed butcher marks had lower carbon isotopes, which means that they were likely hunted and not domesticated.

The remains of both a large and a small cat analyzed by the team had lower carbon isotopes, suggesting that they lived in the wild as well.

Forty-four of the 46 animals had strontium isotope ratios that matched the southern lowlands region, but jaw bones from two dogs matched mountainous areas.

“This is the first evidence from the Americas of dogs being moved around the landscape,” said Sharpe. “Around 1000 A.D. there’s evidence that dogs were moved out to islands in the Caribbean, but the Ceibal remains are dated at about 400 B.C.”

The bones and teeth of a large cat were found with the jaw bone of one of the dogs.

“The interesting thing is that this big cat was local, but possibly not wild,” said Sharpe. “Based on its tooth enamel, it had been eating a diet similar to that of the dogs since it was very young. Perhaps it was captured and raised in captivity, or it lived near villages and ate animals that were feeding on corn. We still have to look at the DNA to figure out if it was a jaguar or a puma.”

Sharpe is looking forward to analyzing human remains to see if they were all originally from this region.

“It’s interesting to consider whether humans may have had a greater impact managing and manipulating animal species in ancient Mesoamerica than has been believed,” said Sharpe. “Studies like this one are beginning to show that animals played a key role in ceremonies and demonstrations of power, which perhaps drove animal-rearing and trade.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Ashley Sharpe

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