Ancient Mesoamericans Kept and Bred Dangerous Predators 1000 Years Earlier Than We Thought

Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Sun as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon. Image credit: Aude, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When you see a lion, a tiger or a bear in a zoo, it’s easy to forget that people haven’t always so easily controlled big carnivores and other dangerous animals. For a long time, people were simply prey, but almost every civilization around the world has taken the upper hand over predators at some point, exploiting them for food, entertainment, and ritual uses. In ancient Egypt, crocodiles were sacrificed and mummified. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Romans used various carnivores in gladiatorial battles and horrific "halftime" displays.

In the New World, that point has usually been fixed sometime in the 16th century, when the Aztec ruler Montezuma established a zoo in the city of Tenochtitlan. Multiple buildings and hundreds of workers were dedicated to importing, breeding, and caring for animals like wolves, jaguars, foxes, rattlesnakes, and birds of prey that served as offerings to the gods at the city’s Great Temple.

Now, a recent study published in PLOS One suggests that long before the rise of the Aztec Empire, Mesoamericans were capturing and breeding some of the region’s most intimidating predators and using them as both sacrifices and displays of power. Archaeological findings from the city of Teotihuacan push the earliest example of people keeping captive carnivores in the New World back by 1000 years.

Located 30 miles northeast of modern day Mexico City, Teotihuacan was one of Mesoamerica’s largest pre-colonial cities, home to perhaps 125,000–200,000 people. It was an important political and religious center, and the site of three large temples: the Temple of Quezalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.

During excavations of the latter two, researchers found caches of ritual offerings throughout the buildings. Among them were carved obsidian, shell and stone crafts, human sacrifices, and the remains of nearly 200 carnivorous animals, including golden eagles, pumas, jaguars, wolves, and rattlesnakes.

Sugiyama et al. in PLOS One

To learn more about the relationship between these beasts and the people who apparently kept, cared for, and ultimately killed them, a team of anthropologists led by Nawa Sugiyama of the National Museum of Natural History looked for clues about the lives of the animals in their bones. They examined 66 complete skeletons and more than 100 loose bones and found evidence that many of the animals lived in captivity. Several of the eagle skeletons, for example, all showed the same signs of stress on the inner parts of the legs, likely from being tethered to perches. Many eagle, puma, and wolf skeletons displayed fractures and bone diseases that suggested infection and injury from being kept in confined spaces and roughly handled. Some of the skeletons also had bones from other animals inside their rib cages. These turned out to belong to rabbits and hares, and many were burnt, suggesting they’d been cooked and fed to the carnivores. 

Rabbits weren’t the only thing the animals were eating. A chemical analysis of the bones revealed high levels of carbon isotopes that reflect a diet heavy in plants like maize, which these animals normally wouldn’t consume in the wild. More than half of one eagle’s diet appears to have been made up of maize and other plants.

The team also found nitrogen levels in some of the bones that reveal a grisly detail of the animals’ lives and the rituals that took place at Teotihuacan. A few of the pumas' skeletons had “exceptionally high” levels of a certain nitrogen isotope that points to the cats eating not only plants and plant-eating herbivores, but omnivores higher up on the food chain.

Line drawing of puma devouring hearts from the Tetitla apartment compound, Portico 13, Mural 3. Image credit: Sugiyama in PLOS One

These pumas, the researchers think, may have been fed meat from dogs or even humans. These meats might not have just been supplementary protein, but part of a ritual. In Teotihuacan, the researchers note there are numerous depictions of carnivores eating human hearts and even taking part in human sacrifices, dressed in military clothing and holding knives. There’s similar art at other Mesoamerican sites, and some Spanish conquistadors described the carnivores housed in Montezuma’s zoo being fed the remains of humans used in sacrificial rites.

Keeping dangerous predators as both sacrifices and as means to sacrifice humans—and being the first to do so in Mesoamerica—would have been an incredible display of power and “premier expression of state ideology and militarism” for the rulers of Teotihuacan, the researchers say. But their finds make it clear that pioneering a shift in human-predator dynamics wasn’t easy on the animals or the people.

“Specimens like the eagle attest to the hardships in learning to manipulate highly specialized carnivores,” the team writes. “Caring for and manipulating the region’s most dangerous apex predators sometimes required the use of brute force as evidenced by an unnaturally high frequency of healed fractures, violent injuries, bone deformity and disease.”

Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)

Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]


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