Archaeologists excavating at one of modern Mexico’s most important ancient civilization sites make a startling discovery. As they dig, they come across a set of bones, animal remains that are completely unexpected. For these are not the bones of domesticated animals slaughtered for food. And their identity means a radical revision of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
The researchers were investigating at Teotihuacan – around 25 miles from Mexico City and another iconic site, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The dig site includes two of the most famous Mesoamerican buildings, The Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. And it was inside those pyramids that the archaeologists unearthed stashes of bones – both animal and human.
The animal bones that surprised the archaeologists belonged to predators such as pumas, eagles, wolves and jaguars. These were obviously not creatures killed for their meat. However, unearthed evidence points to their use in an exceptionally grisly practice. It appears likely that these animals would have eaten sacrificial humans before they themselves were killed.
The evidence for the possibility of these gruesome sacrificial rites is twofold. Some of the puma bones uncovered had high levels of nitrogen, indicating they had eaten animals high in the food chain, perhaps including humans. In addition, an image discovered at Teotihuacan appears to show a puma eating what appears to be human hearts. In fact, historians have long believed that sacrificial rituals involving predatory animals and humans were practiced across ancient Mesoamerica.
Until this study, which was published in 2015, the earliest evidence of pre-Columbian peoples keeping predators in captivity came from accounts of Montezuma’s zoo in Tenochtitlan. That was described by the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés who visited the Aztec capital in 1519. However, these excavations have revealed predator’s bones from some 1,000 years earlier. That means the experts need to rethink the chronology of how the Mesoamericans kept – and used – predators.