The Ancient Maya and Animals

In this post, we answer some frequently-asked questions about how the ancient Maya interacted with the animals of their world.

Did the ancient Maya have pets?

The only domesticated animals in ancient Mesoamerica were the dog (a small, hairless variation of our modern friends), the peccary, and the turkey. Domesticated animals were relatively rare in Mesoamerica, and it’s hard to tell if they were domesticated as pets (lovable companions) or just as useful creatures to have around (to eat the trash or to be tomorrow’s meal). The most likely answer is that domesticated animals were mainly kept with a purpose, but with a few possible exceptions where they were treated more like pets.

However, whether or not the Maya kept pets the same way we do today, it’s pretty clear that they still had a fondness for animals. The statues below are just some examples of how the Maya represented animals in a very naturalistic, even fun and whimsical way. It’s clear that they had spent plenty of time watching them in their natural habitat. 

Coati and Spider Monkey statues
Coati (left) and spider monkey (right) statues from the Maya and Olmec cultures, respectively. Images property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

Did the Maya eat animals? Which ones?

Because there were so few domesticated animals in Mesoamerica, most of the common people would have lived a primarily vegetarian diet, saving meat for more special occasions. This is different from why many people today are vegetarians– although if we could interview normal Maya people from the Classic period, maybe we would find people who were vegetarian for the same reasons as us! Today, however, the only written records we can consult are from the higher classes, who had greater access to meat and didn’t write much about why they ate what they did. 

Although the majority of the Maya cultural diet was primarily plant-based, archaeologists have found evidence that animals were occasionally included in this diet. The list includes deer, turkey, iguana, dog, and peccary. Interestingly enough, the animals on this list include the main domesticated animals mentioned in the first section. The likely conclusion is that the animals kept by the ancient Maya were kept more because they were useful, whether or not their owners developed a fondness for them– much like many modern small-scale farmers! 

Did the Maya consider any animals supernatural? 

Many animals were considered important and powerful to the Maya, to the point that they were given supernatural associations. In my online courses I always provide an introduction to Mesoamerican cosmology, and I explain why certain animals were considered sacred or supernatural. In sum, any animal that is seen as capable of inhabiting multiple planes of the cosmos is thought to have supernatural abilities. 

The jaguar is a prime example of this– it lives on land but can also climb trees and swim in bodies of water. Being a powerful hunter, it can inflict sudden death on unsuspecting victims and is strongly associated with the underworld. 

Other animals that are considered supernatural are monkeys, crocodiles, and birds– especially birds of prey. These animals have been found in dedicatory burials of pyramids and important administrative buildings both in the Maya area and throughout all Mesoamerica. They appear to have been symbols of power and prowess, associated with different levels and areas of the cosmos. 

The ancient Maya also portrayed animals as important deities or mythical figures. Maya art shows examples of monkey and rabbit scribes, dancing peccaries, talking birds and killer bats. The Underworld is believed to be populated by creatures of the dark, some with macabre intentions. Certain animals were also associated with royalty and nobility. 

Monkey scribe, terracotta vase, Classic Maya culture
Codex-Style Vase depicting Monkey Scribes. Classic Maya culture, ca. 600-900 AD. New Orleans Museum of Art. Image property of Mesoamerican Studies Online.

If you’ve read about Classic Maya perceptions of the Underworld, you have likely come across the term way or nawal/nahual. This term has been used, misused and clarified over the past century, but what it refers to is essentially a relationship between a person and an animal or otherworldly creature, similar (but still fundamentally different) to the spirit animals of North American people. The Classic Maya saw it as a sort of alter ego or animal companion, usually belonging to members of nobility or great warriors. These way creatures, similar to the supernatural animals used in dedicatory sacrifice, were used to mark the relationship of a person with a powerful and impressive animal. 

Although we don’t have enough sources to know exactly how the Maya people viewed and interacted with all animals, what we do know is that they were considered to be important elements and players in the Mesoamerican cosmology. Some were household regulars, and others were symbols of power and importance. Animals were shown in their natural state as well as in important roles in Maya society. While animals were still eaten and used in sacrificial rituals, it was due to the great value that they held for the ancient Maya. 

Sources Used: 

Masson, Marilyn A., and Carlos Peraza Lope. “Animal use at the Postclassic Maya center of Mayapán.” Quaternary International 191, no. 1 (2008): 170-183.

Emery, Kitty F. “Assessing the impact of ancient Maya animal use.” Journal for Nature Conservation 15, no. 3 (2007): 184-195.

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