Ancient Maya elite binged on big game, loved furs

GUATEMALA CITY Mon Nov 12, 2007 8:25pm GMT

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon (R) talks to Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero during a visit to the Kukulkan pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula July 15, 2007. REUTERS/Alfredo Guerreo/Presidency of Mexico/Handout

Mexico's President Felipe Calderon (R) talks to Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero during a visit to the Kukulkan pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula July 15, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Alfredo Guerreo/Presidency of Mexico/Handout

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GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Ancient Maya rulers devastated big game in Central America and Mexico by bingeing on deer meat and flaunting jaguar fur in an early example of poor resource management, new research shows.

The Maya built soaring pyramids and elaborate palaces in Central America and southern Mexico before mysteriously abandoning their cities around 900 A.D.

A population explosion in the elite class just as the Mayan culture began to decline increased the demand for big game meat, especially white-tailed deer seen as a status symbol for nobles, said Kitty Emery, a curator at Florida Museum of Natural History.

"The elite class was growing disproportionately and they had to prove their power by acquiring more high status food," Emery said.

"They are making more demands on the environment and just like in the modern world there are limited resources," said Emery, whose study appeared in the October 31 issue of the Journal for Nature Conservation.

The collapse of the Maya, who dominated the region for some 2,000 years as accomplished scientists and urban builders, is one of the great mysteries of archeology.

Scholars have blamed the demise on everything from disease to over-farming, incessant warfare or climate change that led to prolonged drought.

Massive deforestation caused by the Maya building great cities and ceremonial complexes as well as a two-century drought shrank the habitat for animals like deer, jaguars and wild boars, said Emery.

Their extravagance nearly wiped out many large game species before the arrival of Spanish colonists around 1500 A.D., said Emery, who examined close to 80,000 samples of animal bones discarded in ancient garbage dumps around excavated ruins in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Belize.

Emery found very few remains of large game toward the end of Mayan rule in proportion to smaller game, pointing to over-hunting of the favored animals.

The populations of deer and jaguar slightly recovered during early Spanish colonization, she says, but today jaguars are an endangered species again, pushed out of their habitat by land invaders and illegal poachers.

Jaguars, the largest cat in the Americas and known as the king of the beasts in Mayan spirituality, were highly valued for their spotted hides and made into mittens, booties, headdresses and even pillow covers for royalty, said Emery.

But as the elites "dressed for success" to prove their power in a collapsing political system, the population was going hungry.

The lower classes would give the best cuts of white-tailed deer meat to the rich as a form of taxes, themselves eating small game like rabbits and squirrels, she said.

But rank and file Maya had their limit.

"The people probably said, 'I don't care how many jaguar booties you are wearing, I don't have any corn on my table, I'm not bringing you any more deer,"' says Emery. "That's the point where people just walk away from the cities."

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