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