Maya Creatures V: The Peccary’s Teeth, the Jaguar’s Bone

Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Sarah Newman (University of Chicago)

The elephant arrived in July 802. [1] Captured in Africa, or perhaps offered by a raja in India, the creature had come first to the Abbasid Caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786–809 [Dutton 2004:59–61; Scholz, with Rogers 1972:82]). From there, carried by an imperial fleet and then slogging by foot over the Alps, the elephant walked, we presume, all the way to Aachen, into the court and presence of the Emperor Charlemagne. For the Caliph, the animal was a diplomatic gift, along with rich textiles and other goods (Brubaker 2004:176). For Charlemagne, the pachyderm was a specific request. (Its name: Abul Abaz [Abū ‘l-ʿAbbās?], of uncertain meaning but possibly “the Father of Frowns” or “Wrinkles.”) The elephant was clearly meant to impress on many levels, but perhaps above all as a link between the orient and a ruler intent on forging ties to that region. According to an Irish monk, “everyone in the Kingdom of the Franks” saw him (Dutton 2004:62). Abul Abaz was to die eight years later in a war expedition along the banks of the Rhine (Dutton 2004:189–190; Scholz, with Rogers 1972:92). One can imagine the regret, for a replacement would be hard to find.

Abul Abaz was a creature of dislocation. He was out-of-place, singular if symbolic in import, nonpareil like the Emperor, and brought with great and obvious effort from his natural setting. For centuries, stories were told about him. At Aachen and elsewhere, imperial menageries were also known (Davis 2015:327), and the assembly of exotic and unexpected beasts must have reflected and buttressed Charlemagne’s narrative of global dominion. But what resonates here is that the elephant had a name, a suggestion of steady, even compliant personality—being led hither and yon hints as much. People cared about him. He meant something as a symbol but also as the one and only Abul Abaz. Large, imposing, and awesome, he would prefigure another elephant, Jumbo, the show-spectacle of P. T. Barnum. Jumbo would become, after his accidental death in 1885, a byword for very large things (Chambers 2008:207–208).

Although a distant analogy, Abul Abaz bears on the Classic Maya and Mesoamerica. The Florentine Codex, which reveals Aztec practice, tells of houses where exotic animals were kept. In a “house of birds” (tо̄tocalli), “eagles, red spoonbills, trupials [Icterus sp.], yellow parrots” could be found (although evidence is scarce, stone circles have also been interpreted as pens for captive birds at Maya sites [Hamblin 1984: 93]). As Bernardino de Sahagún explains in a marginal gloss, a casa de las fieras, a “house of wild beasts,” was filled with “ocelots, bears, mountain lions, and mountain cats” (Sahagún 1979:45, fn15; Figure 1). The description is curiously lumping of humans and animals, yet it also attentive to precious objects and fine skill. Animals are gathered with slaves and captives and situated near workshops where precious goods were produced. All were closely controlled and of high value. Sahagún’s reports echo other Spanish accounts in terms of the variety of birds and beasts, though first-hand observers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo also recalled “the infernal noise when the lions and tigers roared and the jackals and foxes howled and the serpents hissed, it was horrible to listen to and it seemed like a hell” (Díaz del Castillo 2000:145).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2021-01-05-at-11.52.51-am.png
Figure 1. An imperial menagerie, with possible keeper, Florentine Codex, Book 8, fol. 31v.

Where was this menagerie? The Nuremberg Map of 1524, a woodcut prepared to accompany a Latin version of Hernán Cortés’ second letter to the Emperor Charles V, provides the best clue. The map was almost certainly based on an indigenous document, if shaped by Cortés’ self-presentation and as further embellished by European buildings, Latin letters (with abbreviations to accommodate the cramped space on the map), and a waving Imperial banner (e.g., Boone 2011:31–35; Mundy 1998:25). There are confusions in orientation. West is plainly to the top, yet the larger, almost portolan-map of the Caribbean (not of indigenous origin) should logically be to the bottom; it is not, perhaps because the particular page trim of the woodcut would provide no space for it. The central precinct has remarkable details, many shown to reflect actual buildings or even equinoctial alignments (Aveni and Gibbs 1976; Boone 2011:35). But it too has the Templo Mayor at the top, facing east, precisely the opposite of its true orientation. Doubtless this had to do with enhancing the centrality and graphic visibility of the Templo Mayor: page-center, temple summit to the top of the map.

Of interest here is the placement of the Dom[us] a[n]i[m]aliu[m], “House of the Animals” (Figure 2). If situated with respect to the central precinct, it would have been off the northwestern corner of the temple precinct; if with respect to the overall map, off the southeastern. Nearby, at a diagonal, was the Dom[us] D. Muteezuma, “House of Don Moteuczoma.” According to excavations in the La calle de Moneda, the “New Houses of Moteuczoma” lay to the southeast of the Templo Mayor, implying a (more-or-less) correct orientation in relation to the overall, regional map. If accurate, this would place the “House of the Animals” in the same general area, more to the north, yet closer to the Templo Mayor. Andrés de Tapia and Pedro Mártir de Anglería also located the “House of the Animals” close to, and even within, the palace of Moteuczoma, specifying, somewhat implausibly, a group of 600 people in service to the animals alone (for an excellent compilation of descriptions, see Blanco et al. 2009:29-32; those authors put the House in what is now the Convent of San Francisco, Madero Street, Blanco et al. 2009:34–35). [2] Only excavations will establish the actual location.

Figure 2. The Dom[us] a[n]i[m]aliu[m]
House of the Animals, in Tenochtitlan [Cartas. Carta 2a]
Praeclara Ferdina[n]di. Cortesii de noua maris oceani Hyspania narratio sacratissimo. ac inuictissimo Carolo Romanoru[m] Imperatori semper Augusto, Hyspaniaru[m], [etc] Regi Anno Domini. M.D.XX. Impressa in celebri ciuitate Norimberga … : Per Fridericum Peypus, Anno D[omi]ni. M.D.XXIIII (John Carter Brown Library, B524 C827p / 1-SIZE).

Whether to call this “House” a “zoo” threads through scholarship (Nicholson 1955). There is certainly some sort of ordering in the visual sources. The Nuremberg woodcut assigns each animal to an individual cell or cage, jaguars tend to pair with puma, and birds dominate as might be expected from tо̄tocalli, a “House of Birds.” The two darker figures may be animals, but could also be gendered captives or allusions to the keepers described in various sources. There seems little doubt that the animals were not only for general viewing or diversion, hence the disquiet with the term “zoo” (Blanco et al. 2009:35–36). But a life of pleasure and leisure did form part of the imperial and elite experience. What appears equally undeniable is that the animals thus gathered served ritual purposes too, as well-tended, (mostly) inedible, cosmically arranged sacrifices for the Templo Mayor or, earlier still, in Teotihuacan (Blanco et al. 2009:36; López Luján et al. 2014:35–36). The evidence from Teotihuacan is notable for its isotopic assays of such animals, suggesting that many were tended for some time in captivity, including “felids [that were] fed a mixed diet of maize-raised lagomorphs [rabbits or hare] supplemented with dog and/or human meat” (Sugiyama et al. 2015:10), as well as for the remains (only by impression) of wooden cages (Sugiyama and López Lujan 2007:130, Figure 4).

The wild and wildly out-of-place—a jaguar in the midst of an imperial capital, but also bears, wolves, and diverse other creatures—raise an intriguing parallel with two pieces of evidence from the Classic Maya. The first consists of a set of peccary teeth uncovered at the island of Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (Figure 3; INAH Mediateca, #82–20140130-123000:7553). There is no certainty absent direct physical examination, and ancient carving and shaping can eliminate diagnostic features. But the top tooth appears to be a maxillary canine from the right side (note the cross-section shape of the junction where the root meets the enamel and the groove running along the lingual surface of the root). The second and fourth in the image are probable mandibular canines. Each has a small facet or flattening at the tip of the enamel, and the root is more slender than the maxillary canine just below the point where the enamel and root join. A credible case thus exists that these come from one peccary, not four—a complete set. In a unique touch, the very peccary from which these came may be depicted on each of the teeth. In spirited self-reference, the images emphasize the canines on a canine. Each tooth has been drilled for suspension, twice in two instances, presumably as part of a single necklace (excavation data are lacking) or, as Karl Taube suggests (personal communication, 2021), to carver’s gouges on twin-bladed instruments used for sculpting; this second proposal would need scrutiny of wear, and the alternation of single and double perforations hints at some other, joint arrangement of the canines. The sense projected here is less of generic peccaries than one in particular, lying on its stomach. Was this a trophy from the hunt or was it some other, more sentimental set of tokens? That peccaries were kept and even bred by the Classic Maya is a possibility that has been raised in the past (e.g., Dillon 1988), especially if the young were removed at young age from their mothers (Sowls 1984:105–106). Indeed, peccaries may become so tractable as to be, in the words of an anonymous author, “domesticated with more facility than the wild hog” and “troublesome from [their] familiarity” (Sowls 1984:105). The intimacy of these images and their placement on a prominent item of dress hints at an emotional tie, though whether with prey or a pet remains unclear.

Figure 3. Peccary teeth with images of peccary, from Jaina, Campeche, Mexico (© Archivo Digital MNA).

The second piece of evidence is unprovenanced, but the glyphic text leaves little doubt about where it came from: the dynastic capital of Naranjo, Guatemala. The text reads: u-ba ke-le BAHLAM-ma AJ–TOOK’-TI’ SAK-CHUWEEN-na K’UHUL-?sa-?-AJAW, u ba[a]kel bahlam Aj Took’ Ti’, Sak Chuween, K’uhul ?sa-? Ajaw, “it is the jaguar bone of He-of-Warlike Speech (Houston 2016), White Monkey, Holy Lord of Naranjo.” Ruling from AD 755 until about 784, this king usually went by another name, K’ahk’ Ukalaw Chan Chahk, a relatively common practice in certain places such as Naranjo and as far north as Ek’ Balam. The fact that other objects with his name have appeared on the art market suggests that his tomb was opened by looters some decades ago. The title on the bone may be youthful moniker or perhaps a title of martial, angry demeanor (Houston 2016; see also Martin and Grube 2008:80-81). The use of the -el suffix confirms, at least linguistically, that this is the bone of a jaguar (Houston et al. 2001:30–32, Figure 14) [3] As for the bone itself, it is securely identifiable as a felid fibula from the right side (the proximal end present, the distal end cut off), and from a juvenile, with evidence that the bone was still fusing. The size is compatible with a larger cat, yet distinguishing between feline species is notoriously difficult (Sugiyama et al. 2019:416). The cutting and reshaping of this bone means that only DNA tests will be able to distinguish whether it is a jaguar (Panthera onca) or mountain lion (Puma concolor). The explicit text predicts what that result will be.

Figure 4. Right fibula from large felid, 8.5 in. length; maximum width, .582 in. (photographs courtesy of Justin Kerr, K7747).

The origins of the peccary’s teeth or the (probable) jaguar’s bone will be difficult to resolve. Many scenarios come to mind: trophies, trade items, extraction from a decaying animal found in the forest. But there may be self-referential images and glyphic tags on creatures known to—and perhaps esteemed personally by—the high-status owners of these faunal remains. Such animals might have been rarities, as curious as the occupants of Moteuczoma’s menagerie or Charlemagne’s elephant. But evidence grows for them nonetheless. To judge from its isotopic signature, a Late Classic peccary from Ceibal, Guatemala, may have been raised in captivity with a diet of maize or other δ13C plant; the same possibly obtained for a large feline at the site (Sharpe et al. 2019:3–4). At Copan, too, isotopic analysis reveals exotic animals (including jaguars and pumas) kept in captivity and transported across long distances (Sugiyama et al. 2018). These creatures were out-of-place, singular, remarkable, and memorable, in ways accentuated, as in the cases here, by minute portraits in bone or an expert text incised for a king.


[1] For other entries in the “Maya Creatures” series, see Maya MuskDragonsMosquitoes, Dogs, and Fox.

[2] Similar confusions of orientation occur in the Santa Cruz Map of 1555, now in the Uppsala University Library. It shows the precursor of the current cathedral facing east when it should be looking south. The Santa Cruz map does display, in a position close to La calle de Moneda, a cluster of buildings with the distinct frieze of jewel-like circles linked to royal residences and, by extension, to the Toltecs. In this case, at Tenochtitlan, it would have been a huēyi tēcpan, a “Great Palace,” because of the number and complexity of its buildings. For such a frieze at Tula itself, if equipped with Doric columns, arches, and ashlar masonry, see the Florentine Codex, Book 8, fol. 11r. The Mixtec Codex Colombino (fol. 13) likewise displays ascension rites (nose-piercings) at a building with such features, the so-called Frieze of Rushes. In the Santa Cruz Map isolated palaces of provincial lords contrast with the two stories, multiple windows, and grouped structures shown for palaces in epicentral Tenochtitlan.

[3] There is a parallel spelling for a human bone (Ek’ Balam Miscellaneous Text 7) that identifies its human donor, a subordinate lord or perhaps a captive (Lacadena García-Gallo 2004:79–83, fig. 29). Andrew Scherer (n.d.) notes the same for the celebrated peccary skull from Copan, Honduras, itself depicting peccaries.


Andrew Scherer provided useful comments and a citation. As usual, Justin Kerr was most generous with his photographs, as was Dicey Taylor in assisting him.


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