for National Geographic News
Maya rulers' growing demand for animals of symbolic value may have caused a decline in big game, like jaguars, in ancient Latin America, a new study suggests.
Faced with environmental problems and doubts about their ability to provide for their followers, the Maya elite may have ordered more hunting of large mammals whose meat, skins, and teeth provided proof of power and status, the study says.
Kitty Emery, an archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, has studied 80,000 animal bones found in 25 Maya trash mounds to map the effects of ancient hunting on animal populations over 4,000 years.
The research, which experts said could be the most exhaustive of its kind, tracked the proportions of bones found from large, status-marking animals like jaguars and white-tailed deer to those of small game like armadillos, rodents, and rabbits.
The results showed that large-animal remains were most plentiful from around A.D. 600 to 900, when the Maya population was at its largest and the proportion of elites was its highest.
However, in the later years of the Maya empire, from about A.D. 900 to 1500, evidence of big game dwindles, and bones of smaller animals become more frequent, particularly at the largest and most politically active Maya sites (see an interactive map of the Maya empire).
This suggests "a depression in large-game availability caused by the demands of too many people and too many elites," Emery writes in the new study.
The change in hunting habits was likely prompted by deforestation and a drier climate, which shook faith in Maya rulers' ability to provide "agricultural abundance," Emery continues.
In response to this uncertainty, rulers ordered that more large animals be killed for food, as religious offerings, and as evidence of their power and status.
"I hypothesize that as the Maya elite class grew in number, and as they became more politically active, they began for the first time to demand more animals than were available," Emery said in an email.
The Maya and Conservation
Notably, the changes in hunting practices ran counter to the largely sustainable Maya conservation practices throughout their long history, Emery said.
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