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The journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper yesterday on the results animal remains from a Mayan site Seibal in Guatemala. The dog and cat bones are dated to the Middle Preclassic period (700-350 B.C.). This is centuries older than prior known Mayan pet keeping.

The Maya site of Seibal in Guatemala has evidence for some of the region's earliest ceremonial activity. PHOTOGRAPH BY STUART BAY, ALAMY

The Maya site of Seibal in Guatemala has evidence for some of the region’s earliest ceremonial activity. PHOTOGRAPH BY STUART BAY, ALAMY

Just how do we know these animals were pets? Well we know the Mayans capitalized on domesticated corn. They analyzed the ratio of various isotopes present in these remains. A diet rich in carbon isotopes indicates consuming a lot of domesticated corn while on the other hand lower levels would indicate that it ate less corn. All of the dog remains had high carbon isotope levels. Which implies the dogs had been fed corn-based diets. A jaguar, also had a similar diet represented by its isotopes, but the other large cat remains didn’t, indicated they weren’t kept as pets and were likely wild animals.

An interesting additional find in the studying of these isotopes is the implications that the Seibal Mayans traded pets. See 44 of the 46 sets of animal remains came from creatures that were born locally. They could tell that based upon comparing the isotopes of the animals to the local environment. But two dogs came from the southern lowlands, a drier area. One of which was buried in a pit along with a large cat beneath a building in Seibal’s ceremonial center around 400 B.C.

This study highlights how one can determine human behavior from archaeological sites. This means in the Pre Classic period, pets weren’t used for agriculture. They were buried under a building. In Mayan culture pets were traded and used in ceremonies. That means pets likely had some additional meaning. The may have been a symbolism attached to pets to promote economic, political development and likely played an important role in the development of Maya civilization as Seibal was becoming a regional center of political power.