From Roman gladiatorial combat to Egyptian animal mummies, capturing and manipulating wild carnivores has long been a way for humans to demonstrate state or individual power. Historians and scientists alike have attempted to determine when humans first began to use carnivores to establish their place on the social ladder, one of the earliest examples being Moctezuma's 14th century zoo at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. A recent PLOS ONE study, however, reveals evidence from the ruins of the Mexican city of Teotihuacan that may push back the date of captivating carnivores by 1000 years.
Between the first and sixth centuries A.D., Teotihuacan was one of the largest and most powerful urban cities in Mesoamerica and was home to at least 25,000 people. When the city reached the height of its influence around 1300-1500 A.D., its architects designed massive temples to show off the city's power. The ruins of three of these incredible temples still stand: the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.
During excavations from 1998-2004, the authors of this study found rare artifacts and human and animal remains in chambers in the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. The authors focused the present study on the 194 animal remains, as they are evidence of one of the largest known animal sacrifices in Mesoamerica.
Of particular interest to the authors were the remains of carnivores like wolves, eagles, jaguars, and pumas, as we have little information about how humans related to carnivores prior to Montezuma's zoo in Tenochtitlan. Using isotope analysis and visual inspection of the bones, the authors were able to draw possible conclusions about the relationship between the carnivores in the chamber and the ancient inhabitants of Teotihuacan.
Visual examination of the animal skeletons suggested that some of the carnivores were kept in captivity. The authors found bone breaks and stress characteristic of captive animals – for example, three eagle skeletons showed stress on the lower part of the legs, where they may have been tied to a perch. Other deformities in the animal skeletons, such as bone fusion or abnormal growth, were evidence of infection, which typically only occur when animals are kept in close together in captivity.