Jaguars were the divine felines of the ancient Americas

The carnivorous cat has inspired fascination, fear, and reverence for centuries.

Shaped like a jaguar, this Aztec cuauhxicalli was designed to hold the blood and hearts of those sacrificed to appease the Mesoamerican gods. Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
RAFAEL MACIA/AGE FOTOSTOCK

Throughout time, inhabitants of Mesoamerica, the geographic region comprising Mexico and Central America, all worshipped Panthera onca, the jaguar. Apex carnivores with the strongest bite of all the big cats, they once roamed from the southern United States, through Mexico and Central America, and as far south as Argentina. Stealthy hunters with camouflaging coats and eyes that can see in the dark, they easily take down prey anywhere—up in the trees, down on the ground, or even swimming in rivers.

To the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, the jaguar was more than just an animal; it was divine. Almost every ancient Mesoamerican civilization revered the jaguar in some way. The Olmec (circa 1200-400 B.C.) heavily featured jaguars in their art and religion. Sculptures of cats were popular, as were depictions of deities who appear to be half human, half jaguar, which scholars describe as were-jaguars.

The Maya also connected the magnificent feline’s abilities with various natural phenomena. The Maya believed that the jaguar’s ability to see at night made it possible for it to move between worlds, associating it with the underworld and mortality. Maya art and architecture are also filled with jaguars, the most famous perhaps is the red jaguar throne found in El Castillo, the great pyramid of Chichén Itzá, built more than 1,500 years ago.

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet