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.