Animal Bones as Tools for Understanding Mayan Social Hierarchy

Studying human remains reveals unique information to archaeologists about a civilization’s customs and traditions.  In addition to cause of death, archaeologists can create a complete profile of the body’s lifestyle based on physiological features combined with intense critical thinking. Similarly, the remains of animals in the area can also provide great insight into a society’s culture by helping archaeologists gain a better understanding of the type of environment that the people lived in.  What kind of predators threatened their safety?  Did they domesticate animals and train them to perform actions to benefit the entire community?  A group of archaeologists used animal remains to analyze a unique aspect of Mayan culture—the interaction between different social and economic classes based on the distribution of animal resources.


This stone-carved depiction of a social-elite seizing resources from a lower class member of Mayan society serves as one of the few examples of art depicting social-class division.


Very little was known about the political and economic systems of Mayan society, as compared to archaeologists’ extensive knowledge of their advances in art and astronomy.  The way animal resources were distributed offered clues to the ways in which different social classes interacted, and archaeologists learned that their societies were not homogeneous by any means.  Instead, there were complicated systems in place to regulate trade relations, food distribution, and accessibility to species.  Because animals were used so widely for hides, tools, jewelry, and musical instruments, studying the geographic distribution of these resources revealed that there were elite classes that controlled a majority of the valuable resources.  But surprisingly, the middle classes used the widest variety of animals, as the wealthiest people only used exotic animals, such as jaguars and crocodiles, and the poorest could only afford to use inexpensive animals, such as a variety of fish and shellfish.

Maya bone

These animal bones, teeth and a cut jaw bone from a tapir, are an example of the ways Mayans used animal bones to create tools and instruments for daily use in society.

The study of animal bones has provided insight into the way Mayan cities interacted with surrounding villages through trade and commerce and has provided such extensive information because Mayan culture relies so heavily upon animal resources accomplish.  I am amazed by the amount of information that the archaeologists were able to infer about human cultures and tendencies from the examination of seemingly-unrelated artifacts.  Similar observations and critical thinking are applied when analyzing human remains as when uncovering truths about a society and their culture.  In the case of the Mayan civilization, the discovery of specific animal remains led archaeologists to believe that there were stricter class boundaries than previously thought.  The emergence of social hierarchy is an aspect of the “big picture” of Mayan civilization and social structure.  Without the creative approach to this investigative archaeology, they would be missing evidence of a significant aspect of Mayan culture which serves as further evidence of the often-overlooked sophistication of the ancient American civilizations.


Further Reading

New Early Human Species Discovered in South Africa

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This is a reconstruction of Homo naledi built following 700 hours of work by paleoartist John Gurche.

On Thursday September 10, 2015 a group of scientists excavating a cave system in South Africa released their findings claiming that they may have made an important discovery about human evolution.  In late 2013 and early 2014 the scientists discovered fifteen nearly-complete skeletons in a nearly-inaccessible chamber, now called the Dinaledi Chamber, and are now classifying them as a new species of hominin called the Homo naledi.  The species warranted classification in the homo genus because of surprising human-like features, such as teeth and skull features similar to other members of the genus, and hand shapes that suggested tool-using capabilities.  It also appears to be one of the genus’s most primitive members because it possesses a much smaller brain, shoulders shaped like those of apes, and extremely curved fingers demonstrating climbing capabilities.

The most significant finding of the expedition was that Homo naledi may have practiced a form of behavior previously thought to be unique only to humans.  The isolation of the chamber and presence of few other animal bones led the team of scientists to believe that the bodies had been intentionally left there, perhaps as a burial ritual.  The deposition of bodies in the same location is generally a cultural practice, and it appears that burials were repeatedly carried out in that specific location over the course of many years.  The location was so incredibly isolated that when the team first discovered the chamber, bones lied directly on the surface, as they had not been affected by erosion, scavengers, or other climate conditions.


This is a map of the archaeological site, showing the complexity of the cave system and location of the fossil site.

The isolation of the archaeological site posed significant challenges for the team of researchers.  The first expedition lasted 21 days during November 2013 and consisted of tedious extraction of the bones by carefully using toothpicks and brushes to gently remove the fossils and transport them up to the surface through a 7.5-inch chute.  Sixty cavers and scientists were working on the excavation site, which also trained six women to be “underground astronauts” to fit through the narrow 18-centimeter cave opening.  The depth of the cave made full excavation impractical, so the scientists were forced to finish removing the bones during a week-long expedition in early 2014.

Exploration of human origins has made significant strides as more remains of ancestors are being found.  However there had been a million-year-long gap in the fossil record in which lies the beginning of mankind.  The origin of the homo genus has been shrouded in mystery, but this discovery may help to fill in the pieces of the puzzle and uncover the true origin of mankind.

Sources: (images are also from this site)

Further Reading: (detailed published study report)

The NOVA/National Geographic Special, “Dawn of Humanity,” premieres September 16, 2015, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT on PBS in the United States and is streaming online now at: