Margays and Mayans
Mayan Pyramid and Margay - Photos: Pyramid:- by striatic (Flickr), Margay:- by Martin Pettitt (Flickr)
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This is about the possible domestication of the margay wild cat by the ancient Mayan peoples during the classic period, circa 250 AD to 900 AD. We know about the domestication of the wildcat in eastern Europe about 10,000 years ago and the domestication of the African wildcat in ancient Egypt. These two place are close to each other so it is nice to see a reference to a cat in the Americas that was possibly domesticated in a very similar way that the Egyptians domesticated the African wildcat.
The margay is an extremely athletic tree climbing cat. It is the most athletic of all the tree dwelling cats. It is small and agile. Its startling abilities come about because like all cats it has inherited good climbing skills to which can be added super flexible ankles, a long tail for balance and its small size (good power to weight ratio). It lives in southern and central America.
The Mayan peoples still exist. They were a civilised people who inhabited similar areas to the margay (margay range). During the time of the classic period it is thought the margay population was at its height, now much depleted through our persecution of it.
The Mayans however being perhaps more civilised than we are today (at least in some ways, it seems) wisely sought a symbiotic relationship with the margay. The margay feeds on such animals as birds and rodents. The Mayans farmed the abundant forests (rather than cutting it down) for fruit and nuts. This is described as the ancient Mayan fruit tree culture.
The birds, rodents and bats eat the nuts and fruit but the margay is there to prevent it. Here was the making of a beautiful relationship. The simple presence of the margay was probably sufficient to deter the tree crop "pests".
The Mayans might have encouraged the margay to occupy trees in their "orchards" or even domesticated margay kittens to the extent that they became fully domesticated, living in houses and/or temples, mirroring what happened in ancient Egypt along the Nile. The margay is a wild cat that is suitable for domestication as it is small and docile. That is probably why hunting it, today and in the recent past, for its glorious spotted coat has been so successful for people and disastrous for the cat.
There was a need for efficient farming practices to feed an expanding population. The use of the margay was a neat solution.
Other crops that would have been damaged by tree dwelling "pests" would be avocados and the cacao fruit. The dried seeds of the cacao fruit were apparently used to make a ritual drink. They were also used as a form of currency.
No remains of margays have yet been found in areas where the ancient Mayans lived but it is suggested that this is because the Mayans found value in keeping the margay alive and as a crop controller. It would, therefore, have died in the forests and its delicate remains biodegraded completely. Margays and Mayans got on famously it seems. That is the way it should be today.
I am indebted to William Smith Ph.D. for the information for this post.