The Jaguar in Mexico. The Olmecs believed the jaguar to be their principal God as well as an embodiment of both life and death.
The third largest cat in the world, second only to the lion and tiger, the jaguar usually lives in thick forestation and, due to its striking appearance and superb predatory skills, is one of the most admired and feared members of the animal kingdom. Its primary characteristics include yellow fur with black spots, between 35 and 130 kilograms in weight and ranging from 1.7 to 2.4 meters long.
The Chiapas Jaguar Statue Discovery
In 2012, a 2000 year old statue of a jaguar was recovered from the Izapa archaeological site in the state of Chiapas in Mexico. Seemingly incomplete, the stone carving was engraved only on one side; the flexed paws and bent legs depicted in the stone led people to believe the carving was intended to represent a jaguar lying down. With dimensions of 138 x 87 x 57cms, the entire structure weighed no less than a tone and a rescue operation lasting around seven hours was required to recover it from the riverbed where it was found. While the archaeological region of Izapa is renowned for being a hot spot of ancient monuments and hundreds have been discovered there to date, the Chiapas National Institute of Anthropology and History claim that this piece is particularly special as it highlights the importance of the jaguar in Mesoamerican culture.
The Olmec God of the Jaguar
While the jaguar held a special significance in many Mesoamerican civilizations, it was particularly important to the so-called ‘Olmec’ tribe. The Olmecs believed the jaguar to be their principal God as well as an embodiment of both life and death. There are numerous depictions of the Olmec God as a jaguar and the tribe carried out various acts to pay homage to the animal, often involving ritualistic ceremonies and offerings. The role of the jaguar as the Olmec’s primary deity is thought to be related to the fact that the jaguar is one of the strongest and most powerful land animals; therefore, its domination over the animal kingdom appeared to translate into its authority over all the other Olmec Gods. The jaguar’s abilities as a predatory animal also played a role in the concept of shamanism; the shamans believed the jaguar acted as their guardian whilst they moved between the living and spiritual worlds, adding to the animal’s reputation as a God-like and mythical creature.
The Jaguar as an Endangered Species
Despite its importance in ancient Mesoamerican civilization, the jaguar’s predominance is rapidly decreasing in contemporary society. Around 18,000 jaguars were killed for their fur each year from the 1960s to 1970s and they are officially listed as an endangered species, with only 15,000 jaguars thought to still be in existence. However, jaguars still exist in eighteen countries in Latin America and sightings continue to be reported. Crucially, a jaguar was spotted in the central area of Mexico in 2009, making its first appearance in the wild for one hundred years and raising hope that the striking member of the cat family has not disappeared for good.
From its historic roots in Mesoamerican society to its fragile existence in modern day Latin America, the jaguar has remained a respected and valued member of the animal kingdom and continues to be held in high esteem by nature lovers and scientists alike.