Did Ancient Native Americans Try to Domesticate Bobcats?

Illustration for article titled Did Ancient Native Americans Try to Domesticate Bobcats?

The 2,000-year-old remains of a carefully decorated and deliberately buried juvenile bobcat has scientists wondering if it’s the first example of feline domestication in the prehistoric Americas.


The remains of the bobcat were originally discovered in the 1980s at the Illinois Hopewell Burial Mounds just north of St. Louis. Archaeologists had mistakenly identified the bones as belonging to a young dog and placed it in the archives of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield. Now, a new analysis by Ph.D. student Angela Perri and her team from the University of Durham in the UK, has correctly identified the bones as belonging to a bobcat (Lynx rufus) that was likely between four and seven months old when it perished. The results of their work can now be found at Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology.

Illustration for article titled Did Ancient Native Americans Try to Domesticate Bobcats?

Incredibly, the bobcat kitten was buried by a group of Middle Woodland Native Americans in a very human-like way, among the remains of humans and dogs. The bobcat was adorned with a necklace made from seashells, along with a bone carved to look like bear teeth (seen above). What’s more, the complete skeleton showed no signs of trauma, which suggests it wasn’t sacrificed.

Writing in AAAS Science News, David Grimm explains more:

When Perri told [Kenneth] Farnsworth [a Hopewell expert at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign], he was floored. “It shocked me to my toes,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in almost 70 excavated mounds.” Because the mounds were intended for humans, he says, somebody bent the rules to get the cat buried there. “Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done. I’d give anything to know why.”

Perri, who reports the discovery with Farnsworth and another colleague this week in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, has her suspicions. The pomp and circumstance of the burial, she says, “suggests this animal had a very special place in the life of these people.” And the age of the kitten implies that the villagers brought it in from the wild—perhaps as an orphan—and may have tried to raise it. Bobcats, she notes, are only about twice the size of a housecat and are known to be quite tamable. The necklace seals the deal for her. She thinks it may have been a collar, a sign that the animal was a cherished pet. “This is the closest you can get to finding taming in the archaeological record,” says Perri, who believes the find provides a window into how other animals—whether they be dogs or livestock—were brought into human society and domesticated. “They saw the potential of this animal to go beyond wild.”

The archaeologists say it’s “the only decorated wild cat burial in the archaeological record” and that it “provides compelling evidence for a complex relationship between felids and humans in the prehistoric Americas, including possible taming.”

Alternately, the bobcat may have been buried not as a former pet, but on account of its symbolic status— possible connection to the spiritual world of the wild. As Grimm correctly points out in his article, it’s virtually impossible to make a solid determination of intent from just one specimen. Still, it’s an incredibly unique and fascinating discovery.


More at AAAS Science News. And read the entire study at Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology: “A Bobcat Burial and Other Reported Intentional Animal Burials from Illinois Hopewell Mounds.”

Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by National Wildlife Service. Lower image by Kenneth Farnsworth.


Brb, off to acquire a bobcat kitten.