15 September 2021

By Jorge Alberto Hernández Sánchez

On September 15th, 2021, this lecture about the influence of felids in Pre-Hispanic art took place, hosted by Dr. Carlos Rafael Castillo Taracena, who has a Ph.D. in Sociology, a Masters Degree in Social Sciences, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Archaeology.

Castillo begins the lecture telling us a little about this research project, responsible for this presentation, called “Atlas of Heritage at Risk.” One of its goals is the preservation, compilation, and register of various animal representations ─among these, the felids─ in the Mesoamerican cultural context, to analyze and interpret the way these animals are, and were, related to Pre-Hispanic societies.

The talk is centered especially on the jaguar. Dr. Castillo refers to the jaguar as an “umbrella species,” since the ecosystems’ health and well-being rests ─mostly─ upon its shoulders. Even though it is not a species on the verge of disappearing, it is endangered, which causes a raise of awareness on the part of the Guatemalan territory, regarding the protection of the animal. However, as in all things, projects and fuels, as well as badly-managed tourism, threaten the species’ existence. That is the reason the preservation of jaguar’s vestiges and ecosystems is so important.

All these findings have been organized into classification tables that sort them in, mainly, four groups: (1) human-animals, in which representations of warriors, governors, priests and dancers, among others, always wearing feline pelts, are found; (2) supernatural-felids, in which we find three types of assemblages: animal-animal, animal-vegetal, and animal-nature (jaguars represented with vegetation, feathers, hybridization with other animals, etc.); (3) felid deities: symbolism is abound, and expands the cosmovision about the jaguar; and (4) items/objects: jaguar-shaped thrones, musical instruments and ornaments.

Said vestiges are represented throughout great part of Central America, in many forms and techniques: wooden carvings, masks, writing styles, appearances in dances, in ceramic, made out of gold, warriors’ attires, among others. The jaguar’s importance has been so transcendental, that it even made its way to the Post-Conquest new religions, appearing in paintings, carvings and casts, even in Christian churches.

Castillo reminds us that all these portrayals give rise to myths and legends, especially the ones related to origin and creation ─he uses the history of the Olmec culture as an example, whose origin dates back to the unification of the jaguar and the human─, or that, even, the word balam (“jaguar” in Mayan language) was used to adjectivize and give jaguar characteristics to people with important roles, deities, and to other beings.

The relevance and transcendence of this felid in Mesoamerican cultures is undeniable. But it does not end there. Rafael finalizes this lecture telling us that, for this project, during this year, he will work with some colleagues in a Mexican and Central-American catalog, about the representations of the felids. The job will consist on compiling portrayals and interpretations, not only throughout Mesoamerica, but with a more northern-southern focus, to revalue the species and its meaning, and its biological preservation.