Cats and Bears

Contributed by John Bergman-McCool

Lately, the process of fully cataloging Adopt-A-Drawers has resulted in some interesting discoveries. The most recent of these comes from artifacts collected by Richard “Scotty” MacNeish in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

MacNeish went to Tamaulipas in 1945 hoping to find sites that predated the production of ceramics. In particular, he was searching for sites with long cultural sequences that he could use to tell the story of the development of human culture in Mesoamerica. During three field seasons, spanning  ten years, MacNeish identified and excavated several village and cave sites in the Sierra de Tamaulipas and the Sierra Madre Oriental, two mountain ranges in Tamaulipas.

MacNeish’s Tamaulipas excavation areas.

MacNeish recovered a wide variety of items from the well-preserved cave deposits in Tamaulipas. Of these were two fragmentary bear canine-shaped pendants recovered from Armadillo Cave in the Sierra de Tamaulipas. They appear to have been burnt and MacNeish believed that they were fashioned from sandstone. When compared with real canines from a bear and unknown canid, it is clear that they are an imitation. For example, the Tamaulipas pendants have no enamel and they lack the same degree of detail. However, they do approximate the shape very effectively.

Left: Two Tamaulipas bear canine-shaped pendant fragments. Middle: Dog or coyote canine pendant from Ohio. Right: Bear canine pendant from Ohio.

One of the pendants was fractured below a possible enamel layer so they were both inspected under magnification. Surprisingly, they show signs of very thin layering more reminiscent of the annuli of shell. I asked our Director, Dr. Ryan Wheeler to take a look at them. Among those who work here at the Peabody, he is the resident expert on shell artifacts. Dr. Wheeler agreed they were shell.

Magnified View of bear canine-shaped pendant from Tamaulipas, showing annuli.

The fact that the pendants were made of shell led us to think about a possible connection with the Hopewell Culture. Several shell imitations of bear canines have been recovered from Hopewell mound sites. Additionally, the Hopewell developed a very large interaction sphere, traveling far and wide for trade materials. The Hopewell procured copper from Lake Superior, silver from Canada, obsidian from Wyoming, mica from the Blue Ridge Mountains and shell from the Gulf of Mexico.

We wondered if these pendants could have been a Hopewell trade object. Fortunately, the Peabody archives include MacNeish’s Tamaulipas excavation paperwork (digitized here). The first step to establishing a possible link was to determine the items’ age. Using charcoal from distinct layers excavated from the cave deposits, MacNeish was able to radiocarbon date the deposits. The layer containing the shell pendants dates to the Almagre Phase, roughly 2,200 to 1800BCE. This correlates to the Archaic period in the Ohio valley, about 2,000 years before the Hopewell developed. The Hopewell connection was out.

I also searched for bear remains found in northern Mexican archaeological contexts. A very quick review of available resources indicated that bear remains are not all that common in the region. The only positive return came in the form of bear long bones found at Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, Mexico. This was interesting, because the historical range of both Mexican grizzly and black bears include much of northern Mexico, including Tamaulipas state. It is very likely that humans and bear interacted in the past.

At Dr. Wheeler’s suggestion I reached out to Dr. Brad Lepper, Senior Archaeologist with the Ohio History Connection and José Luis Aguilar Guajardo, archaeologist in Tamaulipas, Mexico. They both responded with helpful information. Dr. Lepper was interested in the presence of the shell pendant and was unaware of anything similar coming from Archaic sites. He suggested consulting Cheryl Claassen’s book Beliefs and Rituals in Archaic Eastern North America for possible archaic examples, which I haven’t yet had a chance to read.

Dr. Lepper provided several examples from the Ohio History Connection’s collection of Middle Woodland Hopewell bear canine pendants (here and here) and their imitations (here and here). Some of the canines were split, or contained fresh water pearls from the Ohio River. Imitations were made from mica, copper, shell, bone, ceramic and stone.

José Luis Aguilar Guajardo was also very interested in the bear canine-shaped pendants. He was unaware of anything similar coming from sites in the Sierra de Tamaulipas mountains. He indicated that shell was a semi-precious material used for making ornamentation by the Indigenous people in the area. The Sierra de Tamaulipas mountains are quite close to the Gulf of Mexico, a source for shell materials.

José was clear that black bears can still be found in the Sierra de Tamaulipas, and supported the possibility that they were bear-shaped. However, he suggested the possibility that they were inspired by the jaguar instead. According to José, jaguar were abundant in the area and were revered by the Indigenous people.

How to assign an animal label to the pendants becomes an interesting problem. Bear and jaguar canines can look similar in size and appearance. Understanding what the maker of the pendants intended them to represent is difficult when they cannot be asked about them directly. Both animals’ habitats overlapped in northern Mexico.

Though they don’t provide a definitive answer, some helpful articles, and their authors, that explore the importance of bear and jaguar imagery in north and Mesoamerica include: Bear Imagery and Ritual in Northeast North America, Thomas E. Berres, David M. Stothers and David Mather; Predators of Culture: Jaguar Symbolism and Mesoamerican Elites, Nicolas J. Saunders; and Rohonas and Spotted Lions: The Historical and Cultural Occurrence of the Jaguar, Panthera onca, among the Native Tribes of the American Southwest, Steve Pavlik. There are probably many, many others.

Perhaps, as José Luis Aguilar Guajardo has suggested in personal communications, Sierra de Tamaulipas falls into an area in which jaguars were strongly revered. In a very simplistic summary of the above articles, cranial remains of bears in archaeological contexts in North America have been considered a sign of bear ceremonialism. They don’t appear in MacNeish’s Tamaulipas excavations. Jaguar hides were an element of Aztec royal clothing and one of the accoutrements used by Aztec shamans. A small fragment of possible jaguar hide was recovered from the Sierra Madre excavations in Tamaulipas.

Future excavations in the area will likely bring more evidence to bear on the ritual and symbolic practices of the people of Tamaulipas.


Archaic Bear Tooth Pendants and other related artifacts

Donaldson, William S. and Stanley Wortner

1995      The Hind Site and the Glacial Kame Burial Complex in Ontario. Ontario Archaeology 59:5-95.

Bear Imagery and Ritual

Berres, Thomas E., David M. Strothers and David Mather

2004      Bear Imagery and Ritual in Northeast North America: An Update and Assessment of A. Irving Hallowell’s Work. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 29(1):5-42.

Jaguar Imagery and Ritual

Pavlik, Steve

2003      Rohonas and Spotted Lions: The Historical and Cultural Occurrence of the Jaguar, Panthera  onca, among the Native Tribes of the American Southwest. Wicazo Sa Review 18(1):157-175.

Saunders, J. Nicolas

1994      Predators of Culture: Jaguar Symbolism and Mesoamerican Elites. World Archaeology  26(1):104-117.