The New World's Big Cat
The Jaguar is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, or New World, and is the third largest cat in the world. The Jaguar is part of the four “big cats” along with the lion, tiger, and leopard. They can be found from Mexico to Central America and some have been spotted as far south as Argentina. Spotted similarly to a leopard, the jaguar is of a sturdier build and behaves more closely in nature to a tiger. The jaguar will usually find its home in the jungle and forested areas, making the Department of Petén (the jungle area in which Tikal is located) in Guatemala a perfect location for this solitary animal. The jaguar is a stalk and ambush predator and will select prey opportunistically. This apex predator plays a vital role in stabilizing the surrounding ecosystem by regulating the population of its prey and is considered a “keystone” species. The jaguar has developed one of the most powerful bites among other big cats and uses this as its primary method for killing its prey. This big cat also enjoys water and they are commonly found near water sources.
The jaguar is one of the most revered animals of Mesoamerican cultures with iconographic examples dating back to the pre-classic period (2000 BCE–200 CE). In Mayan mythology, the jaguar depicted different gods and demi-gods and was considered protectors and transformers. The jaguar was, and still is, associated with a spiritual companion to shamans, which protect them as they transform and cross over to the spirit world. Often found on Mayan sculptures, temples, stelaes, and pottery images of gods frequently depicted jaguar attributes. Because the jaguar is associated with the nighttime, the jaguar gods were usually associated with the underworld, as the nighttime is associated with ancestors and the spirit world. The Maya’s underworld is also correlated with the source of water, the jaguar’s natural connection to water reinforced their position as an underworld god. Plants also originate from the underworld making the jaguar related with fertility, as well. The Mayan ruling class would be the only Mayans to wear jaguar pelts and would adopt the jaguar as an element of their ruling name.