Reanalysis of nonhuman skeletal remains from a number of mounds overlooking the Illinois River have revealed the only known ceremonial burial of a wild cat - a bobcat wearing a necklace of seashells and bear teeth.
The mounds were built 2,000 years ago by the Hopewell, an ancient Indian culture of the east-central area of North America well known for known for their animal-inspired artworks. The features stood about 49 miles north of St Louis, Illinois, and were excavated in the 1980s.
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At that time, the largest of the mounds, measuring 91 feet in diameter and 8 feet high, revealed 22 people buried in a ring around a tomb containing an infant.
Within that ring, archaeologists also found a small animal interred with a beaded collar around its neck.
Since the Hopewell are known to have buried their dogs, the animal was believed to be a puppy and labelled as such.
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But according to Angela Perri, a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, the animal "is actually an immature bobcat."
Detailing their findings in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, Perri and colleagues Terrance Martin, curator of anthropology at the Illinois State Museum, and Kenneth Farnsworth, a Hopewell expert at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign, established the bobcat was likely between 4 and 7 months old.
The compete skeleton showed no cut marks or other signs of trauma, indicating the animal had not been sacrificed.
Moreover, excavation photos showed the bobcat was respectfully placed in its grave, its paws placed together.
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According to Perri, the unique burial and the necklace suggests the bobcat was treated as a pet. The kitten might have been orphaned and taken in by the Hopewell, as bobcats are known to be tameable.
"To our knowledge, this is the only decorated wild cat burial in the archaeological record," the researchers wrote.
"It provides compelling evidence for a complex relationship between felids and humans in the prehistoric Americas, including possible taming," they concluded.