The skeletal remains of a 2,000-year-old bobcat, complete with a collar, has been discovered among the remains of 22 people at a Native American burial site in Illinois.
The mound that housed the bobcat was one of more than a dozen built around 2,000-years-ago by the people of the Hopewell tribe, who were hunter-gatherers, and were known for their artwork, says Kenneth Farnsworth of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.
“Villages would come together to bury people in these mounds. It was a way to mark the area as belonging to your ancestors.”
The burial site was originally excavated in the 1980s, and the bobcat skeleton was mislabelled as that of a puppy, because the people of the Hopewell tribe did, in fact, bury their dogs. Lending more credence to the initial thought that the bobcat had been a dog was the collar, or necklace, that had been found around its neck. The collar consisted of shell beads and two pendants that were made from the canine teeth of a bear, indicating that the animal that wore them was a much-loved pet.
The bobcat’s remains were labeled as “puppy burial” and placed on a shelf in the Illinois State Museum. They stayed on that shelf for almost three decades, before being found in 2011 by Angela Perri of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy. It was a cat of some kind.”
After further analysis, she concluded that the animal was actually a bobcat kitten, between 4- and 7-months-old. Dr. Perri also found that there were no cut marks or signs of trauma that would be apparent had the bobcat been a sacrifice. When she went back to the original excavation photos, she found something else that surprised both her and Farnsworth — the bobcat had been carefully and deliberately placed in the burial mound.
“It looked respectful; its paws were placed together,” she says. “It was clearly not just thrown into a hole.”
Farnsworth couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and said that since the mounds were typically only meant for humans, someone had to have bent the rules to get the bobcat buried there.
“It shocked me to my toes. I’ve never seen anything like it in almost 70 excavated mounds. Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done. I’d give anything to know why.”
It’s no wonder the bobcat was originally mislabelled, or that Perri and Farnsworth were as shocked as they were at the discovery that the animal remains didn’t belong to a dog — the 2,000-year-old bobcat and collar marks the only “decorated wild cat burial in the entire archaeological record.”
[Photo Credits: Header — John Moore / Getty Images, Body — Kenneth Farnsworth / Science]