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Prehistoric Cat Burial: Bobcat Found in Illinois

Jul 06, 2015 12:14 PM EDT
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Ancient people along a river in what is now Illinois buried a young bobcat, just a few months old. They did this about 2000 years ago. Not only that, but they buried the animal wearing a necklace of bear teeth and marine animals, with its paws respectfully together.

No other wild cat has been buried by humans in the entire archaeological record, researchers claim in a study published recently in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology. They think the bobkitten was likely treasured, and possibly sheds light on the early stages of human domestication of cats and dogs.

 "It's surprising and marvelous and extremely special," says Melinda Zeder, a zooarchaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., according to Science magazine. But Zeder, who was not involved in the study, says it's unclear whether these people treated the bobcat as a pet or invested the animal with a larger spiritual significance.

The young cat was buried in one of 14 dirt funeral mounds of various sizes above the Illinois River, about 49 miles north of St. Louis. The site was built by members of the Hopewell culture, traders and hunter-gatherers who lived in scattered villages of 24 or so individuals each and created otter-shaped bowls, ceramics engraved with birds, and other animal-inspired artwork. "Villages would come together to bury people in these mounds," says Kenneth Farnsworth, a Hopewell expert at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign, according to Science. "It was a way to mark the area as belonging to your ancestors."

The area was hurriedly excavated in the early 1980s, ahead of an impending highway project. The largest mound contained the bodies of 22 people buried in a ring around a central tomb containing the skeleton of an infant. Within that ring too was a small animal interred by itself. This was set aside as a possible dog, marked "puppy  burial" and shelved in a box in the archives of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.

In 2011, Angela Perri, then a PhD student at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, was researching ancient dog burials and opened the box. "As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy," says Perri, now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, according to Science. "It was a cat of some kind."

Perri analyzed the bones, finding that they belonged to a bobcat, likely between 4 and 7 months old. There were no cut marks or signs of trauma, suggesting that the animal had not been sacrificed. She consulted the original excavation photos, finding that the bobcat had been carefully placed in its grave.

At the moment, further study of the bobcat burial may not be possible. Because of an impending state-budget shutdown of the Illinois State Museum, Perri says she can no longer access the samples. Public groups and museum staff are fighting to stop the closure, she told Science.

If you want to learn more about the Hopewell people, see this Archaeology magazine article.  

Follow Catherine at @TreesWhales

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