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Jaguar: The Western Hemisphere's Top Cat
by Richard Mahler


Publication date: February 2008


Aztec warriors donned the creature's dappled pelt as a protective cloak during battle. The Maya depended on the animals to guard Xibalba, the sacred underworld. Arizona's Hopi tracked them in ceremonial hunts as late as 1908. Indigenous groups from California's deserts to Argentina's pampas honored these alpha predators in art, adornment, and ritual. Today the very name bestows status on footballs teams and a luxury automobile, among other enterprises.

The jaguars -- variously referred to as el tigre, onça, and black panther -- may be the most widely revered carnivore endemic to the Americas, yet scientists have only a basic understanding of the charismatic cat, our hemisphere's biggest. Like its closest relatives, the leopards of Asia and Africa, the jaguar is vanishing before it is fully known. What's clear, however, is the feline's mesmerizing effect on humans.

From the Agua Caliente of the Mojave to the Guaraní along the Río de la Plata, indigenous cultures have been awestruck by this unrivaled hunter for millennia. The jaguar embodied god-like powers for the ancient Olmec, Maya, Aztec, Inca, and other civilizations. Tribal people in the southwestern United States and Latin America continue to perform jaguar dances that evoke its symbolic power and cunning. In Amazonia's rainforests, where the cats continue to thrive, a rich legacy of jaguar-related traditions still exists.

Despite such high honor and distinguished patronage, this highly secretive animal is unnecessarily feared and widely misunderstood. Many assume, for instance, that all jaguars are black. (Only about six percent are; typical coloration is a reddish buff, adorned with inky dots and rosettes.) A jaguar is not a panther. (The term refers to its cousin, otherwise known as mountain lion, cougar, or puma.) Unlike panthers, jaguars almost never kill people. (Only a handful of attacks on humans are documented, most involving zoo animals.) Surprising to many, jaguars are U.S. natives whose history entwines with many North American tribes and who, like our indigenous people, were decimated by extermination policies that extended well into the 20th century.

As recently as the 1800s, jaguars roamed the Southwest freely from California to Louisiana, far north of the jungles where they have always been more common. In Arizona and New Mexico, where at least four individual jaguars have been photographed since 1996, images of the cat occur in murals and rock art left by the Pueblo and Mogollon cultures. Along New Mexico's Río Puerco, the Pottery Mound site contains a spectacular painting of a jaguar while a similar animal is rendered in a smoke-blackened cave near Los Alamos.

Kiva paintings found in Arizona's Hopi villages depict cat-like creatures believed to be jaguars. Anthropologist Leslie White theorizes that a supposedly mythical beast in Pueblo religion, the rohona, is really a jaguar. At Santa Ana Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, White was told that a rohana image found there was a "big cat with spots" representing one of the "spirit hunters" who, in turn, bestowed power on Santa Ana's human hunters. A similar tradition exists at nearby Zia Pueblo.

Further north, colonial records confirm the Diné (Navajo) spoke to Spanish missionaries variously of a "meadow wildcat," "tiger," and "spotted lion," all believed to refer to the jaguar. The same felid may be among the "Cat People" referred to in Diné creation stories and the "Spotted Lion" of sand paintings. At least three ceremonies practiced by Diné healers refer to spotted cats and their skins.

During the 1860s, hundreds of Diné and Apache were incarcerated by the U.S. military at Bosque Redondo, where officer John Cremony wrote that on his hunts sightings of "jaguars were by no means uncommon." In a separate report, an Apache who attacked a man with unusual ferocity claimed: "I made jaguar medicine on him and grabbed him like a jaguar and killed him. I was like a jaguar."

The Apache, Hopi, and Akimel O'Odham are among Southwest people known to have prized jaguar skin for making quivers, presumably to convey some of the cat's skills to the arrows they carried. Jaguar bones, teeth, talons, and pelts were valued far and wide as ceremonial items and trade goods.

Near El Paso, Texas, rock art depicting Panthera onca -- as scientists call the jaguar -- is found in two natural shelters known as Jaguar Cave and the Cave of the Masks. These faded drawings are attributed to the Mogollon culture and suggest Mesoamerican influence. The Cave of the Masks animal wears a 'shaman's cap' that may reflect the cat's pivotal role among peoples to the south.

Several indigenous groups continue to hold jaguars sacred in Mexico, where the cat persists in isolated mountains, forests, and wetlands. The Raramuri (Tarahumara) and Huasteca, tribes of the northern Sierra Madre, regularly honor the cat in their ceremonies and shamanic traditions. The highly spiritual Huichol of Nayarit and Jalisco still make elaborate bead-yarn-and-beeswax jaguar masks and figures as totems associated with rain and masculine power.

In central Mexico, folk traditions mingle with both modern Catholicism and rites performed by the Aztec centuries ago. In Suchiapa, for example, the annual Corpus Cristi festival includes dozens of teenage boys wearing jaguar masks. Their job is to lead a long procession and secure intersections so the parade will move smoothly. The shouts of these 'wannabe' jaguars -- demonstrating assertive power as their warrior ancestors hight have some 500 years ago -- are heard blocks away.


Richard Mahler has written for Native Artist, Native Peoples, Arizona Highways, New Mexico Magazine, Southwest Art, and scores of other publications. Among his twelves books is the ecotourism guides to Belize and Guatemala. This feature is adapted from The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat, to be published in 2008 by Yale University Press. Richard lives in Silver City, New Mexico, where jaguars once roamed.


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