About 2000 years ago in what is today western Illinois, a group of Native Americans buried something unusual in a sacred place. In the outer edge of a funeral mound typically reserved for humans, villagers interred a bobcat, just a few months old and wearing a necklace of bear teeth and marine shells. The discovery represents the only known ceremonial burial of an animal in such mounds and the only individual burial of a wild cat in the entire archaeological record, researchers claim in a new study. The villagers may have begun to tame the animal, the authors say, potentially shedding light on how dogs, cats, and other animals were domesticated.
“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. 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 mound is one of 14 dirt domes of various sizes that sit on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River, about 80 kilometers north of St. Louis. Their builders belonged to the Hopewell culture, traders and hunter-gatherers who lived in scattered villages of just a couple of dozen individuals each and created animal-inspired artwork, like otter-shaped bowls and ceramics engraved with birds. “Villages would come together to bury people in these mounds,” says Kenneth Farnsworth, a Hopewell expert at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign. “It was a way to mark the area as belonging to your ancestors.”
Archaeologists rushed to excavate the mounds in the early 1980s because of an impending highway project. When they dug into the largest one—28 meters in diameter and 2.5 meters high—they unearthed the bodies of 22 people buried in a ring around a central tomb that contained the skeleton of an infant. They also discovered a small animal interred by itself in this ring; marine shells and bear teeth pendants carved from bone lay near its neck, all containing drill holes, suggesting they had been part of a collar or necklace. The Hopewell buried their dogs—though in their villages, not in these mounds—and the researchers assumed the animal was a canine. They placed the remains in a box, labeled it “puppy burial,” and shelved it away in the archives of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield.
Decades later, Angela Perri realized that the team had gotten it wrong. A Ph.D. student at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, Perri was interested in ancient dog burials and came across the box in 2011 while doing research at the museum. “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. “It was a cat of some kind.”
When Perri analyzed the bones, she found that they belonged to a bobcat, likely between 4 and 7 months old. The skeleton was complete, and there were no cut marks or other signs of trauma, suggesting to Perri that the animal had not been sacrificed. When she looked back at the original excavation photos, she saw that the bobcat had been carefully placed in its grave. “It looked respectful; its paws were placed together,” she says. “It was clearly not just thrown into a hole.”
When Perri told Farnsworth, he was floored. “It shocked me to my toes,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in almost 70 excavated mounds.” Because the mounds were intended for humans, he says, somebody bent the rules to get the cat buried there. “Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done. I’d give anything to know why.”
Perri, who reports the discovery with Farnsworth and another colleague this week in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, has her suspicions. The pomp and circumstance of the burial, she says, “suggests this animal had a very special place in the life of these people.” And the age of the kitten implies that the villagers brought it in from the wild—perhaps as an orphan—and may have tried to raise it. Bobcats, she notes, are only about twice the size of a housecat and are known to be quite tamable. The necklace seals the deal for her. She thinks it may have been a collar, a sign that the animal was a cherished pet. “This is the closest you can get to finding taming in the archaeological record,” says Perri, who believes the find provides a window into how other animals—whether they be dogs or livestock—were brought into human society and domesticated. “They saw the potential of this animal to go beyond wild.”
That’s certainly possible, Zeder says. “Taming can be a pathway to domestication.” But she cautions against reading too much into one find. “It’s just a single specimen in a very special context. Talking about domestication might be stretching it.” If the Hopewell really viewed the bobcat as a pet, she says, they would probably have buried it in the same place as their dogs. Instead, she suspects that the cat may have had a symbolic status, perhaps representing a connection to the spiritual world of the wild. “This could be more of a cosmological association.”
Jean-Denis Vigne, a zooarchaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, calls the find “a very unique and important discovery.” He says it reminds him of hunter-gatherer societies in South America that bring young monkeys and other wild animals into their homes, rearing and sometimes breastfeeding them as a way to thank nature for bountiful game and crops. Still, Vigne says he’s not aware of people burying these animals. “There’s a lot that still needs to be explored.”
Unfortunately, further work on the bobcat may not be possible. The museum where the bones are housed is facing a shutdown due to state budget cuts, and Perri says she can no longer access the samples. Public groups and museum staff are fighting hard to stop the closure, she says.