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.
-- 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
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
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