Giant fossilized teeth from extinct megalodon sharks may have inspired portrayals of a primordial sea monster in Mesoamerican creation myths, according to a new study of the concepts of sharks in ancient Mayan society.
The study looked at how the Maya combined a practical, prescientific knowledge of sharks with their traditional understanding of the world around them as the creation of gods and monsters.
In the research paper, titled "Sharks in the Jungle: real and imagined sea monsters of the Maya," published online Nov. 21 in the journal Antiquity, Sarah Newman, an archaeologist at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, wrote that fossilized teeth from the extinct shark species Carcharodon megalodon were used in sacred offerings at several ancient Mayan sites, such as Palenque in southern Mexico, where archaeologists have found 13 megalodon teeth. [See Photos of Megalodon Sharks and How They Inspired Mayan Myths]
Giant megalodon sharks were apex predators of the world's oceans from around 23 million years ago until 2.6 million years ago. Their teeth, jaws and vertebrae have been found at many sites in Central America.
Newman said ancient Mayan depictions of a sea monster named "Sipak" — also known as Cipactli(which translates to "Spiny One")to the Aztecs of central Mexico — have a single giant tooth that bears a strong resemblance to the fossilized megalodon teeth from sacred offerings found at Mayan sites.
"Mayan iconography is notoriously difficult to piece out, but you can see [the monster] is a fairly realistic representation of a shark with a bifurcated tail, and it has jagged jaws — but it does have that one central tooth," Newman told Live Science. "And the tooth has the same mark on it that the Maya used to indicate materials like jade — so it's telling you that it's hard and shiny, the way that a fossil would be also."
Sea monster myths
In some Mayan creation myths, the shark-like sea monster Sipak is killed by a god or mythical hero who forms the land from its carcass, Newman said. The motif of a single giant tooth also appears in portrayals of other Mayan gods, including a depiction of the sun god at El Zotz, in the Mayan heartlands of the Petén Basin, now in northern Guatemala.
The Mayan word for sharks and other fearsome sea monsters, "xook," was also adopted by several Mayan kings and queens — for example, Yax Ehb Xook ("First Step Shark"), the first-century founder of the city of Tikal in Petén, and Ix K'abal Xook ("Lady Shark Fin"), an eighth-century queen of Yaxchilan, now in Mexico's Chiapas state, Newman said.
Newman started her study of the Mayan concepts of sharks after analyzing a cache of sacred objects, including 47 teeth from a requiem shark (a family that includes spinner and blacktip sharks) that were buried inside two "lip-to-lip" ceramic bowls used as an offering at a Mayan pyramid at El Zotz between A.D. 725 and 800.
Marine items such as shark teeth, seashells, stingray spines and coral were often used to represent the oceans of the world in a ceremonial model of the Mayan cosmos within the offering bowls, Newman said.
"There's an understanding that a kind of microcosm is recreated in those enclosed spaces, so they're often put in along the center lines of temples and houses, to imbue those spaces with vitality," she said.
After noticing that the cache contained only the serrated upper teeth of what was probably a single requiem shark, Newman started to wonder how and why the shark remains had been transported or traded from the coast into inland Mayan cities such as El Zotz. "And then I started thinking about how those people in the interior would have made sense of these things that are coming in from the coast, which they might not have seen themselves," she said. [Image Gallery: Ancient Monsters of the Sea]
Ancient shark science
For the ancient Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, with oceans on three sides, "the sea marked the limits of the land in all directions, a fabled home to supernatural deities and energies," Newman wrote in the study. "Sharks were associated with blood, pain and danger worthy of consideration and depiction, but from a safe distance."
The Mayan concept of the "xook" sea monster was the result of prescientific efforts to explain their practical knowledge about sharks in terms of their established cultural understandings of the world around them, Newman said.
"The argument in the paper is that the Maya are doing a version of our own ideas about natural history, where they are combining physical evidence that they find with myths that they also [regard as] true, and making sense of the world that way," she said.
Newman's research also examines the extent to which shark remains and cultural concepts about sharks were shared over a large area of ancient Mesoamerica for many centuries.
"One of the things that this study and other recent studies show is that they're trading things back and forth, and that there's a lot of interaction going on across long distances," she said. "So now we're getting a really good picture of just how connected people were — much more mobile and connected than I think we tend to assume."
Original article on Live Science.
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Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.