Archeologists excavating an ancient Native American burial site in western Illinois in the 1980’s got an unexpected surprise…almost twenty years later. The site was constructed by the Hopewell people and consisted of a group of 14 burial mounds overlooking the Illinois River. Traditionally the funeral mounds were used to bury humans, but 2,000 years ago the Hopewell had chosen to include a wild cat.
The largest mound excavated contained the remains of 22 people, a child and a small animal which was originally thought to be a canine. It wasn’t until 2011 when Angela Perri, a Ph.D. student, came across the box of remains at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield while doing research did they discover the canine was actually feline.
The Bobcat, that had been carefully place in the mound with its paws together, was thought to be between four to seven months old and was found wearing a necklace made from bear teeth and sea shells. Upon examination the skeleton had shown no signs of damage or trauma indicating the animal had not been sacrificed or harmed before being buried.
What makes this discovery so unique is it appears to be the only known ceremonial burial of a wild cat in a mound and the only decorated wild cat burial in the archaeological record. Perri who is now a zooarchaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany said the circumstances of the burial “suggests this animal had a very special place in the life of these people.” She also believes the necklace may have been a collar, a sign that the animal was a cherished pet.
While domesticated dogs were found buried in a separate location, the Bobcat was considered important enough to be buried with humans and may have had a spiritual connection to the Hopewell community. Researchers think that the discovery could also help provide insight into how dogs, cats and other animals were first domesticated.