In the Mayan city of Copán, at the base of a 30-meter-tall pyramid, there’s a beautiful stone slab known as Altar Q. The altar is square, and each of its meter-wide faces preserves carvings of four of the city’s 16 rulers, including its final king, Yax Pasaj Chan Yoaat, who commissioned the structure in 776. It was as much propaganda as historical record. Though Yax Pasaj wasn’t part of a dynastic bloodline himself, the altar shows him receiving the scepter of kingship from Copán’s founding ruler, thus proving that he was worthy of ruling. The altar was a statement of his legitimacy.
The jaguars probably helped.
There’s a crypt immediately in front of the altar, which contained the bones of several birds, and 16 big cats—jaguars and pumas (cougars) packed so tightly that the people who first excavated them referred to them as “jaguar stew.” It’s likely that these animals were sacrificed on the altar as emblems of power, one cat for each king.
“It’s hard to imagine this very elaborate ritual in one of the hardest times for the Copán dynasty,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at George Mason University. Yax Pasaj was the last person to rule the city before it collapsed, and his reign was one of political turmoil and environmental degradation. Amid that turmoil, he somehow managed to acquire 16 big cats, even though the surrounding valley was too small to house more than five jaguars, and even though these beasts are hard to find, much less to capture.