Giant megalodon shark teeth may have inspired Mayan myths monster

The fossilized giant teeth of the extinct megalodon sharks are also found in the holy caches buried in several ancient Mayan sites.

(Sarah Newman)

Giant fossilized teeth of the extinct megalodon sharks may have inspired depictions of a primordial sea monster in the meso-american creation myth, according to a new study of the concepts of the sharks in the ancient Mayan society.

The study examined how the Mayan’s a combination of a practical, prescientific knowledge of sharks with their traditional understanding of the world around them as the creation of the gods and monsters.

In the research paper, entitled, “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 the fossilized teeth of the extinct shark species Carcharodon megalodon were used in sacred offerings to several ancient Maya sites, like Palenque in southern Mexico, where archaeologists have found 13 megalodon teeth. [See Photos of Megalodon shark and How They are Inspired by Mayan Myths]

Giant megalodon sharks were the apex predators of the oceans of the world from about 23 million years ago to 2.6 million years ago. Their teeth, jaws and vertebrae are found in different locations in Central America.

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Newman said the ancient Mayan images of a sea monster with the name “Sipak” — also known as Cipactli (which translates to “Prickly”) to the Aztecs of Mexico have one big tooth that exhibits a strong resemblance to the fossilized megalodon teeth from the holy offerings found in the Mayan sites.

“Maya iconography is notoriously difficult piece, but you can see the [monster] is a fairly realistic representation of a shark with a forked tail, and it has serrated jaws — but it has one central tooth,” Newman told Live Science. “And the tooth has the same sign on that the Maya used to indicate materials such as jade — so it tells you that it is hard and shiny, the way that a fossil would be also.”

Sea monster myths

In some of the Maya creation myth, the shark-like sea monster Sipak is killed by a god or mythical hero that the forms of the land from her carcass, Newman said. The motive of one large tooth appears also in the lives of the other Mayan gods , including an image of the sun god in El Zotz, the Mayan regions of the Petén Basin in northern Guatemala.

The Mayan word for sharks and other fearsome sea monsters, “xook,” was also adopted by the various Maya kings and queens, for example, Yax Ehb Xook (“First Step Shark”), the first-century founder of the city of Tikal in the Peten, and Ix K’abal Xook (“Lady” Shark Fin”), an eighth-century queen of Yaxchilan, now in the mexican state of Chiapas, Newman said.

Newman began her study of the Mayan concepts of sharks following the analysis of a cache of sacred objects, including 47 teeth of a requiem shark (family in which spinner and blacktip sharks) who were buried in two “lip-lip” ceramic bowls used as a sacrifice on a Mayan pyramid of El Zotz between A. D. 725 and 800.

Marine items such as shark teeth, shells, stingray spines, and coral were often used to the oceans of the world in a ceremonial model of the Maya cosmos within the range of bowls, Newman said.

“There is a notion that is a kind of microcosm is recreated in a closed space, so that they are often along the lines of temples and houses, to imbue these spaces with vitality,” she said.

After noticing that the cache contains only the serrated upper teeth in what is probably one of requiem shark, Newman began to wonder how and why the shark remains were transported or traded from the coast to the inland Maya cities such as El Zotz. “And then I started to think about how the people in the interior would have made more sense of these things come from the coast, that they might not have seen yourself,” she said. [Image Gallery: Ancient Monsters of the Sea]

Old shark science

For the ancient Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula, with oceans on three sides, “the sea marked with the boundaries of the country in all directions, a legendary home of supernatural gods and energy,” Newman wrote in the study. “Sharks were associated with blood, pain and the risk that the attention is worth and performance, 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 understanding of the world around them, Newman said.

“The argument in the paper is that the Maya are working on a version of our own ideas about natural history, where they have the combination of physical evidence they find with the myths that they [point] where it is, and making sense of the world that way,” she said.

Newman’s research also examines the extent to which the shark remains and cultural attitudes about sharks were shared over a large area of ancient meso-america for many centuries.

“One of the things that this study and other recent studies that demonstrate that they are trading things back and forth, and that there is a lot of interaction going on over long distances,” she said. “So now we get a very good picture of how connected people are more mobile and connected, then I think we tend to assume.”

Original article on Live Science .

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