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Researchers combine zoology, archaeology to study human-animal relationships in ancient Mexico

January 18, 2018   /   by Buzz McClain

Nawa Sugiyama at the Teotihuacan dig site. Photo provided.

When a team of archaeologists discovered 27 golden eagles sacrificed at the pyramids of Teotihuacan in Mexico, more than 1,000 years before the Aztec empire, it struck Nawa Sugiyama as odd.

“I said, wait, you don’t just capture 27 golden eagles overnight. They must have been raising them.”

That suspicion became the basis for the then-Harvard PhD candidate’s dissertation. Sugiyama, now an assistant professor of archaeology at George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, proved that the Mesoamericans were raising eagles for sacrifices, and that they had developed a system of carnivore management involving pumas, jaguars, wolves and rattlesnakes.

“They manipulated the environment, which was incredible,” she said. The animals, along with humans, were sacrificed in ritual ceremonies. “It was how you negotiated with gods,” she said.

Sugiyama continues her zooarchaeological work at the Teotihuacan site for more than two months each year with George Mason students who gain firsthand experience working with 70 others at the historic UNESCO-protected site.

“It’s an incredible site. The pyramids are mind-blowing,” said anthropology master’s student Leila Martinez-Bentley, who made her first trip with Sugiyama last summer.

Martinez-Bentley studied in classes with Sugiyama and in 2016 helped the professor set up Mason’s Archaeological Sciences Laboratory at the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study on the Fairfax Campus.

That experience led to an invitation to Teotihuacan, as an undergraduate with a research grant from Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research.

Anthropology student Lelia Martinez-Bentley works with animal bones in the wet lab she helped zooarchoogy professor Nawa Sugiyama create at Mason. Photo provided

“I was only able to go because I got the funding,” she said.

The Virginia Beach native spent two and a half months analyzing animal bones in Mexico—and discovered her passion, she said.

With one session of research at Teotihuacan behind her and more in the offing, Martinez-Bentley is now working with Sugiyama on isotopic analysis, an advanced method that helps researchers learn what ancient animals were eating, which can lead to solving—and raising—questions regarding diet, migration and what the animals were being used for.

Sugiyama says there’s much more work to be done at Teotihuacan.

“This is multi-institutional collaborative research that is attracting a lot of attention,” she said. “We are going back into the field next year in search of more amazing work to be done.”