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Sharks in the jungle: real and imagined sea monsters of the Maya

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 November 2016

Sarah E. Newman*
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, James Madison University, MSC 7501 Sheldon Hall, 71 Alumnae Drive, Harrisonburg, VA 22807, USA (Email:


Representations and remains of sharks are found in Mesoamerican art and archaeology from the first millennium BC onwards. They appear at coastal sites, but also remarkably far inland, hundreds of kilometres from the waters where they were sighted or hunted. For the Maya of the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula, encounters with live sharks would have been an exceedingly rare occurrence. Yet the animals arrived inland in piecemeal fashion—as chunks of meat and sets of teeth—and via stories. By following the procurement, transportation, representation and ritual use of sharks from the sea to the jungle, the author shows how the ancient Maya drew on both evidence and myth to imagine and explain these unfamiliar marine creatures.

Copyright © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2016 

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