Pumas, Cougars And Jaguars: Feline Deities Of Prehistoric South America

The Andean mountain lion, often called the South American cougar, ( Puma concolor ), is perhaps best known simply as the puma, and this manhunter ruled the forests and jungles of western South America, from Colombia and Venezuela to  Peru, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Several species have been identified in ancient South America: from Chile, Puma concolor puma  named by explorer Juan Ignacio Molina in 1782; from Argentina, Puma concolor cabrerae  proposed by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1940 and from Brazil Puma concolor capricornensis named by Edward Alphonso Goldman in 1946. Since 2017, however, all of these species have been grouped as Puma concolor concolor defining the cougar subspecies native to South America.

South American cougar at Torres del Paine National Park, in the Chilean part of Patagonia (Wolves201/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

South American cougar at Torres del Paine National Park, in the Chilean part of Patagonia ( Wolves201/ CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Cougar Of The Chankas

According to the 1771 book  Puma, Wild Cats: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, the cougar preys on birds, camelids, deer, sloths, rodents, frogs, agoutis, lizards, and spectacled bear cubs. Furthermore, in Peru, the cougar only abandons kills when it is harassed by the Andean condor, meaning the animal kills 50% more prey than North American cougars. Alongside its cousin, the jaguar, cougars hold immense historical, cultural and ritual significance amongst many South American peoples. Mary Strong’s 2012 book Andean Thinking,  Art, Nature, and Religion in the Central Andes: Themes and Variations from Prehistory to the Present , informs that indigenous people in the Andes regarded the puma as being either a snatcher of souls, or as a helper of people, and the Chankas, archenemies of the Incas, had the cougar as their deity.

Artesany with the shape of a Chakana (Jujuy, Argentina). (Bsea/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Artesany with the shape of a Chakana (Jujuy, Argentina). ( Bsea/CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Chanka people are from the Quechua ethnic group, who were based in Andahuaylas located in the modern-day region of Apurímac, but their domain included the regions of Ayacucho and Lamas of Peru. The Chanka people believed in a threefold cosmology, and these three universal spheres, or worlds, were enshrined in the symbol of the Chankana, (or Inca Cross), the Quechua name for the three-stepped Andean cross. Three sacred animals were symbolic representatives of these three conceptual levels called pachas: the snake represented the lower or Underworld; the heavens were represented by the condor and the middle world, earth, was represented by the puma, and this cosmology was also adopted by the Incas.


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Ashley Cowie  is a Scottish historian, author and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems, in accessible and exciting ways. His books, articles and television shows explore lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and artifacts, symbols and architecture, myths and legends telling thought-provoking stories which together offer insights into our shared social history .   www.ashleycowie.com.

Top Image : Kukulcan’s Jaguar Throne, from the Maya site of Chichen Itza (HJPD/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Ashley Cowie

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