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Stone Aztec jaguar head in the heart of Mexico City

Stone jaguar’s head in the heart of Mexico City

A few baroque buildings in Mexico City’s Historic Centre still feature - embedded in their walls and foundations - pre-Hispanic sculptures that were discovered by chance during the 18th century. By choosing to re-use and display them prominently and publicly on the front of buildings as decorative elements (on ordinary houses as well as lordly mansions), the citizens of the capital were showing signs of increasing respect for and interest in the plastic arts of former Tenochtitlan... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

The building today, on the corner of Emiliano Zapata and San Marcos streets
The building today, on the corner of Emiliano Zapata and San Marcos streets (Click on image to enlarge)

Today a clothes emporium, no. 74-76 Calle Emiliano Zapata, just seven blocks from the ancient Templo Mayor in the heart of Mexico City, sports an impressive Mexica (Aztec) stone jaguar’s head. More than any other ancient American civilisation, the Mexica captured in stone the full range of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, molluscs, arachnids and insects that shared their world. They succeeded masterfully in depicting the essence and spirit of an animal while deploying a naturalism and simplicity that remain unequalled. So carefully portrayed are certain body features - mouth, bird crest, feathers, scales, glands, fins - that they even allow us to determine the class and species that they used as a model: all the result of scrupulously careful observation of the rich (wild)life around them.

The jaguar’s whiskers are clearly defined, fanning out around the mouth
The jaguar’s whiskers are clearly defined, fanning out around the mouth (Click on image to enlarge)

Carved from greyish basalt stone, the exposed part of this jaguar head measures 33 cm high, 30 wide and 36 deep. Beautifully symmetrical, it sports small but highly alert ears, broad nose, half-open mouth baring four impressive fangs that frame four powerful incisor (cutting) teeth, and - fanning out from around the mouth - six sets of five whiskers.
Had the sculpture preserved its original colours (in fact we don’t know if it was painted at all) these would have given us crucial final clues as to the species of feline depicted, but all the evidence points to a jaguar (Panthera onca) - a fearsome creature that was associated by the Mexica with the night, underworld, earth and fertility, but also with war and sacrifice, magic and sorcery, shamans and powerful rulers.

Info from El jaguar mexica de la calle Emiliano Zapata en la Ciudad de México by Leonardo López Luján and Gabriela Sánchez Reyes in Arqueología Mexicana no. 115, May-June 2012, pp. 78-81.
Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 20th 2013

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Mexicolore replies: Have you seen the great article on the jaguar on our site, in FLORA AND FAUNA? It’s by Dr. Nicholas Saunders. It includes a brief reference to the jaguar nahual. But more importantly, at the bottom he’s given a couple of references which are key books by him on the jaguar in mythology. Another of his classics is -
• Saunders, N.J., 1990: Tezcatlipoca: Jaguar Metaphors and Aztec Mirror of Nature. In R. Willis, Ed., Signifying Animals: Human Meaning on the Natural World, 159-77, London, Unwin Hyman.
There’s a useful bibliography on nahualismo on p. 189n in
• Furst, Jill L McKeever, 1995: The Natural History of the Soul in Ancient Mexico, Yale University Press.