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Sci-Tech

Ancient bobcat buried with bear-tooth bling

A forgotten box on a museum shelf yields a surprising discovery from a 2,000-year-old tomb.

These are pieces of the necklace buried with the baby bobcat. Kenneth Farnsworth

The Flintstones had their trusty pet dinosaur, Dino. Now, new research published this month in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology reveals that another ancient family may have had an unusual pet -- a bobcat they adorned with a necklace made from seashells and bone carved to look like bear teeth.

The bobcat, a juvenile, was found beneath a dirt dome on a bluff about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of St. Louis, Missouri. The dome was one of a group of 14 excavated in the early 1980s. At that time, the excavation found the remains of 22 people buried in a circular pattern around the tomb of an infant. Also found was the tomb of the bobcat, although at the time, scientists thought it was a dog. That's because the Hopewell -- the villagers who lived in the region 2,000 years ago and built the mounds -- did indeed practice canine burial.

At the time, the remains of the bobkitten and the necklace were put into a box labeled "puppy burial" that was stored at the Illinois State Museum.

That's where the box would sit for decades, until Angela Perri, a Ph.D. student at the University of Durham in the UK found it in 2011. Perri was interested in ancient dog burials and found the box while conducting research at the museum. "As soon as I saw the skull, I knew it was definitely not a puppy," Perri told Science magazine. "It was a cat of some kind."

Perri's research revealed that the bones in the box were indeed from a bobcat, probably aged between 4 and 7 months. She also found out that there were no signs of trauma on the skeleton, which means the animal was likely not sacrificed.

That, along with the careful way the skeleton was laid in the tomb, and the accompanying necklace -- which was likely some kind of decorative collar -- led her to conclude that the animal likely belonged to a family as a beloved pet, and might be one of the earliest instances ever found of wild animal domestication.

"It shocked me to my toes," Kenneth Farnsworth said of Perri's discovery. Farnsworth is a Hopewell expert at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign and a co-author on Perri's paper. "I've never seen anything like it in almost 70 excavated mounds," he added.

Because the mounds were meant for humans (dogs were typically buried in the village, not the mounds), the bobkitten must have belonged to a prominent family, Farnsworth said. "Somebody important must have convinced other members of the society that it must be done. I'd give anything to know why," he told Science.

Perri said the animal might have been orphaned and taken in the by the Hopewell family, as bobcats are known to be tameable.

"To our knowledge, this is the only decorated wild cat burial in the archaeological record," the researchers report in their paper's abstract. "It provides compelling evidence for a complex relationship between felids and humans in the prehistoric Americas, including possible taming."