Megalodon is the extinct species of giant shark that is considered to be at the top of everyone’s all-time greatest predator list. Its name in ancient Greek means “big tooth” because big tooth fossils are the primary proof of its existence. The Megalodon tooth is even the state fossil of North Carolina. Now, scientists believe a Megalodon tooth may have spawned the Mayan creation story of Sipak or Cipactli, the giant sea monster whose dead body formed the land mass that the Mayan culture began on. That’s some tooth!
Mayan iconography is notoriously difficult to piece out, but you can see [the monster] is a fairly realistic representation of a shark with a bifurcated tail, and it has jagged jaws — but it does have that one central tooth.
James Madison University archeologist Sarah Newman explains her Megalodon-tooth-to-Mayan-sea-monster in a recent paper entitled Sharks in the Jungle: real and imagined sea monsters of the Maya in the journal Antiquity. She begins with the discovery of Megalodon fossils at a number of ancient Mayan religious and cultural sites, including 13 at Palenque alone. She then points out that many Mayan depictions of Sipak have a single giant tooth that looks very much like a giant Megalodon tooth. Is there a connection?
And then I started thinking about how those people in the interior would have made sense of these things that are coming in from the coast, which they might not have seen themselves.
The Yucatan peninsula is surrounded on three sides by water and many Mayan cities were on the coast, but many more were inland where sharks and other marine animals were unknown. Seeing the strange giant teeth of sharks caused the residents of inland cities to imagine the aquatic beasts they came from and to subsequently incorporated them into their mythology. Offering bowls found in temples often contained shark teeth and the word for sharks – “xook” – was used in the names of some Mayan kings and queens, like Yax Ehb Xook.
The rarest of the shark teeth were the giant fossils from the Megalodon, so it was only natural that the landlocked Mayans believed this monster had just one long mysterious tooth. That giant tooth was also attributed to other gods – a blood-drinking version of the Mayan Sun God uses a single giant tooth as an opener – so it’s natural that the trait got incorporated into the sea monster Sipak of the creation myth, says Newman.
The argument in the paper is that the Maya are doing a version of our own ideas about natural history, where they are combining physical evidence that they find with myths that they also [regard as] true, and making sense of the world that way.
This means that the Mayans were probably the first to link the giant tooth to sharks, long before the Europeans did.
Once again, the Mayans prove their civilization was more advanced than the rest of the world.