Finding Connections Bobcats and Native Americans Title

Photo Credit: Sean via Flickr

As common as the domestic cat is today in North America, it can be hard to believe that the creature was once unheard of here. The cats that we all know and love were imported to North America as European explorers and settlers came over. However, there are a few cats that are native to North America including the cougar, the Canadian Lynx, the jaguar, and the bobcat. Each of these powerful hunters held a place of significance in Native American culture. With recent discoveries, bobcats may have had more significance than anyone has ever known!

What are Bobcats?

Bobcats are one of the smaller wild cats, weighing around 11 – 30 pounds (5 – 13.6 kg). The name bobcat comes from their short tail which looks as if it had been “bobbed.” Quite often people mistake the bobcat for a lynx. The two cats are similar in color, body proportions, and both a ruff of fur around their faces. One main difference is that the tip of a lynx’s tail is black all the way around and bobcat’s tail is black on top and white on the bottom. Scientifically, the bobcat is sometimes categorized as a variety of lynx and other times it is not.

The bobcat is a solitary hunter. Their diet consists mostly of rabbit, but can include rodents, bats, beaver, deer, and more. At one time, it is believed that the bobcat was common all throughout North America. However, the hunting of these cats for their pelts pushed them out of the mid-western United States.

An Important Discovery

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A 3-4 week old bobkitten. Photo Credit: National Park Service via Flickr

Archeologists are still learning quite a bit about the Native American people, their culture, and how they lived. In the 1980’s an ancient Native American burial ground in Illinois was excavated in a hurry to keep the artifacts from being destroyed in a highway project that was scheduled to come through the area. It was a burial ground belonging to the Hopewell people, a complex people whose territory stretched from Illinois to Florida. Among the things found were various bones from human skeletons (both adult and child) as well as one animal that was labeled as a dog. The dog was wearing a collar made of bear teeth and shells. The Hopewell people were known to keep dogs as pets.

Recently, a zooarchaeologist and P.H.D. student, Angela Perri, was reexamining the artifacts found in the Hopewell burial mounds for her study on ancient dog burials. Looking at the teeth of the “dog” skeleton, she knew right away that this was not a dog – it was a cat. She compared the skeleton to those of known wild cats that are native to North America and it was a match to a young bobcat. The bobcat was probably 5-7 months of age.

Perri’s find was a very important one. The bobcat did not appear to have been a sacrifice, but rather it was gently placed in its grave with it’s paws together. It appeared that not only was this bobcat placed in mound reserved for humans (dogs were buried elsewhere), but it was done in a ritual way. This is the first recorded example of a cat being buried with Native Americans. It is still not known why the Hopewell people chose to bury this bobcat this way. Due to financial issues affecting museums in Illinois, the research may never be completed.

Native American Legends about Bobcats

Bobcat at Sonny Bono NWR-5

Photo Credit: Pacific Southwest Region USFWS via Flickr

The Hopewell people were not the only Native Americans to interact with bobcats. Bobcats have a role in Native American legends and mythology. Often the term “bobcat” is used interchangeably with “lynx.” The bobcat is compared to the coyote. They represent opposite sides of the same coin in Native American lore. Bobcats represent fog while coyotes represent wind. Bobcats were revered for their hunting skills and ability to see in the dark. Some believed that bobcats could see the real person behind the mask.

An Apache legend shows a bobcat outwiting a cocky coyote. The coyote wants to play a game with the bobcat in which they scratch each other’s backs to see who scratches harder. The bobcat retracts his claws and convinces the coyote that it wouldn’t be a fair game because his claws are so short. Of course, the coyote sees this as an easy win and wants to play even more. They coyote first scratches the back of the bobcat who pretends to be in great pain. When the coyote turns his back for the bobcat, the bobcat extends his claws and easily rips through the coyote’s flesh to win the game.

The Blackfoot people have a legend about how the bobcat got its look. They say that an old man fell asleep after having roasted some prairie dogs to eat. He had told his nose that he had to wake him up if anyone tried to steal his food. As a bobcat approached the food on the fire, the old man’s nose tried to wake him up, but he wouldn’t wake. The bobcat ate all of the food. When the old man woke up and saw his food gone, he was angry at his nose for not waking him and he hunted down the bobcat. As a punishment for stealing his food, the old man pulled off the bobcat’s tail, flattened his face, and stretched out his body.

The Shawnee people say the bobcat got his spots after being tricked by a rabbit. The bobcat was hunting a rabbit that ran up a tree. The rabbit convinces the bobcat to build a fire to smoke him out of the tree. While building the fire, the bobcat is burned and the embers scatter across his body leaving all of the spots.

What is your favorite thing about bobcats?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Ancient Native Americans May Have Had Pet Bobcat  – Live Science

A Bobcat Burial and Other Reported Intentional Animal Burials from Illinois Hopewell Mounds – Angela R. Perri

Ancient Bobcat Buried Like A Human Being  – Science Magazine

Badger Carries Darkness: Coyote and Bobcat Scratch Eachother – First People

Florida Bobcat Bio and Facts – Jacksonville Zoo

Blackfoot: Bobcat and Birch Tree – University of Oklahoma

Bobcat Facts – Big Cat Rescue