Researchers have found the earliest evidence demonstrating that Maya civilization raised and traded dogs and other animals for use in religious ceremonies some 2,500 years ago.

The team, led by archaeologist Ashley Sharpe from Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, studied ancient bones and teeth unearthed from Ceibal, one of the oldest Maya ceremonial sites in Guatemala. The remains belonged to dogs, turkeys, and cats from the middle Pre-classic period, which is sometime around 700-350 BC.

They tested carbon isotope levels in the bones to see whether the animals in question were domesticated. Higher carbon isotopes meant the animal had a domesticated corn-rich diet, while lower isotopes meant it fed on wild-plants throughout its lifetime.

The study revealed all of the dogs and one of the big cats fed on corn or corn-eating animals, while the other cats, including the second big one, fed on wild-plants and were probably not domesticated.

But that’s not just it. The group even witnessed 44 of the 46 sets of animal remains belonged to Ceibal and the surrounding southern lowlands region but two other animal remains, excavated from hidden deep pits at the heart of the ancient ceremonial site, came from a farther and much drier, mountainous region. The same pit also had the remains of the corn-feeding large cat, possibly a jaguar.

This suggests some of the animals might have been raised for ceremonial purposes in the Mesoamerican civilization, unlike Asia, Africa and Europe where animal management played a major role in the development of cities over last 9,000 years.

"This is the first evidence from the Americas of dogs being moved around the landscape," Sharpe said in a statement. "Around 1000 A.D. there's evidence that dogs were moved out to islands in the Caribbean, but the Ceibal remains are dated at about 400 B.C."

That said, the work posits Maya civilization started animal trading and management some 2,500 years ago and intensified it further throughout the Classic period during which the animals might have been used for ceremonies involving sacrifices — animal as well as human.

Though the effort wasn’t directly related to development like in other cultures, it might have bolstered the political and economic scene during that time, leading to the development of the Maya civilization.

"It's interesting to consider whether humans may have had a greater impact managing and manipulating animal species in ancient Mesoamerica than has been believed," Sharpe added. "Studies like this one are beginning to show that animals played a key role in ceremonies and demonstrations of power, which perhaps drove animal-rearing and trade."

The work, funded by multiple organizations including the National Science Foundation, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.