The Mayan people inhabited the Yucatán Peninsula from 2500BC to 1550AD. The basic principles of the Mayan religion were adapted from the Olmec and Teotihuacan people, prior to the seventh century AD. The Mayans viewed the natural world, along with all that was a part of it, as a continuation of the sky-world above and the underworld below. The jaguar was believed to be a gatekeeper who could move between the natural world and the underworld at will.
The significance of the jaguar to Mayan culture is evidenced in the art, literature and architecture of this ancient people. Ancient tales speak of the jaguar as a shape-shifter, as well as a companion to Mayan priests or Shaman. Temples such as the Jaguar Sun, the Temple of the Dream Jaguar and the Temple of the Grand Jaguar can be found throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. These temples feature complex jaguar masks, carved into the temple walls as permanent parts of the architecture.
Mayan jaguar masks were made of a variety of materials. Complex mosaic masks were often inlaid with jade and turquoise, along with other colourful stones. Jaguar masks were also made of obsidian, carved stone, wood or shell. Gold masks were made for priests and royalty, as well as for use in the temple or during religious occasions.
Jaguar masks were commonly used in funerary and burial rituals, to cover the faces of the dead. These masks were often intricately designed and featured brightly coloured mosaic stonework. Simpler masks were used for entertainment purposes and were worn at feasts and communal celebrations. The Mayans did not have metal tools, so masks were made with simple hand-tools constructed of bone, animal parts, stone, soil and wood.
Aside from the religious symbolism of the jaguar, the animal was viewed as a fierce warrior by the Mayan people. Killing a jaguar was seen as a way for a boy to enter into manhood. Mayan warriors often wore jaguar masks when engaging in battle. It is not known whether the masks were meant to prevent physical injury to the warrior. Some scholars believe that the masks were worn by Mayan warriors in order to frighten enemies, while others believe that they were worn purely because of the religious association.
Authentic jaguar masks, as with most Mayan artworks, are generally believed to date back to the early Classic Period of Mayan history. This era occurred between 250AD and 1000AD. In June of 2002, however, archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli discovered a Mayan mask dating back to what he believes is between 200 to 150BC. This would place the age of the mask in the pre-classic era of Mayan history. The mask, a replica of the Mayan sun-god, would be the oldest Mayan mask yet discovered. Excavations of pre-classic Mayan cities such as El Mirador, where the Mayan "Jaguar King" is thought to be buried, may produce jaguar masks as old as, or even older than, the sun-god mask.