Megalodon tooth
An enormous tooth from the extinct megalodon shark (left) inspired images and sculptures of sea monsters in inland Maya civilisation, where people would not have seen a live shark. It is compared with the tooth of a great white shark (centre) and a bull shark (right) Sarah Newman

Sharks and sea monsters were feared throughout the Maya civilisation, even by people living in the middle of the jungle who had almost certainly never even seen a living shark, a new study finds.

Relics and representations of sharks and shark-like sea monsters have been found hundreds of kilometres inland in the interior of the Yucatán Peninsula, according to the study published in the journal Antiquity.

Bits of sharks – meat and teeth – would have been transported inland, and people far from the sea pieced together what these sea creatures would have looked like from the remnants they saw and the stories of travellers, argues study author Sarah Newman of James Madison University in the US.

Remnants of sharks, especially durable teeth, have been found in inland Mesoamerica dating back to 1700 BCE.

The teeth were also used as spiritual offerings. Fossil teeth from an enormous extinct shark species - Carcharocles megalodon, which measured up to 18 metres long – were found at a temple in the city of Palenque, in modern-day Mexico.

Mesoamerican shark picture
An Early Classic tetrapod plate shows a highly stylised version of a shark, emphasising a single, central tooth. Sarah Newman, James Doyle

"Megalodon teeth are nearly three times the size of those from modern great white sharks and roughly five times the size of an average bull shark's teeth," Newman writes in the study.

The idea of sharks was incorporated into art in the area from the First Millennium BCE to the 15th Century CE. However, as the inland Maya people may only have seen one tooth at a time, their artistic representations of sharks were also single-toothed.

"The Maya in the jungles of Chiapas may have logically suspected that enormous, single-toothed sharks continued to dominate the seas," Newman says.

"The Maya conceptualised, commodified and experienced sharks – both real and fantastical – in ways that simultaneously maintained a sense of wonder with natural phenomena, while serving grander cosmic purposes," she says.

"It is little wonder that these and other shark teeth – in the case of megalodon, each one larger than the span of an average adult man's hand – captured the Maya imagination and became prominent attributes of gods and monsters."

Shark teeth
A collection of shark teeth and other relics found together in El Zotz, Petén, Guatemala, dating from about 650-750 BCE Sarah Newman, Stephen Houston