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1,700-Year-Old Monkey Remains Give Insight to Ancient Cultures

According to the Maya and Teotihuacán of Mesoamerica, spider monkeys are the trick to diplomacy.

By Sam Walters
Nov 25, 2022 2:00 PM
Spider Monkey Remains
(Credit: Nawa Sugiyama, UC Riverside)


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Powerful people have a history of gifting animals — and especially exotic animals — to their peers as a symbol of their power and their friendship. And a recent discovery provides novel insights into this tradition between the Teotihuacán and the Maya.

A new paper published in PNAS states that a 1,700-year-old spider monkey skeleton found inside an ancient administrative complex in Mexico reveals the relationship between the two neighboring cultures.

Monkeying Around

For almost 10 years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists has been hard at work at the Plaza of Columns Complex in the ceremonial precinct of Teotihuacán, an ancient city in the south of Mexico famous for its towering pyramids. There, the team has uncovered thousands of fragments from foreign-style murals and thousands of shards of ceramics from colossal celebrations and feasts, all over 1,700 years old and indicative of frequent interactions with other cultures.

“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over,” says Saburo Sugiyama, a study author and archaeologist at Arizona State University, according to a press release. “It was a place where people came to exchange goods, property and ideas. It was a place of innovation.”

Now, the team has found the remains of an ancient spider monkey, a curious animal alien to the region around Teotihuacán, inside the Plaza of Columns Complex. Applying an assortment of archaeometric methods to these remains, the team ultimately surmised that the monkey came from the Maya, a civilization concentrated near the city of Teotihuacán and noted for its art, architecture and astronomical wisdom (as well as its own towering temples).

Read more: The Lost World of the Maya is Finally Emerging From the Jungle

According to the team, the remains represent the first known instance of the captivity, transportation and passing of primates between the people of Teotihuacán and the Maya. They also allow for a better understanding of the ties that bound these two cultures together.

“This helps us understand principles of diplomacy,” Sugiyama says, according to a press release. “Finding the spider monkey has allowed us to discover […] connections between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders.”

Solving Monkey Mysteries

To discover details about the spider monkey, the team applied a variety of approaches, including archaeological analysis, DNA assessment and carbon dating. These all revealed that the monkey, which was not native to the area, lived between 5 and 8 years old around 1,700 years ago.

Additional investigation of the monkey’s teeth revealed that the diet of the animal transitioned from leaves and roots to maize and chili peppers once it was captured, which resulted in a period of captivity that lasted two years at least.

Most importantly, the team states that the age of the specimen and the artifacts that surrounded the specimen, including Maya-style mural and pottery scraps, indicate that the non-native monkey came from diplomats from the neighboring culture.

The remains were also identified alongside the skeletons of an eagle and several rattlesnakes, as well as projectiles and other artifacts made of shell, jade and obsidian. This, the team says, may suggest that the people of Teotihuacán killed the monkey as an animal sacrifice in an important city ritual or ceremony.

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