This 1,700-year-old sacrificial monkey has a surprising tale

This 1,700-year-old sacrificial monkey has a surprising tale

The playful primate may have been a diplomatic gift to Teotihuacan from the Maya at a time of murky relations between the two powerful Mesoamerican groups.

Published November 21, 2022

7 min read

The life and death of a female monkey sacrificed some 1,700 years ago may provide important clues to the rise of one of the world’s most powerful ancient cities: Teotihuacan. Located in what is now Mexico, this power center influenced much of Mesoamerica in the first half of the first millennium A.D.

In a detailed study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an interdisciplinary group of researchers reconstruct the final years of the female spider monkey (Ateles geoffroy) based in part on evidence from its well-preserved skeleton, which was found in a cache of sacrificed animals in an area of Teotihuacan known as the Plaza of the Columns.

Spider monkeys are not native to Teotihuacan, located some 30 miles from modern Mexico City. Multidisciplinary experts from archaeology and biology collaborated to uncover more about the story of the spider monkey. The monkey was only five to eight years old when she died. She was also located some 000 miles from modern Mexico City. It is the first known evidence of the translocation and captivity in Mesoamerican primate world.

This is also the first complete skeleton of its kind found at the World Heritage site, which at its peak covered eight miles and was home to more than 100,000 people. Scientists believe the monkey was a diplomatic gift from the Maya to Teotihuacan during a time when relations between the city and the surrounding Mesoamerican regions were not well understood.

“This little story of one single spider monkey really brought out a lot of information about all sorts of inter-regional ties,” says lead author Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at University of California, Riverside.

Captivity and chili peppers

The skeleton of the spider monkey was discovered in a deposit beneath a mound in the Plaza of the Columns that also contained the complete remains of a golden eagle, the head of a puma, rattlesnakes, a few unidentified small birds, and stone and shell artifacts. Radiocarbon dating of objects in this deposit places it around A.D. 250-300.

While wild spider monkeys subsist primarily on a diet of fruits and nuts, chemical signatures in this monkey’s remains, as well as starch grains collected from its dental calculus (tooth plaque) indicate a big change in diet during its time in captivity. The monkey ate a lot of maize (corn), as well as grass, tubers, and even chili peppers in its final years. The young monkey shows extensive wear to its incisors, premolars, and teeth. This could indicate that the monkey chewed on a wooden restraint or cage.

Ritual caches of animal (and sometimes human) remains are known from elsewhere at Teotihuacan, where apex predators such as eagles, wolves, and jaguars were sacrificed to mark the “life and death” of important structures like pyramids, says Sugiyama.

“[The residents of Teotihuacan] considered their pyramids as sacred mountains,” she says. They are alive and breathing. When you ask for water, you can negotiate with them. So we should be understanding these offerings as animals that were meant to live inside of the mountain to protect the city as well.”

In this case, the monkey was part of an offering found adjacent to a structure destroyed ahead of the construction of a pyramid known as 25C. The hands and feet of the primate were bound, indicating that it was alive at the time it was sacrificed.

Friends or foes?

The novelty of the monkey discovery–as well as the context in which it was found–may help researchers better understand diplomatic relations between Teotihuacan and its neighbors during a time when the mysterious city was on the rise in Mesoamerica.

According to some Maya accounts, known collectively as the Entrada, Teotihuacan’s military was interfering Maya affairs by the end of the 4th century A.D. It is not known how the city was run, who was running it, and how fluid or one-sided the relations between Teotihuacan’s Maya kingdoms.

Recent excavations at the Plaza of the Columns, located between Teotihuacan’s famed Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, seem to indicate more multilateral relations between the Maya and Teotihuacan before the end of the fourth century, including an enormous, state-sanctioned feast. Held in the city sometime around A.D. 300-350, it likely involved Maya dignitaries and the creation of lush Maya-style murals that were ritually destroyed by 450.

Monkey diplomacy

Spider monkeys, now an endangered species, were abundant in parts of the Maya world. These charismatic, playful animals were often associated with the arts and made an appearance in fragments from the Teotihuacan-style murals.

Now, even before the grand feast at the Plaza of the Columns, it appears the Maya were bringing gifts strongly associated with their culture to the court of Teotihuacan in some sort of ritual exchange.

“Usually, the symbolism for animal sacrifices and these major offerings [at Teotihuacan] was tied to power and militarism, and spider monkeys just didn’t convey that,” says archaeologist David Carballo of Boston University, who has excavated in the Plaza of Columns but was not a part of the current research. He suggests that the Maya-style murals, and very Maya monkey, are an attempt to tie Teotihuacan to certain Maya entities. This was before relations between them apparently soured in fourth century.

Sugiyama also points to a famous 20th-century moment in animal diplomacy to explain how a charismatic creature can warm relations between potential adversaries: the gifting of pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing from China to the United States during the Nixon era.

“That was a very intentional tool on the Chinese part to completely, radically change the image, of what China was,” Sugiyama says. It was a success. I mean, panda diplomacy is really something that’s been executed many times over and we’re still awed by them.

“It still lingers long in our memory, even though it was just two pandas,” the archaeologist adds, “and two major powerhouses in the world.”

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