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.

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. A multidisciplinary study, drawing on experts in archaeology, biology, geology, and ancient DNA, revealed more of the monkey’s tale: No more than five to eight years old at death, the female monkey, was born in a yet-determined lowland region outside Teotihuacan, and had spent at least two years in captivity in the arid highlands. Researchers consider it the earliest known evidence for the translocation and captivity of a primate in the Mesoamerican 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 suggest the monkey may have been a diplomatic gift to Teotihuacan from Maya leaders in a period when relations between the increasingly powerful city and surrounding regions in Mesoamerica are little 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 the deposit place it at 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 spent its final years eating mostly maize (corn) as well as grass, tubers—and even chili peppers. Extensive wear on the young monkey’s incisors and premolars suggests consistent gnawing, perhaps on a wooden cage or restraint.

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're alive and breathing. You negotiate with them when you petition for water. 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 primate’s hands were bound and feet tethered, suggesting it was alive at the time of sacrifice.

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. But little is known how the city itself was run or who was running it, or even how one-sided or fluid relations between Teotihuacan and the Maya kingdoms actually were.

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. The charismatic, playful animals were associated with the arts and appeared frequently in Maya iconography—even making an appearance in fragments of the destroyed Maya-style murals at Teotihuacan.

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 the Maya-style murals and very Maya monkey reflects an effort to tie Teotihuacan in some way to certain Maya entities before relations between the two apparently soured in the later 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. “And it really did succeed. 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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