1700-Year-Old Mayan Sacrificial Monkey

1700-Year-Old Mayan Sacrificial Monkey

When the Maya and Teotihuacan had tense relations, the playful primate may have been a diplomatic gift in form of a Mayan sacrificial monkey from the Maya to Teotihuacan.

One of the most crucial clues to the growth of Teotihuacan, one of the most important ancient cities in the world, may be found in the life and death of a female monkey sacrificed some 1,700 years ago. In the first half of the first millennium A.D., this power center, which was situated in what is now Mexico, had a significant impact on most of Mesoamerica.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers reconstructs the last years of the female spider monkey (Ateles geoffroy) in a thorough study that was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The well-preserved skeleton of the spider monkey was discovered in a cache of sacrificed animals in the Plaza of the Columns area of Teotihuacan.

teotihuacan pyramid of the sun 1930
The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan as it appeared in the 1930s. At the site of one of the biggest towns in ancient America, archaeologists have found a vast number of sacrifices, many of which included predators like wolves and eagles.

Teotihuacan, which is around 30 miles from contemporary Mexico City, is not a native home to spider monkeys. More of the story of the monkey was revealed by a multidisciplinary investigation that included experts in archaeology, biology, geology, and ancient DNA: The female monkey, who was no older than five to eight years old at the time of death, was born in an unnamed lowland area outside of Teotihuacan and had spent at least two years in captivity there. It is regarded as the oldest instance of a primate being moved and kept in captivity in Mesoamerica.

At the World Heritage site, which at its height covered eight kilometers and was home to more than 100,000 people, this is also the first full skeleton of its sort to be discovered. Researchers speculate that the monkey may have been a diplomatic gift to Teotihuacan from Maya officials during a time when it is unclear how Teotihuacan’s relations with the other regions of Mesoamerica changed as the city grew more and more powerful.

According to main author Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at University of California, Riverside, “this little story of one single spider monkey actually brought out a lot of information about all types of inter-regional linkages.”

Mayan Sacrificial Monkey Captivity and Chili Peppers

skeletal remains of a golden eagle and mayan sacrificial spider monkey Teotihuacan
In a sacrifice cache in Teotihuacan, complete skeleton remains of a golden eagle (left) and a spider monkey (right) dating to about A.D. 250 and 300 were discovered.

In the Plaza of the Columns, a deposit that also included the full remains of a golden eagle, the head of a puma, rattlesnakes, a few unidentified tiny birds, and stone and shell artifacts was where the skeleton of the spider monkey was found. Objects in the deposit that have undergone radiocarbon dating place it between A.D. 250 and 300.

While fruits and nuts make up the majority of the food of wild spider monkeys, chemical traces in this monkey’s bones and starch grains extracted from its dental calculus (tooth plaque) suggest a significant shift in nutrition during its stay in captivity. In its later years, the monkey mostly consumed maize (corn), along with grass, tubers, and even chili peppers. The juvenile monkey’s incisors and premolars show extensive damage, possibly from constant gnawing on a wooden cage or confinement.

Apex creatures like eagles, wolves, and jaguars were slaughtered at Teotihuacan as part of ritual ceremonies to symbolize the “life and death” of significant structures like pyramids, according to Sugiyama.

She explains that “[the people of Teotihuacan] considered their pyramids to be sacred mountains.” “They’re breathing and living. When you ask for water, you bargain with them. Therefore, we should consider these contributions to be creatures intended to reside inside the mountain to safeguard the city as well.

In this instance, the monkey was a piece of an offering discovered close to a building that had been leveled before the construction of a pyramid known as 25C. The fact that the primate’s hands and feet were tied together suggests that it was still alive when it was sacrificed.

Friends or foes?

Teotihuacan’s Avenue of the Dead, as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon 1987
A photograph taken in 1987 shows the Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan as seen from the Pyramid of the Moon. The monkey sacrifice was discovered in the still-unexcavated Plaza of the Columns, which is across from the Pyramid of the Sun (right).

Researchers may be able to better comprehend diplomatic connections between Teotihuacan and its neighbors at a time when the mystery city was growing in Mesoamerica thanks to the novelty of the monkey discovery and the environment in which it was made.

By the end of the 4th century A.D., the military of Teotihuacan was meddling in Maya affairs, according to various Maya tales collectively referred to as the Entrada. However, nothing is known about the administration of the city, its leaders, or even the nature of interactions between Teotihuacan and the Maya kingdoms.

More multilateral relations between the Maya and Teotihuacan appear to have existed before the end of the fourth century, including a sizable, state-sanctioned feast, according to recent excavations at the Plaza of the Columns, which is situated between Teotihuacan’s renowned Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. It was probably held in the city between the years A.D. 300 and 350 and probably involved Maya nobility and the construction of elaborate murals that were ritually destroyed by the year 450.

Mayan Sacrificial Monkey Diplomacy

In some areas of the Maya world, spider monkeys were common despite being an endangered species today. The charming, amusing animals were linked to the arts and regularly appeared in Maya iconography; they even showed up in pieces of the Teotihuacan murals that were destroyed in the Maya manner.

Now, it appears the Maya were bringing gifts strongly identified with their culture to the court of Teotihuacan in some form of ritual exchange long before the lavish feast at the Plaza of the Columns.

Spider monkeys didn’t represent the usual strength and militarism associated with animal sacrifices and these significant offerings [at Teotihuacan], according to archaeologist David Carballo of Boston University, who has excavated in the Plaza of Columns but was not involved in the current study. He hypothesizes that Teotihuacan’s Maya-inspired murals and distinctive monkey were an attempt to link the city to specific Maya entities before things between the two reportedly worsened in the later fourth century.

Sugiyama also used the gifting of the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing from China to the United States during the Nixon era as an example of how charismatic animals can improve relations between prospective enemies.

According to Sugiyama, “it was a very planned instrument on the side of the Chinese to utterly, radically transform the picture, of what China was.” “And it actually was successful. In fact, panda diplomacy has been successfully used numerous times, yet we continue to remain in awe of them.

The archaeologist continues, “It still stays long in our consciousness, even if it was just two pandas and two great world powers.”

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