The skeletal remains of a 1,700-year-old spider monkey found in Teotihuacán, Mexico point to the earliest evidence of primate captivity, and gift diplomacy between Teotihuacán and Mayan elite.
Researchers now have a new proof of the social-political ties between Teotihuacán and the Maya Indigenous monarchs, two ancient powers that were once regarded as exotic curiosities in pre-Hispanic Mexico, thanks to the discovery of the full skeleton remains of a spider monkey.
Nawa Sugiyama, an anthropological archaeologist from UC Riverside, and a group of archaeologists and anthropologists who have been working at the Plaza of Columns Complex in Teotihuacán, Mexico, since 2015, made the discovery. Along with thousands of Maya-style mural fragments and more than 14,000 ceramic sherds from a lavish feast, the carcasses of other creatures were also found. These artifacts date back more than 1,700 years.
The spider monkey is the earliest evidence of Teotihuacán and Maya primate confinement, transfer, and gift diplomacy. The findings will be published in the journal PNAS. This discovery lets scholars to piece together evidence of high diplomacy connections and disproves the notion that Maya presence in Teotihuacán was limited to migrant communities, as stated by the study’s leader, Sugiyama.
“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over, it was a place where people came to exchange goods, property, and ideas. It was a place of innovation,” adds Sugiyama. “Finding the spider monkey has allowed us to discover reassigned connections between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders. The spider monkey brought to life this dynamic space, depicted in the mural art. It’s exciting to reconstruct this live history.”
Researchers used a multimethod archaeometric approach to document the life of this female spider monkey (zooarchaeology, isotopes, ancient DNA, paleobotany, and radiocarbon dating). At the time of death, the animal was probably between 5 and 8 years old.
Its skeleton remains were discovered alongside a golden eagle and many rattlesnakes, surrounded by rare artifacts like beautiful greenstone figures made of jade from Guatemala’s Motagua Valley, plentiful shell/snail items, and lavish obsidian products like swords and projectile points. According to the researchers, this is compatible with evidence of live sacrifice of symbolically powerful animals engaging in state rites discovered in Moon and Sun Pyramid dedicatory caches.
Upper and lower canine teeth indicate the spider monkey in Teotihuacán consumed maize and chili peppers, among other foods. Bone chemistry can reveal dietary and environmental information, and it shows at least two years of captivity. Before it came to Teotihuacán, it lived in a damp place and ate mostly plants and roots.
Sugiyama’s research is supported mostly by funds from the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Teotihuacán is a pre-Hispanic city that welcomes over three million tourists each year.
In addition to the study of ancient rituals and the discovery of historical artifacts, the discovery allows for the reconstruction of larger narratives, shedding light on how these powerful, advanced societies dealt with social and political stressors that are very similar to those in the modern world, according to Sugiyama.
“This helps us understand principles of diplomacy, to understand how urbanism developed … and how it failed,” Sugiyama adds. “Teotihuacán was a successful system for over 500 years, understanding past resilience, its strengths and weaknesses are relevant in today’s society. There are many similarities then and now. Lessons can be seen and modeled from past societies; they provide us with cues as we go forward.”
Image Credit: Nawa Sugiyama, UC Riverside