A sacrificed spider monkey sheds new light on an ancient Mesoamerican relationship.
The remains of a 1,700-year-old ape found in the ancient city of Teotihuacan outside of modern-day Mexico City indicate that the primate was a diplomatic gift from the Maya. discovery Oldest evidence of primates being held in captivity in the Americasresearchers reported on November 21 at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The ape’s skeleton was discovered in 2018 at the base of a pyramid in Teotihuacan, alongside the carcasses of other animals — including an eagle and several rattlesnakes — in an area of the city where visiting Maya elites may have resided.
Evidence of animal sacrifices, including predators such as jaguars, has been found in the city before. “Up until that point, we hadn’t had any examples of primate sacrifice in Teotihuacan,” says Nawa Sugiyama, an anthropologist at the University of California, Riverside.
Chemical analysis of the spider monkey’s bones and teeth showed that the female was likely captured in a wet environment at a young age sometime in the third century. The monkey then lived in captivity for a few years before meeting its end between the years 250 and 300.
The highlands around Mexico City are a long way from the natural habitat of spider monkeys (Atelis Geoffroy), which require moist tropical forests to thrive. This fact, along with the presence of Maya murals and pots, suggests to Sugiyama and her colleagues that the spider monkey was a gift from the Maya elite to the Teotihuacan people.
This discovery is an example of diplomatic relations between two cultures that sometimes had violent interactions. Maya hieroglyphs indicated that military forces from Teotihuacan conquered the Maya city of Tikal in the year 378, marking the beginning of nearly 70 years. Teotihuacan intervened in Maya politics (SN: 10/22/21).
The “amazing” discovery of the ape shows that the relationship between these two cultures predated the invasion, says David Stewart, an archaeologist and writer at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved in the study.
“The War of 378 had a long history leading up to it,” he says. “The monkey is a really convincing example of this long relationship.”