To strengthen bonds, the ancient Maya gave their neighbors a spider monkey as a gift

To strengthen bonds, the ancient Maya gave their neighbors a spider monkey as a gift


Seventeen hundred years ago, a female spider monkey was presented as a valuable gift — and later brutally sacrificed — to strengthen ties between two great powers of pre-Hispanic America, according to a new study.

The paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), compared the Mayan elites’ offer to Teotihuacan to China’s panda diplomacy that accompanied the normalization of Sino-US relations in the 1970s.

Using multiple techniques — including ancient DNA extraction, radiocarbon dating, and chemical nutrition analysis — the researchers were able to reconstruct the primate’s life and death, and found that she was likely between five and eight years old when buried alive.

“It’s such an exciting time to be doing archeology because the methodology is finally here,” lead author Nawa Sugiyama, of the University of California, Riverside, told AFP.

The work began with Sugiyama’s surprising discovery in 2018 of the animal’s remains at the ruins of Teotihuacan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the arid Mexican highlands.

Spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) are not native to the high altitudes, which puzzles Sugiyama: what was the animal doing there, who brought it, and why was it sacrificed?

Important clues came from the location of the remains. Teotihuacan (pronounced tay-uh-tee-waa-kaan), located 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Mexico City, was an important site of cultural exchange and innovation in classical Mesoamerica.

It is perhaps best known for the Pyramids of the Moon, the Sun and the Plumed Serpent. But there’s growing interest in another monument called the Plaza of the Columns, a complex where the neighboring Maya maintained a presence akin to a modern-day embassy.

– Feasts, Treasures and Murals –

The ape’s skeletal remains were found at the complex alongside a golden eagle – still a symbol of Mexico today – and surrounded by a collection of valuable items, including obsidian projectile tips, conch shells and gemstone artifacts.

Also discovered were over 14,000 shards of pottery from a major festival, as well as a Mayan mural depicting the spider monkey.

This, Sugiyama said, was further evidence of an exchange that took place at the highest level and predated the later rise of the Teotihuacan state and military involvement in Maya cities around AD 378.

Results of chemical analyzes using two canine teeth that erupted at different times in the monkeys’ lives indicate that prior to their captivity, they lived in a humid environment and ate plants and roots.

After being captured and brought to Teotihuacan, their diet was closer to that of humans, including corn and chili peppers.

The spider monkey may have been “an exotic oddity alien to the Teotihuacan highlands,” Sugiyama and colleagues wrote, with the fact that she was a fellow primate possibly contributing to her charisma and appeal.

Ultimately, the animal met a gruesome death: “Hands tied behind the back and tied feet indicate an open-air burial, which is common for human and animal sacrifices in Teotihuacan,” the authors wrote.

While it’s wild to modern eyes, “we need to understand and put into context these cultural practices… and what it means to be able to give up what’s most precious to you,” Sugiyama said.

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