Skeletal remains of a 1,700-year-old spider monkey found in Teotihuacan, Mexico point to the earliest evidence of primate captivity and gift diplomacy between Teotihuacan and Maya elites.
Researchers now have new evidence of socio-political ties between the indigenous monarchs of Teotihuacan and the Maya, two ancient powers once considered exotic curiosities in pre-Hispanic Mexico, thanks to the discovery of the complete skeletal remains of a spider monkey.
Nawa Sugiyama, an anthropological archaeologist from UC Riverside, and a team of archaeologists and anthropologists who have been working on the Plaza Columns Complex in Teotihuacan, Mexico since 2015, made the discovery. Along with thousands of Mayan-style wall paintings and more than 14,000 ceramic shards from a lavish feast, the remains of other creatures have also been found. These artifacts date back more than 1,700 years.
The spider monkey is the earliest evidence of Teotihuacan and Maya primate capture, relocation, and gift diplomacy. The results will be published in the journal PNAS. The discovery allows scientists to piece together evidence of high diplomatic ties and refutes the idea that the Maya were limited to migrant communities in Teotihuacan, according to Sugiyama, the head of the study.
“Teotihuacan 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 allowed us to uncover redefined connections between Teotihuacan and Mayan leaders. A spider monkey brought this dynamic space to life, depicted in wall art. It’s exciting to recreate this living history.”
The researchers used a multimethod archaeometric approach (zooarchaeology, isotopes, ancient DNA, paleobotany, and radiocarbon dating) to document the life of this female spider monkey. The animal was probably 5-8 years old at the time of death.
His skeletal remains were discovered alongside a golden eagle and many rattlesnakes, surrounded by rare artifacts such as beautiful greenstone figures made of jade from Guatemala’s Motagua Valley, many shell/snail objects, and fancy obsidian items such as swords and projectile points. According to the researchers, this is consistent with evidence of live sacrifices of symbolically powerful animals involved in state rites discovered in the dedicatory vaults of the Pyramid of the Moon and the Sun.
Upper and lower canine teeth indicate that the spider monkey at Teotihuacan ate corn and chili peppers, among other foods. Bone chemistry can reveal information about diet and environment and indicates at least two years in captivity. Before coming to Teotihuacan, he lived in a humid place and ate mainly plants and roots.
Sugiyama’s research is supported primarily by funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Teotihuacan is a pre-Hispanic city that welcomes more than three million tourists each year.
Along with the study of ancient rituals and the discovery of historical artifacts, the discovery allows for the reconstruction of larger narratives and sheds light on how these powerful, advanced societies coped with social and political stressors very similar to those in the modern world. , according to Sugiyama.
“It helps us understand the principles of diplomacy, how urbanism develops and how it fails,” adds Sugiyama. “Teotihuacan was a successful system for more than 500 years, understanding its past resilience, its strengths and weaknesses that are relevant in today’s society. There are many similarities between then and now. Lessons can be seen and modeled from past societies; they give us instructions as we move forward.”
Image credit: Nawa Sugiyama, UC Riverside