The skeleton of a spider monkey ritually sacrificed 1,700 years ago offers a window into the complex geopolitics of the Mesoamerican region at the time. A new analysis, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the monkey was a gift from the Maya to Teotihuacán during a period of peace and diplomacy before the two groups ultimately clashed.
“This little story of one single spider monkey really brought out a lot of information about all sorts of inter-regional ties,” says study co-author Nawa Sugiyama, an archaeologist at the University of California Riverside, to National Geographic’s Kristin Romey.
Archaeologists discovered the skeleton in 2018 while digging beneath a Plaza of the Columns pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacán, located roughly 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in central Mexico. At the same time, they also unearthed a trove of jewelry, figurines, obsidian knives, arrowheads and other animal bones, including those of a puma and a golden eagle.
Researchers were surprised to find the monkey skeleton at the site, because those creatures didn’t live in the dry environment around Teotihuacán. They did, however, live among the trees in the Maya territory roughly 800 miles to the east.
Intrigued, they conducted a comprehensive analysis of the animal’s teeth and bones to see if they would reveal how and why it ended up in Teotihuacán. Their findings suggest the animal was a female spider monkey between the ages of 5 and 8 years old at the time of its death.
The researchers believe humans captured the monkey when it was around 3 years old in a humid environment—most likely part of the Maya territory—then transported it somewhere drier, like Teotihuacán. Its diet evolved from figs, fruits and other foods that grew wild in the forest to agricultural crops like arrowroot, maize and chili peppers.
They suspect the animal lived in captivity for around two years—where it chewed on its wooden cage—before Teotihuacán residents bound its hands and feet, then buried it alive around 300 C.E. The animal is the earliest recorded instance of primate captivity and relocation in the Americas, according to the researchers.
Taken together, the findings suggest the Maya gave the monkey to Teotihuacán as a gift during a period of friendly relations about which scientists know very little. Researchers compared the exchange to a more modern example of animals as diplomatic tools: China’s gifting of pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing to the United States in 1972.
“Panda diplomacy is really something that's been executed many times over and we're still awed by them,” Sugiyama tells National Geographic. “It still lingers long in our memory, even though it was just two pandas and two major powerhouses in the world.”
But an alternative scenario paints a grimmer picture: The Teotihuacán may have conquered Maya cities, capturing the monkey—as well as members of Maya royalty—in the process.
From 1 to 550 C.E., Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the world, brimming with markets, pyramids and housing for an estimated 100,000 inhabitants. The Maya, meanwhile, lived farther east in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala and northern Belize.
Researchers have discovered evidence that suggests the two civilizations were in contact with each other and traded goods. At Teotihuacán, for instance, archaeologists have unearthed murals featuring Maya gods, symbols and mythological creatures, as well as rooms full of Maya pottery. They believe Maya leaders may have stayed in those buildings when they visited Teotihuacán.
“[These] two big population centers would know of each other, and would occasionally be going back and forth, sending people talking to each other,” says Ashley Sharpe, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who was not involved with the study, to Science’s Bridget Alex.
But archaeologists say the amiable relationship ended sometime between 350 to 400 C.E., when evidence of Teotihuacán military presence in Maya lands appears. The monkey skeleton—and what it reveals about the relationship between the two great powers—helps researchers begin to piece together how “powerful, advanced societies dealt with social and political stressors that very much reflect today’s world,” according to a statement.