Per a statement, the roughly 2,000-year-old remains likely belonged to rhesus macaques imported from India as household pets during the first and second century A.D., when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. The researchers also identified bones from the bonnet macaque, a smaller monkey native to the same region.
Prior to the 3-D scanning that facilitated the bones’ identification, scientists thought the skeletons belonged to the guenon monkey family, which is commonly found in the area.
“This is a unique find. Until now, no one has found Indian monkeys at archaeological sites in Africa,” says Marta Osypińska, a zooarchaeologist at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Poznań, in the statement. “When Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, we believe that the wealthy Romans who stayed in Berenice, a distant outpost, … wanted to spend time in the company of various animals. Among them were monkeys.”
Transporting animals from India to Egypt was no simple task, the zooarchaeologist adds: The journey across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea took several weeks, meaning merchants had to keep their charges adequately fed and watered for an extended period of time.
Speaking with George Dvorsky of Gizmodo, Osypińska says that many of the monkeys buried in the pet cemetery—which has, to date, yielded the remains of 16 primates, 536 cats, 32 dogs and 1 falcon—died young, possibly as a result of their sudden introduction to a radically different environment.
“Perhaps it was a bad diet, perhaps diseases, or perhaps an inability to take care of them,” she adds. “Some were ‘babies,’ meaning that they must have been born on the road or in Berenice.”
The monkeys appear to have been laid to rest with great care. As the statement notes, the individuals who buried the animals arranged them like “sleeping babies.” One was interred with two sizable shells by its head, while another was lovingly draped in a woolen blanket. A third was buried alongside two amphoras containing a piece of cloth and, intriguingly, the skeletons of a petite piglet and three kittens.
During the days of Roman Egypt, Berenice was an important trading hub, connecting Egypt with the Middle East and Asia. Excavations at the site have revealed well-preserved textiles, frankincense, myrrh, coconuts, lotus, black pepper and other imported goods, according to the First News.
“We knew spices, textiles and other riches were imported from India,” says Osypińskia in the statement. “It turns out, monkeys were as well.”