Spider monkey sacrificed 1,700 years ago in Mexico earliest sign of primate captivity and Mayan gift diplomacy

The complete skeleton of a spider monkey that died 1,700 years ago in Mexico reveal new evidence of social and political ties between the Teotihuacán and Maya Indigenous rulers of the time.

Anthropological archaeologist and University of California (UC) Riverside assistant professor Nawa Sugiyama made the discovery with a team who have been excavating the site at Plaza of Columns Complex, in Teotihuacán, Mexico since 2015.

Along with the spider monkey skeleton were the remains of other animals, thousands of Maya-style mural fragments and over 14,000 broken bits of ceramic, called sherds, from a grand feast. All date from from 250–300CE.

Spider monkeys were considered an exotic curiosity in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Their modern range extends from central Mexico in the north to Bolivia in the south.

The spider monkey found at Teotihuacán, northeast of Mexico City, is the earliest evidence of primate captivity, translocation, and gift diplomacy. Researchers believe the animal was sacrificed in this ceremonial centre, and is evidence of a diplomatic gift exchange with neighbouring Maya.

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The analysis of the individual’s remains is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings debunk previous beliefs that Maya in Teotihuacán were restricted to migrant communities. The spider monkey helps researchers piece together the complex interactions of high diplomacy in central Mexico 1,700 years ago.

“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over, it was a place where people came to exchange goods, property, and ideas. It was a place of innovation,” says Sugiyama who is first author on the PNAS paper. “Finding the spider monkey has allowed us to discover reassigned connections between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders. The spider monkey brought to life this dynamic space, depicted in the mural art. It’s exciting to reconstruct this live history.”

Multiple methods were applied in studying the female spider monkey. These included zooarchaeology (the study of animal remains in the archaeological record), DNA analysis, isotope measurements, palaeobotany and radiocarbon dating.

The spider monkey was likely between five and eight years old at the time of death. According to the analysis, the animal was captured before the age of three.

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Bone chemistry suggests the animal was captive for more than two years, and fed maize, arrowroot and chili peppers by its captors. Prior to arriving in Teotihuacán, it lived in a humid environment, eating primarily plants and roots.

It was ceremonially sacrificed tethered to and associated with a golden eagle, several rattlesnakes and an array of other statecrafts. Among the artefacts were fine greenstone figurines made of jade, shell ornaments, and obsidian blades and projectile points.

This arrangement is consistent with live sacrifice in rituals performed in Teotihuacán’s Moon and Sun Pyramids.

The study is more than about analysing a few bones and bits of ceramic. It helps paint a broader picture of how these powerful, advanced societies interacted.

“This helps us understand principles of diplomacy, to understand how urbanism developed … and how it failed,” Sugiyama explains. “Teotihuacán was a successful system for over 500 years, understanding past resilience, its strengths and weaknesses are relevant in today’s society. There are many similarities then and now. Lessons can be seen and modelled from past societies; they provide us with cues as we go forward.”

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