Scientists discover 1,700-year-old spider monkey remains

Spider Monkey Mexico

Complete skeletal remains of a 1,700-year-old female spider monkey found in Teotihuacán, Mexico. Credit: Nawa Sugiyama, UC Riverside

A team of researchers has uncovered an ancient monkey skeleton in the ruins of Teotihuacán, Mexico, suggesting the earliest evidence of primate captivity, translocation and gift diplomacy between the Teotihuacán elite and the Maya.

The discovery of the complete skeletal remains of a spider monkey — an exotic curiosity in pre-Hispanic Mexico — provides new evidence of the social and political connections between the ancient civilizations of Teotihuacán and the indigenous Maya rulers.

The find was made by Nawa Sugiyama, an anthropological archaeologist from the University of California, Riverside, and a team of archaeologists and anthropologists who have been excavating at the Plaza of Columns Complex in Teotihuacán, Mexico, since 2015. The remains of other animals have also been discovered, as have thousands of fragments of Mayan-style murals and over 14,000 pieces of pottery from a large festival. These pieces are more than 1,700 years old.

The spider monkey is the earliest evidence of primate captivity, translocation, and gift diplomacy between Teotihuacán and the Maya. Details of the discovery are published in the journal PNAS. This finding allows the researchers to find evidence of high-diplomatic interactions and refute previous beliefs that the Maya presence in Teotihuacán was limited to migrant communities, said Sugiyama, who led the research.

“Teotihuacán attracted people from all over the world, it was a place where people exchanged goods, property and ideas. It was a place of innovation,” said Sugiyama, who works with other researchers including Professor Saburo Sugiyama, co-director of the project and a professor at Arizona State University, and Courtney A. Hofman, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Oklahoma. “The search for the spider monkey has allowed us to discover reassigned links between Teotihuacán and Maya leaders. The spider monkey brought to life this dynamic space depicted in the mural. It is exciting to reconstruct this living history.”

Researchers used multi-method archaeometry (zooarchaeology, isotopes, ancient[{” attribute=””>DNA, paleobotany, and radiocarbon dating) approach to detail the life of this female spider monkey. The animal was likely between 5 and 8 years old at the time of death.

Its skeletal remains were found alongside a golden eagle and several rattlesnakes, surrounded by unique artifacts, such as fine greenstone figurines made of jade from the Motagua Valley in Guatemala, copious shell/snail artifacts, and lavish obsidian goods such as blades and projectiles points. This is consistent with the evidence of live sacrifice of symbolically potent animals participating in state rituals observed in Moon and Sun Pyramid dedicatory caches, researchers stated in the paper.

Results from the examination of two teeth, the upper and lower canines, indicate the spider monkey in Teotihuacán ate maize and chili peppers, among other food items. The bone chemistry, which offers insight into the diet and environmental information, indicates at least two years of captivity. Prior to arriving in Teotihuacán, it lived in a humid environment, eating primarily plants and roots.

The research is primarily funded by grants awarded to Sugiyama from the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities. Teotihuacán is a pre-Hispanic city recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and receives more than three million visitors annually.

In addition to studying ancient rituals and uncovering pieces of history, the finding allows for a reconstruction of greater narratives, of understanding how these powerful, advanced societies dealt with social and political stressors that very much reflect today’s world, Sugiyama said.

“This helps us understand principles of diplomacy, to understand how urbanism developed … and how it failed,” Sugiyama said. “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 modeled from past societies; they provide us with cues as we go forward.”

Reference: “Earliest evidence of primate captivity and translocation supports gift diplomacy between Teotihuacan and the Maya” by Nawa Sugiyama, Saburo Sugiyama, Clarissa Cagnato, Christine A. M. France, Atsushi Iriki, Karissa S. Hughes, Robin R. Singleton, Erin Thornton and Courtney A. Hofman, 21 November 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2212431119

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.