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Scientists Discover 1,700-Year-Old Spider Monkey Remains

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

A team of researchers has discovered an ancient monkey skeleton at the Teotihuacan site in Mexico, suggesting the earliest evidence of primate captivity, translocation and gift diplomacy between the Teotihuacan elite and the Maya.

The discovery of the complete skeletal remains of a spider monkey — a curious rarity in pre-Hispanic Mexico — has provided new evidence of social and political links between the ancient civilization of Teotihuacan and Mayan indigenous rulers.

The discovery was made by Nawa Sugiyama, a University of California, Riverside Anthropological archaeologists, and a team of archaeologists and anthropologists who have been excavating since 2015 at the Plaza de la Column in Teotihuacan, Mexico. The remains of other animals have also been found, along with thousands of fragments of Mayan-inspired murals and more than 14,000 ceramic fragments from the grand feast. These works are more than 1700 years old.

Spider monkeys are the earliest evidence of primate captivity, translocation, and gift diplomacy between Teotihuacan and the Maya. Details of the discovery will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sugiyama, who led the study, said the discovery allowed the researchers to glean evidence of high-level diplomatic interactions and overturns previous ideas that the Maya at Teotihuacan were limited to immigrant communities.

“Teotihuacan attracts people from all over the world, and it’s a place where people come to exchange goods, property, and ideas. It’s a place of innovation,” said Sugiyama, who is collaborating with other researchers, including on the project co-directors and Professor Saburo Sugiyama of Arizona State University, and Courtney A. Hofman, a molecular anthropologist at the University of California. Oklahoma state. “Finding the spider monkeys allowed us to uncover a redistributed connection between Teotihuacan and the Mayan leaders. The spider monkeys brought to life this vibrant space depicted in mural art. It was exciting to reconstruct this living history. “

The researchers applied multimethod archaeology (zooarchaeological, isotopic, ancient[{“>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. 

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