Ancient bones suggest Maya befriended neighbors with a sacrificial spider monkey : ScienceAlert

1700 years ago, a female spider monkey was presented as a precious gift – and later brutally sacrificed – to strengthen ties between two great powers of pre-Hispanic America, according to a new study.

The newspaper, published on Monday at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), compared the offering of Mayan elites at Teotihuacan to China’s all-out diplomacy that accompanied the normalization of Sino-US relations in the 1970s.

Using multiple techniques—including ancient DNA extraction, radiocarbon dating, and chemical nutritional analysis—the researchers were able to reconstruct the life and death of the primate, determining that it was likely between five and eight years old when it was buried alive.

“It’s such an exciting time to be doing archeology because the methodology is finally here,” lead author Nawa Sugiyama of the University of California, Riverside, told AFP.

The project began with Sugiyama’s surprising discovery in 2018 of the animal’s remains in the ruins of Teotihuacan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the arid Mexican highlands.

spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) are not native to the elevated area, leaving Sugiyama with a puzzle to solve: What was the animal doing there, who brought it, and why was it sacrificed?

The skeletal remains of an ancient spider monkey.
The remains of the spider monkey were found outside the animal’s range. (Nawa Sugiyama)

Vital clues came from the location of the remains. Teotihuacan (pronounced tay-uh-tee-waa-kaan), located 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Mexico City, was an important site of cultural exchange and innovation in Classic Mesoamerica.

It is perhaps best known for its pyramids the moon, Sun and Winged Serpent. But there is growing interest in another monument called the Plaza of the Columns, a complex where the neighboring Maya maintained a presence that has been likened to a modern embassy.

Feasts, treasures and murals

The ape’s skeletal remains were found in the complex next to a golden eagle – an emblem of Mexico even today – and surrounded by a collection of high-value artifacts, including obsidian projectile points, shells and precious stone artifacts.

More than 14,000 pottery shards from a large feast were also discovered, as well as a Mayan mural depicting a spider monkey.

This, Sugiyama said, was further evidence of an exchange that took place at the highest levels and preceded the subsequent rise of the Teotihuacan state and military involvement in Maya cities by the year 378 CE.

Results from chemical analysis of two canine teeth that erupted at different points in the monkey’s life show that before captivity, it lived in a wet environment and ate plants and roots.

After being captured and taken to Teotihuacan, her diet was closer to that of humans, including corn and chili peppers.

The spider monkey may have been “an exotic curiosity alien to the high altitudes of Teotihuacan,” wrote Sugiyama and her colleagues, with the fact that it was a fellow primate adding to its charisma and appeal.

Finally, the animal met a gruesome death: “The hands tied behind its back and the bound legs show in vivo burial, common among human and animal sacrifices at Teotihuacan,” the authors wrote.

While it’s wild to modern eyes, “we have to understand and incorporate these cultural practices … and what it meant to be able to give up what is most precious to you,” Sugiyama said.

© Agence France-Presse

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