Ancient Greek Artists Were Painting Monkeys Found On Another Continent Thousands Of Miles Away


A vervet monkey depicted in a fresco at Akrotira, Thera, juxtaposed next to a baboon shown in a fresco at Knossos, Crete (right). B. Urbani/Antiquity

Ancient Greek artwork depicting monkeys endemic only to regions of Africa have long mystified archaeologists. How might artists have seen non-human primates found thousands of miles away, and what does that tell us about the ancient world? Now, an analysis of two Minoan frescoes attempts to answer those very questions.

The first is an incredibly detailed piece of art discovered at the 3,600-year-old settlement of Akrotiri, Thera, in which a small, black-faced monkey is seen climbing in a “landscape context”. With a white band on the animal’s forehead and coupled with long arms and legs, the painting is so accurate that researchers were able to identify the species as vervet monkeys, which are endemic to East Africa. On the nearby island of Crete, other blue-painted primates are depicted with a narrow waist, thick chest, and a hairless nose indicative of one of several subspecies of baboons, all of which are also only found in Africa. But if neither primate is native to the Mediterranean, how would ancient artists have known to paint them?

B. Urbani/Antiquity

“Both primate groups were probably originally represented at Minoan sites after having been observed in the African mainland,” write the authors in the journal Antiquity, noting that the artist either saw the monkeys directly or spoke with someone who had. The paintings provide a new understanding of Minoan frescoes and the interconnectedness of the ancient world, contributing to evidence that ancient Greeks had contact with people, or at the very least wildlife, of Africa.

Of course, monkeys aren’t blue. The researchers add that cultural perception influences how colors are categorized, so it could be that the artist thought of blue as more of a grey. Other Minoan artwork depicts grey objects, such as fish scales, also as a blue coloring. However, it could be that the color was borrowed from the ancient Egyptians who used blue in “sacred contexts”, a notion that is further evidenced by other pieces of Minoan artwork associating baboons with the gathering of flowers “as well as using swords and playing music on lyre-like instruments.”

Minoan societies flourished during the Bronze Age from about 3,000 BCE to 1,100 BCE. The culture is largely characterized by its unique art and architecture that spread to other cultures around the world. The findings “strongly suggest” that Minoans were familiar with at least two species of cercopithecid monkeys, furthering the idea that Mediterranean societies may have been extensively interconnected with the rest of the world.

B. Urbani/Antiquity

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