Archaeologists Discover 4,000-Year-Old Rhesus Macaque, The World's Oldest Pet Monkey

A 21st-century rhesus macaque. Zzet/Shutterstock

When it comes to funerary practices, it's fair to say pet owners have some very peculiar ways of sending their "good boy" from this world to the next. From cremating a goldfish to turning your pet dog into a rug (or, even more bizarrely, your cat into a drone), it seems there aren't many barriers people won't push. But it appears these latest crazes (if you can call them that) stem from a very, very old tradition of pet burials.

Archeologists have discovered a 4,000-year-old monkey buried in a grave in Shahr-i Sokhta, a Bronze Age settlement in eastern Iran, close to the Afghan border. Experts believe the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta) may have been a gift since pet monkeys were seen to be a status symbol among the elites of the time. According to an article published in Nature, this particular rhesus macaque, buried sometime between 2800 and 2200 BCE, is one of the world's oldest known examples of a pet monkey.


Claudia Minniti, from the University of Salento in Lecce, Italy, and Seyed Mansour Seyed Sajjadi, from the Iranian Center for Archaeological Research in Tehran, Iran, worked on the animal's remains. They say the monkey was found in a single pit, similar to the graves of infants buried at the cemetery. What's more, they found shards of pottery in the pit with the rhesus macaque – the same type of pottery seen in human graves, suggesting the monkey in question was a cherished pet. 

It is not the first animal to be buried in what appears to be a funerary rite. The Ancient Egyptians were known to keep menageries of exotic animals, with 5,000-year-old graves attesting to their love of the pets they kept (or at the very least, their role as a status symbol). At a cemetery in the ancient town of Hierakonpolis, archeologists have discovered a range of diverse animals, from elephants to leopards, crocodiles, and more. Elsewhere, excavations have unearthed animal mummies and the remains of hippos, falcons, and baboons (as well as cats and dogs). And just recently, archeologists came across a 2000-year-old pet cemetery from when the Roman Empire controlled the politics and culture of the area. Cats were buried with ostrich shell necklaces. A vervet monkey was found with a decorative iron collar. 

Renee Friedman, the director of Hierakonpolis Expedition, told NatGeo that different animals had different connotations – the elephant, for example, would represent strength, which its owner hoped to emulate.

Other ancient burials show that domestic dogs were being buried alongside their owners when Europe was still inhabited by hunter-gatherers. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a 2,000-year-old bobcat kitten was found wearing a necklace of shells and bear teeth in a funeral mound overlooking the Illinois River, one that was usually reserved for humans. 


From Ancient Persia to 2019, it seems we've always had a soft spot for our pets.