A diplomat representing the Maya in Teotihuacán some 1,700 years ago presented local dignitaries with the unique gift of a spider monkey, new evidence suggests. Transported from the Maya heartland to the south, the unfortunate animal was then sacrificed by its new owners, cementing the socio-political ties between these two great civilizations.
Located on the outskirts of modern-day Mexico City, Teotihuacán was the largest metropolis in the pre-Columbian world. Founded around the first year CE, the city had exerted its military authority over Maya territory by 378 CE, although little is known about Teotihuacán-Maya relations prior to this point.
While excavating the Plaza of Columns complex in the great city, archaeologists stumbled upon an extraordinary clue as to how the two ancient powerhouses co-existed before Teotihuacán’s rise to prominence. The discovery of a complete spider monkey skeleton shatters the notion that only subjugated vagrant Maya were present in the huge city, indicating instead that high-ranking Maya diplomats were invited to participate in civic functions.
Found in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala, spider monkeys are native to the Maya region but would have been seen as an exotic curiosity in Teotihuacán. That such an animal found its way to the sacrificial altar in the central-Mexican city suggests that it was received as a gift by a visiting diplomat.
“We interpret the offering of a complete skeleton of a charismatic animal – a captively managed spider monkey – at Plaza of the Columns as the subject of a strategic gift exchange between Teotihuacan and the Maya that reified diplomatic ties between these two major regions of Classic Mesoamerica,” write the researchers the study. Importantly, radiocarbon dating indicated that the animal was sacrificed between 250 and 300 CE, which was before Teotihuacán became a dominant force.
Based on this observation, the study authors “propose that a period of more multilateral and fluid ritual exchange with Maya dignitaries preceded the Teotihuacan state’s eventual ascent to prominence.”
The monkey was found alongside a golden eagle and several rattlesnakes, with its hands bound behind its back. The circumstances of its demise mirror those of other animals that were sacrificed at the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, many of which were slain during elaborate rituals that served to uphold the political structure of Teotihuacán.
Analyzing the monkey’s teeth, the researchers noted that it was fed a diet of maize and chili peppers, despite having previously consumed mostly fruit in the wild. Thought to have been between the ages of five and eight at the time of death, the female spider monkey was probably held in captivity for about two years before being sacrificed.
Sadly, it appears that the animal endured a grim existence after being captured, and lost some of its teeth as a result of continually gnawing on the bars of its cage.
The study authors compare the monkey’s function with that of the famous pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, who were gifted to the US by China in 1972 and “were highly influential in transforming American perceptions of China.” Overall, they say that their discovery “strengthens the argument that sustained high-level diplomatic interaction with the Maya and other regional cultures powers was a crucial factor in Teotihuacan’s ascent to prominence in Mesoamerica.”
“This helps us understand principles of diplomacy, to understand how urbanism developed … and how it failed,” explained study author Nawa Sugiyama in a statement. “Teotihuacán was a successful system for over 500 years, understanding past resilience, its strengths and weaknesses are relevant in today’s society.”
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.