With its hands and feet bound, a spider monkey went to its grave around 300 C.E., buried alive among sumptuous grave goods in the great city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. A recent study of its bones suggests the animal may have been a diplomatic gift from the Maya, who lived far to the east, offering a peek at geopolitics in Mesoamerica a century before the two great powers clashed.
“Amazing stuff,” says Bárbara Arroyo, an archaeologist at the Dumbarton Oaks research library. “I have been very skeptical sometimes when people talk about these connections between the Maya and Teotihuacan. But in this specific case, it’s so well documented and so well proven that this animal was from the Maya area and was moved and transported to … Teotihuacan.”
About 40 kilometers outside Mexico City, Teotihuacan rose to be one of the world’s largest cities between 1 C.E. and 550 C.E. The multicultural metropolis featured pyramids, markets, and apartments that housed an estimated 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, some 1000 kilometers away in the tropical forests, the Maya grew into a powerful, densely populated patchwork of rival kingdoms. As far apart as Chicago and New York City, the distinct cultures traded goods and communicated with each other. “[These] two big population centers would know of each other, and would occasionally be going back and forth, sending people talking to each other,” says Ashley Sharpe, an archaeologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama who wasn’t involved in the study.
Artifacts and hieroglyphic texts suggest Teotihuacan warriors or emissaries visited Maya cities such as Tikal in present-day Guatemala, perhaps applying military pressure to meddle in Maya politics. And excavations begun in 2015 in a sector of Teotihuacan known as the Plaza of the Columns suggest the diplomacy went both ways. This grand compound held buildings stocked with Maya pottery and murals depicting Maya symbols, mythological creatures, and gods. University of California, Riverside, archaeologist Nawa Sugiyama, who co-directs the project, thinks these quarters were reserved for high-status Maya dignitaries. “Imagine who’s invited to stay at the White House and downtown [near] the National Mall,” Sugiyama says. “That sort of prime real estate is where we’re finding these Maya dignitaries, maybe even royal elites.”
Those diplomatic relations likely soured between 350 C.E. and 400 C.E.: Radiocarbon dates suggest the murals from the Plaza of the Columns were ripped from the walls, smashed, defaced, and buried. Elsewhere in Teotihuacan, there’s evidence Maya royals were sacrificed. And across Maya lands, carvings depict the Teotihaucanos as warlike and militaristic.
The new study shines light on the peaceful period preceding the apparent meltdown. In 2018, while tunneling beneath a Plaza of the Columns pyramid, Sugiyama and her team uncovered a magnificent cache of figurines, jewelry, obsidian knives, and arrowheads. There were also animal bones, including a puma skull, rattlesnakes, and a golden eagle—and one unusual skeleton that “was [like] nothing I’ve seen before in highland Mexico,” Sugiyama recalls.
The bones belonged to some kind of monkey, animals that don’t roam the arid region around Teotihuacan. Monkeys do clamber in trees of Maya territory and figure prominently in Maya art, however. DNA analysis of the skeleton narrowed it down to a subspecies of spider monkey native to Maya tropical forests.
To learn how and when the animal ended up in Teotihuacan, the researchers analyzed its bones and teeth, measuring levels of isotopes that reflect what it ate and where it lived at different stages of life. The scientists could tell the monkey was likely captured around age 3 in a balmy habitat, like Maya forests, then moved to a dry environment, like the plateau of Teotihuacan. Once captured, its diet switched from forest foods like figs and other wild fruits to human-grown crops including maize, chili peppers, and arrowroot, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They also observed tooth wear suggesting the creature gnawed on its wooden cage. The monkey lived at least 2 years in captivity before it was ritually sacrificed and buried alive between 250 C.E. and 300 C.E.
“The scientific analysis of … this spider monkey is very impressive,” says Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist who wasn’t involved in the new work.
Sugiyama and her colleagues suggest Maya dignitaries brought the monkey to Teotihuacan as a gift, further evidence of friendly relations between Teotihuacan and Maya elites at the time. “I know this is just one monkey, but this is an indication that it seems their early interactions were somewhat peaceful and amicable,” Sharpe says.
Alternatively, Estrada-Belli says it’s possible Teotihuacan had already conquered some Maya cities and taken their royals as hostages. If so, the monkey’s keepers may have been captives, as well. Whatever the case, the monkey in Teotihuacan is a sign “there is a lot more still waiting to be said about … the Teotihuacan side of the story,” Sugiyama says.