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A spider monkey, a rattlesnake, and an eagle are changing the way we think about animal sacrifice

Monkey see, monkey die.

By Cassidy Ward
Remains of 1,700 year old spider monkey

We’re going to talk about animal sacrifice. Specifically, the ritual animal sacrifices of ancient Mesoamerica. Historically, they have been depicted in media as violent, bloody affairs carried out by vicious, uncivilized peoples. Some of that can maybe be chocked up to sensationalized storytelling but we should probably all take a beat to consider why that particular narrative around animal sacrifice was so easy to swallow. Because it isn’t accurate.

The truth, as is often the case, is a bit more complicated and archaeologists were recently granted an unusual view into the activities of Mesoamerican peoples and their relationship with wild animals, thanks to a 1,700 year old spider monkey. That’s according to a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nawa Sugiyama, an anthropological archaeologist from UC Riverside, and colleagues, discovered the animal at the Plaza of Columns in Teotihuacán, Mexico, during an ongoing excavation. The complete skeleton was laid on its side, almost as if sleeping, and was found among a collection of other remains, including rattlesnakes and eagles, as well as weapons consistent with live animal sacrifice. There were also over 14,000 ceramic fragments believed to have been from a grand feast. That’s because the monkey and the rest of its archaeological entourage were found in a uniquely special place.

“The Plaza of the Columns is located right between the Sun Pyramid and Moon Pyramid. There’s this large avenue called the Avenue of the Dead where these monuments stand. It’s akin to the structures along the National Mall. This was the major center that was the political hotspot of Mesoamerica during the Classic period, in the same way D.C. is for the New World today,” Sugiyama told SYFY WIRE.

According to Sugiyama, by this point in Mesoamerican history there were two major powerhouses in the area. There’s Teotihuacán, which is a single site and one of the largest cities in the New World, and there’s the Maya which are more of a city state model with multiple sites and governmental entities vying for control. It’s during this point when the spider monkey arrives on the scene, apparently given as a gift between these two political entities.

Animal sacrifice wasn’t new, that’s not why the monkey is exciting. Note the eagle and rattlesnake found nearby. By this point animal sacrifice had been established and people had established or were beginning to establish a typical menagerie.

“Apex predators were sort of the central sacrificial victims. They were sacrificed in the masses. In the Moon Pyramid, we have over 200 animal products or sacrifices taking place over the course of four offering caches. In those, we find jaguars, pumas, wolves, and rattlesnakes. They’re not just picking any animal, they’re picking apex predators of the sky, of the earth, and of these liminal spaces,” Sugiyama said.

What you may not expect, however, is that these animals weren’t simply captured and killed. In many cases these animals were sacrificed in groups with several individuals from multiple species involved. The logistics surrounding these kinds of mass ritual sacrifices were immense and would have required months of planning, at least. One ritual Sugiyama told us about involved nine eagles sacrificed all at the same time. She noted that even today that would be a difficult task to recreate. Not that we'd want to, of course. As a result, people in the city often lived with these animals for months or years at a time. And then you get to the monkey.

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“For me, it was already a very exciting find to see the eagle and the rattlesnakes, but that was sort of within the known canon of Teotihuacán power tactics and state rituals. What made the spider monkey very curious, and intriguing was the fact that it is not one of these apex predators. And it is a non-local species that is not really affiliated with the Teotihuacan state,” Sugiyama said.

Those animals also made their way into the culture’s iconography. They show up as mural drawings on the walls and survive as fragments uncovered by archaeologists. Those murals depict all of the expected animals. Your pumas, your eagles, and your rattlesnakes. They also depict a spider monkey.

That’s unusual, because spider monkeys aren’t native to the area. Sugiyama suspects the mural may be of this specific spider monkey, evidence that it became an important part of the cultural identity during its tenure in the city. “We do have a mural fragment that depicts a spider monkey. Probably not a mere coincidence, I think. There is this sort of affiliation, a sort of relationship that gets established,” Sugiyama said. That’s not all that surprising once you realize that it likely lived in the city for at least two years, probably longer. Scientists figured that out by looking their gift monkey right in the mouth.

“We happened to sample two teeth that captured the moment of captivity, between when the lower and upper canines formed. The teeth can tell us what it ate, where it’s from, and what sort of environment it grew up in,” Sugiyama said.

They got lucky that the monkey was snagged during this critical moment in tooth development. It allowed them to see the moment when it shifted from a humid, probably tropical, environment to one which was much more arid. They also noted a corresponding change in diet from that of a typical spider monkey to one which included more grasses. Lastly, because monkeys have poor dental hygiene, researchers were actually able to recover plant remains from the monkey’s teeth. They found corn, chili pepper, and arrow root, among other things.

“We also know when the animal died and even the sex of the animal. It was female and sacrificed between the ages of 5 and 8. Because we captured the moment of captivity, we know it was in captivity for at least two years,” Sugiyama said.

During that time, the animal would have been paraded around and made available for the public, including important political figures from other states to view. The spider monkey, and all of the sacrificial animals, would have been housed, fed, cared for, maybe even named. Sugiyama draws a parallel to Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, two giant pandas who were gifted to the United States by the Chinese government in 1972. They were an official diplomatic gift, which have a tendency to be as strategic as they are altruistic, but that didn’t stop the public from taking to them. Pat Nixon, then First Lady, received them personally. They were given names and adored for decades. And some argue that the gift went a long way toward changing public perception of and the United States’ relationship with China. Of course, we didn’t kill the two pandas after a couple of years, but the core of the exchange is the same. It wasn’t just a sacrifice; it was a gift.

“The two are not mutually exclusive… part of that is we have a very different reaction to sacrifice, the word itself and what it means. In the case of the Moon Pyramid, these animals weren’t really sacrificed, they were placed alive inside to make this dirt mound into a sacred mountain. We have to change the way we understand what sacrifice is, and that the landscapes are animate places we continue to negotiate with, petition for rains, ask for favors, and return offering and dedications to in this sort of ongoing exchange,” Sugiyama said.

It probably made little difference to the monkey. Dead is dead, whether it’s today or a couple of years down the line, but it’s nice to know that it meant something. That the monkey was probably cared for, maybe even loved, and it was certainly remembered, both by the people at the time and even now, 1,700 years later.