Animals have always been an icon of international diplomacy. One of the most emblematic examples occurred in 1972. China donated two pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, to the United States after Richard Nixon’s wife Pat commented during a visit that she was very fond of the panda species. In response, the US President sent him two musk oxen. This way of strengthening ties between two peoples dates back to a much earlier time. A study published this Monday in the American journal PNAS delves into the relationship between two indigenous civilizations in the Americas, starting with the discovery of a spider monkey in the archaeological zone of Teotihuacán in Mexico. According to the publication, the remains found support the theory that there were diplomatic exchanges between the Mayans and the pre-Hispanic city, as scientists claim it is a gift from one civilization to another.
There is currently a large scholarly consensus on the relationships that the Mayans established with Teotihuacán. Tremendous evidence uncovered by science over the past few decades points to broad interaction between the two points, through a vast regional trade network and military cooperation. One of the recorded examples is the arrival of an emissary from Teotihuacán at the Maya center of Tikal, Guatemala in AD 378, which “suggests that the state of Teotihuacán exercised some form of direct military involvement in local Maya social sites”, says the study. But a group of researchers went one step further and wondered if another mode of exchange was possible, and found their answer in the remains of a spider monkey, dated a century before Tikal was recorded. The curious thing is that it is a species alien to the heights of Teotihuacán, found in an offering in one of the three main pyramids of the archaeological complex.
Nawa Sugiyama, one of the researchers on the study, points out that it is a “rare find” with great cultural significance, as there has been no evidence of any exchange between these civilizations at this early stage. “Spider monkeys don’t evolve naturally there,” says the zoo archaeologist, who has worked in Teotihuacán for more than a decade. The discovery is also the “earliest evidence of primate captivity and translocation in the Americas,” the publication says. To understand the life of this specimen before its death, the research group analyzed not only the longevity of the remains but also the context of the captivity it had based on the food it received and the manner in which it was kept had occurred.
Baby spider monkeys eat up to a kilo of plant material per day, adults up to two kilos. At that time they mainly ate fruits and nuts and supplemented their diet with other parts of plants such as buds, flowers or seeds. All foods came from the Mesoamerican zone where the Mayans lived. The study of the remains details that it was a female who had been captured just before she was three years old, that her environment was altered and her diet drastically changed, that she was held in captivity for more than two years, and then sacrificed in the Ritual.
“The species’ bipedalism, dexterity, curiosity, and sexuality are human traits, which is why Aztec and Mayan origin myths speak of a failed creation, with humans becoming apes,” he says in the study. Adding to this relationship between civilizations and primates is the record of the practice of captivity of these animals, written in the Florentine Codex, “a 16th-century colonial source attracted the animals, and an explosive stone (cacalotetl) was used to capture the adult animals.” frighten them into leaving their young, who were caught and later domesticated.
Evidence of a Maya presence in Teotihuacan has so far been limited to immigrant communities living in the city center. However, the discovery of remains of an “extravagant feast” consisting of more than 14,000 pieces of pottery, “many of which were not of local origin,” cites interactions between Teotihuacán and the Maya around 300 BC. 350 AD. “The high level of craftsmanship and exotic design of these serving vessels, as well as the extraordinary scale of the event at which they were used, indicate a state-sponsored ritual festival attended by important foreign elites. Such parties are strategic scenarios for building alliances, negotiating power, and building social identity,” the publication emphasizes.
The animals, which were a symbol in Teotihuacán, participated in these public rituals and were displayed because they played an important role in the expression of power. A complete golden eagle, a puma skull, several rattlesnakes and some unidentified small birds were found along with the remains of the spider monkey. Mayan iconography such as gods and mythological creatures have also been found on the walls; non-wearable art belonging to the same civilization; and jade jewelry from the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. Therefore, the research team argues that “Mayan dignitaries may have stayed there, at least temporarily.” When they made the find, the researchers considered several possibilities, Sugiyama says. “It could be a diplomatic gift or a commercial exchange,” he explains, “but based on the amount of Maya cultural remains and objects and the context in which they were found, we concluded that it was a gift acted.”
Among those who took part in the analysis is the Plaza del Complejo de Columnas project, a team of archaeologists who have spent years in Teotihuacán explaining how foreign diplomacy is expressed in high-level rituals and the public functions that they had in the past, immortalized them “Exotic and high value artifacts may have been exchanged under a diplomatic gift protocol that would have entailed significant socio-political obligations,” the study states. The find, say the researchers, “suggests an ongoing ritual exchange, prominent in public ritual and architecture, prior to the apparent Teotihuacan militaristic involvement in some Maya sites.” archaeological zone, as well as the interest in understanding the diplomatic relations between these two civilizations.
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