A new study published today shows that a female spider monkey was used 1,700 years ago as a gift to strengthen the bonds between two major powers in pre-Columbian South America, and then was sacrificed by being buried alive.

It is likely that prominent people from the Maya civilization presented this precious gift to another civilization in Teotihuacan. The study, published in the PNAS Journal, compares this method to the panda diplomacy practiced by China in normalizing its relations with the United States in the seventies of the twentieth century, reports a local Arabic daily.

Using several techniques such as extracting ancient DNA, carbon dating, or even analyzing diet, the researchers succeeded in reconstructing the life and death path of the animal, and found that it was buried alive when it was between 5 and 8 years old.

The research team’s work began with Nawa Sugiyama’s sudden discovery in 2018 of animal remains at the archaeological site of Teotihuacan, which is classified by UNESCO among the World Heritage Sites and is located in the arid plateaus of present-day Mexico.

The main author of the study, Nawa Sugiyama of the University of California, told AFP that the presence of spider monkeys is not common in this region, as it is not an original home for these animals. This raised questions about the reason for its existence, who brought it, and why was it sacrificed?

Teotihuacan, located less than 50 kilometers from the capital, Mexico City, was an important center of cultural exchange and innovation in Central America.

The ape’s skeleton was found next to a golden eagle, Mexico’s emblem that survives to this day, and was surrounded by a collection of valuable items including nails made of obsidian, an important volcanic rock to pre-Columbian cultures.

A mural depicting a spider monkey was also discovered, which confirmed, according to Sugiyama, the hypothesis of an exchange at the highest levels.

The researchers wrote that the female spider monkey may have been “a curiosity in the highlands of Teotihuacan, given that it is a strange animal.”

The study authors noted that “the animal’s hands were tied behind its back and its feet were also tied, which means that it was buried alive, according to a tradition that was common in human and animal sacrifices in Teotihuacan.”

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