The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Of Monkeys and Maya: Primate Species Identification from Classic Maya Iconography


Department of Anthropology, Southern Illinois University

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Understanding the interaction between humans and nonhuman primates is fundamental to primate conservation issues, and the meaning and importance humans place on different primates can dramatically affect the health and survival of primate populations. However, relatively little is known about the relationships between humans and their nonhuman primate neighbors through prehistory. This study examines the ways the ancient Maya depicted monkeys on ceramic materials. Iconographic elements and primate imagery provide important clues in understanding the ways primates were viewed by the Maya, and when the individual species can be identified, this information is critical in considering how people classified and assigned meaning to what they encountered in nature. There are three species of monkey currently found throughout the Maya region: Alouatta pigra, Alouatta palliata, and Ateles geoffroyi. Using both painted and incised images on Maya pottery dating largely to the Classic period (AD 250-800), we identified the species depicted, when possible, employing attributes used by primatologists to distinguish primate species, including pelage color, facial markings, limb length and proportion, hand morphology, tail position, and positional behavior. Results indicate that the Maya not only distinguished between the genera Alouatta and Ateles, but also viewed the species differently on a symbolic level by associating them with different behaviors and activities. Focusing on primate symbolism provides insight into how the Maya interacted with animals living in their natural environment, what they understood of their behavior, and the ways in which symbolism was transmitted through the representation of these animals.

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