Greek monkey mystery points to ancient Bronze Age links with India

Ancient frescoes like that of the Greek monkeys on Santorini could point to trade links between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent as far back as 3,600 years ago.

That is the conclusion of a recent study of ancient murals on the Aegean island, which is also known as Thera.

The blue monkeys painted on walls at Akrotiri are around 3,600 years old and were originally believed to be an African species.

Obviously, the proximity of Greece to Africa and the extensive interrelationships between the Hellenic world and Africa, via Ancient Egypt would make this a reasonable assumption.

But the new study has reached a different conclusion.

A team of primatologists were drafted in to study the simians depicted in the frescoes and their evaluation had pointed to potentially greater globalisation in the Bronze Age.

Researchers now think that the paintings actually depict Hanuman langurs, a species from the Indian subcontinent.

This suggests the Aegean people, who came from Crete and the Cycladic islands in the Aegean Sea, may have had trade routes that reached over 2,500 miles.

The murals, which also depict other animals, were preserved by ash from a volcano that destroyed the city some time in the 16th or 15th century BC and offer an incredible glimpse of an early civilisation in Europe.

The researchers said: “We haven’t been able to translate the earliest Aegean writing, but the paintings suggest just how developed these people’s society, economy and culture were.

“Much animal art from this period is generalised, meaning it’s hard to confidently identify individual species. In the case of the monkeys, we also don’t have any physical remains from Aegean settlements to provide additional evidence of which species are depicted.”

Marie Pareja and taxonomic illustrator Stephen Nash examined photos of the art and discussed the animals depicted, considering not only fur colour and pattern but also body size, limb proportions, sitting and standing postures, and tail position.

They said: “While we all agreed that some of the animals depicted were baboons, as previously thought, we began to debate the identification of the animals from one particular scene.”

The monkeys in the paintings are grey-blue. But although some living monkeys have small patches of blue skin – the blue on a mandrill’s face, for example – none have blue fur.

There is an African forest monkey called the blue monkey, but it is mainly olive or dark grey, and the face patterns don’t match those in the paintings.

So researchers needed to use other characteristics to identify them.

They were previously believed to be vervets or grivets, small monkeys weighing between 3kg and 8kg (roughly the size of a housecat) that are found in the savannas of north and east Africa.

Despite their silvery white fur, they also have dark-coloured hands and feet and an overall look that matches the depictions in the paintings.

However, Hanuman langurs, which weigh a more substantial 11 kg to 18 kg, have a similar look. They also move quite differently, and this was crucial to the identification.

The researchers added: “This study is an excellent example of the importance of academics from different disciplines working together.

“Without the expertise of primatologists, it may not have been possible to confidently identify these animals.

“Conversely, primatologists may not have considered these ancient human-primate interactions without a prompt from archaeologists.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a slightly comical scene in the the 2004 film ‘Alexander’, which tells of Alexander the Great’s conquests, in which the Macedonians shoot arrows at what was referred to as a “new tribe” they called ‘monkey’.

The paintings on Santorini and the proximity to Hellenic influence to Africa highlights how this was simply artistic license on behalf of the filmmakers.

Although, that said, the Roman author Pliny the Elder once described a race of silvestres, or forest-dwellers, in India who had humanoid bodies but were covered in fur and unable to speak. This mystery race were almost certainly gibbons.

Such asides, aside, the new research potentially reveals just how interconnected the ancient world may have been.

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