Bronze Age Trade; from the Indus, through Bactria, Elam, Mesopotamia and the Near East, into the Aegean

In this post you will read about indirect, but apparent proof that the Bronze Age world was much more globalised than previously thought.

by Tracie McKinney & Marie Nicole Pareja Cummings

The blue monkeys painted on the walls of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini are among many animals found in the frescoes of this 3,600-year-old city. Historians have studied the murals for decades since they were unearthed in the 1960s and 1970s on the island, which was once known as Thera. But when we and a team of other primatologists recently examined the paintings, we realised the monkeys could provide a clue that the Bronze Age world was much more globalised than previously thought.

Archaeologists had assumed the monkeys were an African species, with which the Aegean people that built Akrotiri probably came into contact via trade links with Egypt. But we think 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 wall paintings of Akrotiri 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. 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.

The reason why archaeologists and art historians have assumed they came from Egypt is because that was the nearest location with an indigenous monkey population that had known trade links with the Aegean. As a result, the Akrotiri monkeys have been variously identified as baboons, vervets and grivet monkeys, all African species that live across a wide area.

Marie Pareja decided to take a different approach, gathering a team of primatologists who study apes, monkeys, and lemurs, including renowned taxonomic illustrator Stephen Nash. Together, we 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. 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.

Identifying the langurs

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 we 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 11kg to 18kg, have a similar look. They also move quite differently, and this was crucial to the identification.

Both primates primarily live on the ground (as opposed to in trees) and have long limbs and tails. But the langurs tend to carry their tail upward, as an S- or C-shape or curving towards the head, while vervet monkeys carry their tail in a straight line or arcing downward. This tail position, repeated across multiple images, was a key factor in identifying the monkeys as Hanuman langurs.

International links

We know from archaeological evidence that Aegean peoples had access to minerals such as tin, lapis lazuli and carnelian that came from beyond the Zagros mountains on the western border of modern Iran. But the artistic detail of the Akrotiri paintings, compared to other monkey art of the period, suggests that the artists had seen live animals, perhaps while travelling abroad.

It’s understandable that earlier scholars thought the monkeys were African since relations between the Aegean and Egypt were already well known and supported by archaeological evidence. If you expect to find an African monkey, you will only look at African animals for possible explanations. But as primatologists, we were able to bring a fresh look at the evidence without preconceived notions of ancient peoples or trade routes, and consider species living further afield.

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 possibly to confidently identify these animals. Conversely, primatologists may not have considered these ancient human-primate interactions without a prompt from archaeologists.

(Source – January 16, 2020)

Now let’s have a look at selected parts of the relative official publication titled “A new identification of the monkeys depicted in a Bronze Age wall painting from Akrotiri, Thera“, by Marie Nicole Pareja, Tracie McKinney, Jessica A. Mayhew, Joanna M. Setchell. Stephen D. Nash & Ray Heaton (2019).

“The art of the Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3200–1100 B.C.E.) is known for its early, naturalistic depictions of plants, animals, and humans. Among the corpus of animals chosen for depiction, one particular creature bears a clearly unique, often liminal position: the monkey. This animal occupies a range of roles, from wild, to trained pets and helpers, to cultic (Pareja 2017). The imagery of these creatures, like much of the flora and fauna in Aegean art, often lacks defining characteristics that can be used to identify the species depicted. Perhaps because of this tendency, many art historians and archaeologists assume that many creatures in Aegean art are not accurate depictions of particular species, and therefore relegate them to the realm of fantasy, or at least the starkly inaccurate. The wall paintings of monkeys in Room 6 of Building Complex Beta at Akrotiri, Thera, however, are one of the exceptions to the artistically generic tendency.”

“The lack of nuanced species attributions in Aegean art ultimately inspired this project. Previous attempts at species identification are largely based on the observations of art historians or archaeologists: experts in their respective fields with keen observational skills, but who do not specialize in the study of live primates. In an attempt to minimize bias and expand the expert knowledge base from which identifications could be drawn, a disparate group of scholars was chosen for this project: primatologists, a taxonomic primate illustrator, and an art historian/archaeologist. The primatologists not only study the morphological characteristics of monkeys and the ways in which they move, but also devote significantly more effort toward understanding the creature’s broad range of behaviors. The primate taxonomic illustrator also contributes a unique skill set; he is particularly aware of the traits that an artist may choose to emphasize or to look for when rendering a particular species of monkey. These types of acute, highly specialized knowledge are required for a deeper and more thorough analysis of the possible species depicted than has been previously attempted.”

“Although particular species are clearly depicted in Egyptian art, this is not the case for most monkeys in Aegean art. After examining the morphological characteristics of the Aegean representations of monkeys, we agree that most species of monkeys depicted in Aegean art are possible varieties or amalgamations of the same baboons depicted in Egyptian art, such as the hamadryas and olive baboons”

“However, we note specific qualities of the monkeys from Room 6 of Building Beta at Akrotiri. The shape, posture, and color patterns of the monkeys are similar to one another, and no outliers are immediately apparent, which indicates that these are likely members of the same species. The face can be described as “lemur-ish [with] buggy yellow eyes, a cat-like nose, and round ears,” but the postures and limb proportions indicate that the animal is a terrestrial quadruped. The facial pattern defies a precise match. Nevertheless, the dark face with a white ring of fur and the white stomach and inner thighs give the general impression of the cat-sized vervet (Chlorocebus). A cursory examination of the animal’s appearance seems to allow for the confirmation of the vervet identity. However, one trait distinguishes the depicted monkeys from any of the suggested species from Egypt: the tail. Vervets carry their tails straight behind them with a slight downward curve at the end (Bernstein et al. 1978 de Jong and Butynski 2010; Rowe 1996; Rowe and Myers 2016), whereas the Aegean monkeys carry their tails upward in a C- or S-shaped curve. With these clear divergences in posture, we identify a new taxonomic attribution: these primates are likely gray langurs or Hanuman langurs (Semnopithecus sp.). This genus of langur is indigenous to Nepal, Bhutan, and northern India, including the Indus River Valley.

“an Aegean-Indus connection may also help to clarify the possible interpretations of some of the outliers in Aegean monkey iconography that currently have no local or nearby parallels.”

Trade between the Aegean, Ancient Egypt, and Mesopotamia (together with the Near East) is accepted and well documented from as early as the third millennium B.C.; however, this exchange likely began even earlier (Wiener 2013). Ample evidence for the strong, long lasting exchange between these regions through most of the Bronze Age survives as imported raw materials, objects, motifs, and as textual evidence (Warren 1974; Cooper 1983; Dunham 1985; Cline 1994, 2013; Aruz 2003; Wiener 2013; Dubcová 2015; Pareja 2017; Chapin and Pareja 2019; Pareja 2020). Nevertheless, some of the most valued raw materials that convey elite status are not sourced from any of these three regions, but from places to the east of the Zagros Mountains. Because of this, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and tin become strong and direct indicators of exchange that also aid in establishing the earliest possible dates for (in)direct trade between the Aegean and the far east.

The appearance of lapis lazuli extends farther from the source mines in Badakhshan, Afghanistan as time progresses, which indicates likely preexisting exchange routes (Sarianidi and Kowalski 1971; Colburn 2008; Chapin and Pareja 2019; Pareja 2020). Similarly, the movement of carnelian, tin, and other raw materials supports the existence of preexisting trade relations (Chakrabarti 1993; Weeks 1999; Aruz 2003; Ratnagar 2004; Colburn 2008; Kenoyer 2008).”

Monkey Stamp Seal from Trapeza, Crete

“The earliest object that may indicate an indirect Indus-Aegean connection is a seldom-referenced ivory monkey figurine from Early Bronze Age funerary contexts at Trapeza, on Crete (Pendlebury 1939; Zervos 1956; Yule 1980; Phillips 1991; Karetsou 2000; Pareja 2017, 2020).”

“Our new identification for the type of monkey depicted in Room Beta 6 not only shows the movement of this imagery from east to west, but also indicates that the Cycladic artists likely had direct contact with langurs. In 2017, Pareja argued that some of the details depicted on the monkeys in Beta 6 served as proof that Aegean people directly observed live vervets rather than copying existing Egyptian artwork. The Cycladic artist(s) did not copy an Egyptian rendering of monkeys, because the details found in the Cycladic wall painting are often lost in Egyptian art (due to the adherence to the artistic canon).”

“Although this image is, admittedly, yet another iconographic implication for Aegean-Indus exchange, the evidence it bears for the direct observation of these monkeys is striking.”

the accurate depiction of such anatomical details as to render a precise identification from primate specialists today suggests that contact between Cycladic artists and live creatures occurred at some point, whether in the Near East, Mesopotamia, or farther east.”

“no single entity is responsible for complex Eurasian exchange during the fourth and third millennia B.C., and therefore it would be unreasonable to suggest that a single group intentionally disseminates this type of iconography. Rather, goods and materials moved directly and indirectly from the Indus, through Bactria, Elam, Mesopotamia, the Near East (even possibly the Caucasus), and into the eastern Aegean, as Wilkinson illustrates (2014). Nevertheless, particularly strong evidence for these extensive routes survives from older, larger sites like Susa, in the form of small objects, raw materials, and iconography (Davaras 2003, 2005; Kohl 2007; Harper et al. 1992).”

Monkeys are not indigenous to the Aegean, Near East, and Mesopotamia, and the surviving textual evidence indicates their presence in Mesopotamia via trade with Egypt and somewhere farther east.”

NovoScriptorium: Ongoing Research, especially during the last two decades, has revealed an amazing reality; Trade had been impressively globalized during the Bronze Age.

At this point let’s recall some relative past posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.

We read in the paper that “Trade between the Aegean, Ancient Egypt, and Mesopotamia (together with the Near East) is accepted and well documented from as early as the third millennium B.C.; however, this exchange likely began even earlier.”

We have previously presented proof of long-distance Trade activity in the Aegean, Europe, and the Mediterranean, as early as the Neolithic Age (1, 2, 3). The Archaeological record though does not seem to be ‘continuous’; there are big ‘time gaps’ from time to time, something that indirectly implies the occurrence of possible ‘big events’ that led to the temporary abandonment of former established Trade routes, that were then ‘re-established’, multiple times, over and over again.

What could those ‘big events’ have been? 

The available options are rather limited:

a) Possible big Wars 

b) Possible abrupt climate changes

c) Possible cataclysmic events

The very interesting thing is that all the above are recorded, more or less, in the Traditions (mostly as ‘Mythology’) of the oldest writing nations. Greek Mythology in particular, not only affirms this -documented now from Archaeology- ‘Globalization’ in various different periods of the Past, but interestingly also affirms that there had been big wars (especially in the, crucial for Ancient Global Trade, areas of Mesopotamia and Egypt) and multiple cataclysmic events (especially in the Aegean region) – mostly  linked with abrupt climate changes.

Finally, we suggest a read of the following posts about Aegean-Indian connection in the distant Past: 1, 2.

Vervet (left) and langur

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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