Legend has it that in ancient Anatolia, there were two monkey-like creatures called Cercopes who beleaguered the populace. One myth has the god Zeus turning the bandit brothers into apes, another involves the hero Herakles carrying them strung upside down from a pole.

The name Cercopes is derived from the Greek word for tail (kerkos) and means tailed men, a fact highlighted by the Scottish folklorist James George Frazer. The Herakles story, Frazer reports, was interpreted by a classicist as alluding to “Phoenicians bringing apes to the Greek markets”. The Cercopes also lend their name to monkeys of the family Cercopithecidae, whose tails in the last few years have become protagonists in a narrative at the intersection of the histories of art, international relations and zoology in the Bronze Age, which unfolds along the route from the Indus River to the Aegean Sea.

A provocative new theory identifies monkeys frolicking in a 2nd millennium BCE Minoan mural in Santorini, which were long thought to be African, as South Asian – grey langurs from the Harappan region, to be specific. In doing so, the theory links two Bronze Age civilisations not known to have had direct contact, prompting a fascinating debate among archaeological and primatological researchers – one that is by no means settled. Could langurs have been the first South Asian primates to make it to Mediterranean iconography? Opinions are chasmically divided.

Monkey business

The Minoan civilisation (3000-1100 BCE), named after the fabled king (or perhaps title) Minos, was rediscovered in the modern period by a soap merchant called, coincidentally, Minos Kalokairinos in 1879. His work was later built upon, literally and controversially, by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans in the first few years of the 20th century. Another site of the Minoan world, Akrotiri on the Cycladic island of Thera (Santorini), was fully excavated in 1967. In a circumstance reminiscent of Pompeii, ash from the very volcanic eruption that brought the Theran culture to an end in 17th century BCE also protected its remains to an extraordinary degree. Since their discovery, the murals at Akrotiri have generated great interest.

One of the Theran wall paintings that has attracted focused scholarship is that of a group of blue monkeys on the western wall of Room Beta 6. Dated to roughly 1650 BCE, the fresco features eight life-size and lifelike greyish-blue monkeys striking a range of recognisably simian attitudes against a colourful, undulating terrain across the northern and western walls of the chamber. Agile and adroit, they swing, they climb, they crouch and scooch. One looks back to check for danger, while another directly meets the viewer’s gaze. A wall text at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera (2010) describes the scene thus: “From broad wavy bands…extending across the lower part of the paintings…perhaps denoting water, rise rocks…recall the Theran landscape…Blue monkeys, a species foreign to the Aegean fauna, clamber on the rocks, moving freely in all directions…intense movement, varied poses and a registering of the momentary…indicates that the painter had a direct image of these animals, which will have been imported to the Aegean from the Eastern Mediterranean.”

Blue Monkeys mural in Akrotiri. Credit: Zde/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Licence]

For the longest time, Africa seemed like the only tenable origin of these ebullient animals in the monkey-free Cyclades archipelago. Prominent candidates proposed in the archaeozoological literature are Cercopithecoids from two African genera: Chlorocebus (namely, the green monkey, the grivet, the vervet and the guenon) and Papio (the olive and hamadryas baboons). Members of all these species were either native to, or were known to have been exported to, ancient Egypt, with which the Minoans had economic and cultural ties. Specifically in the past decade, a number of scholars classified the monkeys of Room Beta 6 as Chlorocebus species (Chlorocebus spp.) imported from Egypt – mainly vervets and grivets.

But what if the source of Akrotiri’s Room Beta 6 monkeys lay even farther east? In the summer of 2019, the journal Primates carried an essay titled A new identification of the monkeys depicted in Bronze Age wall painting from Akrotiri Thera. Its authors endorsed a third contender for the blue monkey species: the South Asian grey langur (Semnopithecus spp.). The team proposing that the langur is the model for the Theran monkeys is interdisciplinary, comprising art historian and archaeologist Marie Nicole Pareja, four primatologists – Tracey McKinney, Jessica Mayhew, Joanna Setchell and Ray Heaton – and taxonomic illustrator Stephen Nash. The lynchpin of their thesis is a literal twist in the tail – they claim that, unlike the Egyptian-sourced species, the blue monkeys carry their tails “upwards in a C- or S-shaped curve”, just like langurs. Furthermore, they assert, the distinctiveness of each of the eight monkey protagonists runs counter to the Egyptian tradition of using iconographic formulae – “standardized monkey-types” – making them likely to have been drawn from life.

This unprecedented interpretation, widely reported when it first came out, challenges what is known about Bronze Age transcultural interaction. A native of what would in the 1600s BCE have been Late Harappan territory, grey langurs are a species of which there is no physical evidence of having been exported so far west during this period. But there was a land between two rivers where the Aegean and the Indus imaginations might have intermingled. It is to Mesopotamia that Pareja and her coauthors turn as a possible intermediary trading partner between the Minoans and the Harappan. That Minoans and Mesopotamians, and Mesopotamians and Harappans interacted is settled. Positing that simian imagery was “likely carried and transmitted…along established trade routes that spanned from the Indus to the Aegean”, Pareja and her coauthors furnish as evidence examples of Cycladic art and objects revealing West, Central and South Asian influence. Within Akrotiri itself is another monkey-inclusive mural called The Offering to the Seated Goddess, perhaps the site’s most famous, which they claim recalls a classic Mesopotamian composition decorating cylindrical seals. An example of a longer-distance relationship cited by the researchers is a monkey figurine from Bronze Age Crete. Its “elevated seating posture”, they say, might have originated in Bactria (present-day Afghanistan), while the cross-and-chevron pattern at its base has a long history in Indus art.

Blue Monkeys mural in Akrotiri. Credit: ArchaiOptix/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence].

Lively debate

Research by leading Indus Valley archaeologists such as Dilip Chakrabarti, Shereen Ratnagar and J Mark Kenoyer supports the existence of a well-developed trade connection between the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia. In her book Encounters: The Westerly Trade of the Harappan Civilisation (1981), Ratnagar comments in a section on monkey figurines found in 3rd to 2nd millennium BCE Mesopotamia that in the absence of monkey species indigenous to the region “either these figures or else live monkeys were imported into Mesopotamia from India”, the former possibly as talismanic items. The exported Indian species she identifies, however, is the rhesus macaque. Kenoyer too classifies Harappan monkey figures as macaques in his book Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation (1998), remarking that the lack of langurs in Harappan iconography was “quite intriguing”, distinguishing Indus art from future Hindu art in which the Hanuman langur would feature prominently. If langurs seemingly were neither represented nor traded west, how might they have travelled to Mesopotamia?

Ratnagar and Kenoyer declined to comment to Scroll.in regarding the new theory of langurs in Minoan art. However, there is no dearth of reactions from other scholars involved in solving the riddle of the Minoan monkeys. Unconvinced by the langur candidacy, they put their disagreements in print. It is the verve and velocity of the debate – Minoan monkeys: African or Indian? – playing out in the pages of academic journals that make it interesting for laypersons.

Within months of the 2019 publication by Pareja and her coauthors, primatologists Bernardo Urbani and Dionisios Youlatos, published a paper titled A new look at the Minoan ‘blue’ monkeys (2020) reiterating their long-held position in favour of the vervet – the species they believe is related to the depiction of “leisure activities” in Minoan art – as the model for the Beta 6 monkeys. Later, in 2020, in an article titled Occam’s razor, archaeoprimatology and the ‘blue’ monkeys of Thera: a reply to Pareja et al., they mounted a critique of the grey langur thesis on two main counts. Firstly, they point out that the (de)tail on which the case for langurs rests is not convincing since not only do vervet tails also display S- and C-shaped curves, but the tail curvature actually unique to the grey langur, the U-shape, is missing in the Akrotiri octet. Secondly, Urbani and Youlatos express scepticism towards the langur thesis as proof that Indus artistic culture spread all the way to the Aegean via Central Asia, siding instead with studies “reviewing the movements of the primate motif on seals in the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, and the Near East, which have not identified such a tied relationship between the Aegean and these eastern regions”.

Pareja and her coauthors addressed Urbani and Youlatos’ criticisms in Aegean monkeys and the importance of cross-disciplinary collaboration in archaeoprimatology: a reply to Urbani and Youlatos (2020). Regarding the missing “U-shaped” tail, they explain that they only considered “original fragments of the painting and not the reconstructed portions”. It is possible, they contend, that the preserved, reconstructed tails are assembled in the wrong position and the unpreserved tails had originally been rendered in the U-shape, since each monkey strikes a different pose. In response to the criticism of the langur theory as being too farfetched to corroborate Indus influences via the Near East on the Cyclades, they emphasise the existence of trade networks in Bronze Age Eurasia. They cite research discussing “carnelian beads shaped in the Indus, cut in Mesopotamia, then deposited on one of the westernmost Aegean islands…”, a supply chain further corroborated in 2020.

Blue Monkeys mural in Akrotiri. Credit: Joanbanjo/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence].

Oriental inspiration also accounts for the blue fur of the monkeys in Pareja and her coauthors’ reading. Made with a pigment that simulates the highly valuable lapis lazuli of Afghanistan, the colour is meant to symbolise their exotic provenance. Marco Masseti – a zoologist and palaeoecologist who has published on the Theran monkeys since the 1980s and holds that they are grivets imported from Egypt – speculates in his 2003 article Taxonomic and behavioural aspects of the representation of mammals in Bronze Age art that because of their “value and rarity” as exotic fauna, the beasts would have been enclosed in a controlled environment. Such an arrangement might have made it possible for artists to represent them through direct observation, as Pareja and her coauthors propose. But in the absence of physical evidence of langurs in the Aegean region, where would the Cycladic artist have seen the creatures? Pareja and her coauthors put forth the possibility that, given the existence of an Aegean-Mesopotamian-Indus network, “monkeys that Mesopotamia imported from the Indus were observed by travelling Aegean people.”

Traffic of iconography

What role did these animals play in the art of the Aegean? Following older scholarship, both Pareja and her coauthors as well as Masseti agree that in Aegean Bronze Age iconography, animals seem to be more than just earthly beings, functioning instead as other-worldly mediators between the realms of humans and gods. The blue monkeys’ elevated status might be enhanced precisely because they were foreign – by virtue of their exoticism, they signify difficulty of acquisition and thus bear connotations of luxury and eliteness. This, as Pareja and her coauthors state, corresponds with the nature of Aegean wall painting, meant to adorn exclusive interiors for the privileged classes of society.

Masseti disagrees with the theories of both Pareja et al. and Urbani and Youlatos. In his essay An analysis of recent literature regarding the Minoan blue monkeys represented in Aegean bronze art (2021), he stresses that monkeys across all Minoan sites belonged to the same species – the grivet. Independent archaeologist Cybelle Greenlaw worked with primatologist Jill Pruetz to revisit the topic 10 years after first casting her vote for the vervet as the probable model for the blue monkeys in her book The Representation of Monkeys in the Art and Thought of Mediterranean Cultures: A new perspective on ancient primates (2011). Pruetz and Greenlaw, in their article Occam’s razor revisited: guenon species morphology supports evidence for an African influence in Bronze Age Aegean fresco primate iconography from Akrotiri, Thera (2021), nominate two African guenon species based on physical characteristics. However, given the improbability of Therans encountering sub-Saharan species, they concurred with Urbani and Youlatos that the monkeys are probably vervets.

One aspect of Pareja and her coauthors’ research (published, notably, not in a journal of archaeology but of primatology) that the scholars who engaged with it are in accord about is the significance of their interdisciplinary approach. Though the question of what to impute to artistic licence and what to morphological fidelity does appear as a point of debate in these exchanges, the value of collaboration across the fields of archaeology and zoology is clear. An argument over simian phenotypes illuminates new methods for art historians and archaeologists to work with scholars from other disciplines to decipher visual languages lost to time. It also presents an opportunity to investigate the traffic of iconography between prehistoric South Asia and the Mediterranean in light of what archaeologist and historian Roger Arnott in his recent book Crossing Continents: Between India and the Aegean from Prehistory to Alexander the Great (2022) calls “growing evidence…of…indirect contact…between [the] Indus or Harappan civilisation…towards the slowly emerging societies of the Early and Middle Bronze Age Aegean.”

The debate around the identity of beasts from 3500 years ago gestures towards our continued stake in understanding the complex and active routes and relations that existed among the peoples of the Bronze Age, especially the forgotten associations. Tales of langurs in the ancient Aegean (even figurative ones) might be divisive, but the conditions of their plausibility certainly afford a tantalising glimpse of an enigmatic world-system always just out of sight.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.