Akrotiri
© Milan Gonda/Alamy
Wall painting of grey langur monkeys at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thera (Santorini)
A Bronze Age painting on a Greek island shows a monkey from thousands of kilometres away in Asia. The finding suggests that ancient cultures separated by great distances were trading and exchanging ideas.

The artwork is one of several wall paintings in a building at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thera (Santorini) in the Aegean Sea. Akrotiri was a settlement of the Minoan civilisation in Bronze Age Greece that was buried by ash from a volcanic eruption in around 1600 BC.

Many of the paintings show monkeys, yet there were no monkeys in Greece at the time. Most of the monkeys have been identified as Egyptian species like olive baboons. This makes sense because Egypt was in contact with the Minoan civilisation, which was spread across several Aegean islands. However, others were harder to identify.

Marie Nicole Pareja at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia teamed up with primatologists to re-examine the mystery monkey paintings. One stood out. "When they looked at this wall painting, they all straight away unambiguously said 'that's a langur'," says Pareja.

The team has identified the monkey as a grey langur (Semnopithecus). As well as its distinctive fur, the monkey was depicted holding its tail in a characteristic S shape.

Grey langurs live in southern Asia in what is now Nepal, Bhutan and India - and particularly in the Indus Valley. During the Bronze Age, the region was home to the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the most important societies of that time. Although it was past its peak, the Indus Valley Civilisation was still advanced for its time, with large cities and elaborate water supply systems.

Somehow, the artist who painted the monkey picture must have seen a grey langur. But how?

Did Minoan Greeks visit the Indus? "I wouldn't be surprised if someday in the future we found evidence for that kind of direct contact," says Pareja, but right now there is none. It is also possible the visit was the other way round, but again there is no evidence.

Instead, it may be that Greece and Indus were connected via Mesopotamia, another Bronze Age civilisation centred on what is now Iraq. Langurs may have been imported to Mesopotamia for menageries, where visiting Greeks saw them.

"It's evidence of this far-reaching trade, these relationships with these far-flung areas," says Pareja. Even in the Bronze Age, it seems there was a lot of exchange between seemingly separate civilisations.
Journal reference: Primates, DOI: 10.1007/s10329-019-00778-1