Blue Monkeys

Photo by Milan Gonda

Since 1967, when the ancient city of Akrotiri was unearthed on the island of Santorini, the vibrant frescos have thrilled and perplexed researchers. In the 16th century B.C., a volcano in the center of the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) exploded, burying the city of Akrotiri under layers of ash. As a result, Akrotiri received the nickname ‘Pompeii of the Aegean’ due to how remarkably well preserved the Bronze Age city is. No where is this more true than in the vibrant frescos found inside the homes at the site. The frescos contain cultural and religious art, intermingled with scenes of regular, mundane life frozen on plaster. A flotilla of fishing boats leaves the island flanked by dolphins, antelopes prance across the walls, and two boys are forever immortalized in the middle of a boxing match. One of the frescos found at Akrotiri, rather than giving us a glimpse of how the citizens of the small island lived, may shed light on the reach of the Minoan civilization’s trade routes. 

On the north and west walls of building Beta 6, there is a sprawling scene of blue monkeys on a red and orange background. The monkeys seem to come alive in this masterpiece of fluid motion, climbing rocks, leaping in all directions. The artist captured the monkeys’ intense movements, even the facial features of the large simians, with simple mineral pigments on plaster. These organic minerals helped to preserve the piece, allowing visitors to gaze back across 3500 years at the bizarre spectacle.

Given the lifelike detail, historians believe that the artist was working from living monkeys. Since monkeys are not a native species to the island, the animals arrived at Akrotiri through a vast trading network. A significant issue is that the language of Akrotiri has never been translated, meaning that there is no concrete evidence to point to the origin of the monkeys. The researchers who studied the blue monkeys believed that the fresco depicted grivets, a small species of African baboons, likely brought to the island from Egypt. 

However, Marie Pareja took a fresh approach to identifying the monkeys by hiring a team of primatologists to identify the species of monkeys. They have identified the monkeys as gray langurs (Semnopithecus). The primatologists identified the monkeys as langurs because of their size and tail position. Langurs, unlike grivets, are much larger and hold their tails upright in a ‘s’ or ‘c’ shape, matching the blue monkeys at Akrotiri. 

The most startling aspect of this discovery is that gray langurs live in central India. This recent research shows that the Minoans had a 2500 mile trading route, reaching all the way from the Cyclades islands in the northern Aegean Sea to the interior of India. Solving the mystery of the blue monkeys has allowed archeologists to redefine the reach and power of the ancient Minoan civilization, helping connect the Mediterranean island states of the Bronze Age to ancient Indus Valley civilizations.

First Published in History Magazine, Spring Edition, 2021