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Left, vervet monkey depicted in Minoan art at Akrotiri, Thera; Right, Baboon shown in a fresco at Knossos      Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd

Monkeys In Minoan Art Reveal New Bronze Age Links

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Experts investigating frescoes and artworks have made some important discoveries with regard to Minoan civilization. They have found that Minoan artists realistically depicted a species of monkey and baboon, which are not indigenous to the Aegean. This is believed to show that this Bronze Age civilization had significant links with North Africa. Moreover, the depictions of the primates are allowing us to understand how they were used in Minoan art.

The research was carried out by Bernardo Urbani, of the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research and Dionisios Youlatos, Aristotle University, Thessaloniki Greece. Their study is an example of archaeoprimatology which is ‘a relatively new sub-discipline that involves primatology and archaeology’ reports Antiquity.  They carried out a review of the secondary literature on Minoan art. The researchers investigated frescoes at the Minoan era sites at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera and Knossos in Crete. Also examined were figurines and jewellery.

Monkey murals

Based on the frescoes the experts were able to establish that ‘the Minoans were familiar with two species of cercopithecid monkeys: vervets and baboons’ according to the paper published in Antiquity. Urbani and Youlatos established this based on similarities between the images and the current taxonomic categories of African primates.

Monkeys identified as vervets in latest study. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

Monkeys identified as vervets in latest study. (Antiquity Publications Ltd)

The duo identified that the Minoan monkeys were vervets based on their observations ‘elongated arms and limbs, and extended tail, are key characteristics for their generic identification’. While the baboons were identified based on the images distinctive morphological features such as hairless noses and narrow waists.

Blue monkeys

The researchers claim to have proven the primate’s genus and also show how they are realistically portrayed. Remarkably, the monkeys and baboons are portrayed behaving in ways that are identical to their real-life counterparts in the wild. The Antiquity press release states that ‘The vervet monkeys are depicted climbing while baboons are shown on the ground’. Baboons are terrestrial creatures while the vervet monkeys spend nearly all their lives in trees.

These monkey murals have been studied for decades. They are often known as the ‘blue monkeys’ because of their color. However, according to the press release, ‘there is one big difference between the real animals and the frescoes: the monkeys aren’t blue’. Cultural influences are very powerful and they even impact on how colors are perceived and categorized. Apparently in Minoan culture, the color blue was part of the ‘green-grey spectrum’ reports Antiquity.

Close up of monkey portrayed in Minoan art in Akrotiri, Greece. (ZDE / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Close up of monkey portrayed in Minoan art in Akrotiri, Greece. (ZDE / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Minoan and African links

Based on the contexts of the monkey murals the researchers were able to understand their significance for the Minoans. It appears that the vervets were painted exclusively in leisure and domestic settings. While the baboons are typically found in spaces that are connected with religion and sacrificial offerings.

The realism of the monkeys is such that it is evident that the Minoans had actually observed the primates in real life and probably in their natural habitat. Since they are only found in North-East Africa it is assumed that Minoans had observed them there. This would strongly suggest that the Ancient Cretans had visited North Africa and were indeed familiar with the area. It is known that the Minoans were expert mariners and they dominated the Aegean Sea.

There is little evidence concerning a Minoan presence in Africa or even indications of trading links.  Some believe that there is evidence of a Minoan presence at the archaeological site at Avaris, modern-day Tell el-Dab’a, in Egypt, but this is disputed by some academics. The discovery that this Bronze Age culture was familiar with primates indigenous to North Africa strongly suggests that they had extensive links with that region. Moreover, the use of the color blue in the baboon images, strongly suggests Egyptian influences. These primates are typically depicted in shades of blue indicating their connection with the divine.

Conflicting Conclusions

It should to be noted, another study reported by Ancient Origins recently found that the monkeys depicted on a mural at Akhrotiri were grey langurs. This was conducted by Marie Nicole Pareja of the University of Pennsylvania who collaborated with some primatologists. Pareja is quoted by the New Scientist as saying of her group of consultants, “they all straight away unambiguously said ‘that’s a langur’”. These finding are based on the fact that the images had many of the characteristics of the monkey such as its S-shaped tail. Remarkably these primates are indigenous to the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan and India, far from the Aegean. This was seen as presenting possibilities for travel by the Minoans very far afield. But this new research would seem to contradict that conclusion.

Langurs and vervets are similar looking species, although the stand out feature of the vervet ‘blue ball’ monkey seems to be absent in the Minoan portrayals.

Left, Alpha male Grey Langur at Mudumalai National Park. (Marcus334 / CC BY-SA 3.0) Right, Vervet Monkey. (Carolyn/Adobe Stock)

Left, Alpha male Grey Langur at Mudumalai National Park. (Marcus334 / CC BY-SA 3.0) Right, Vervet Monkey. (Carolyn/Adobe Stock)

An interconnected Bronze Age world

The research showing that the Minoans were familiar with species not indigenous to the Aegean is found by both the University of Pennsylvania study and the new study.  If the two studies are correct, they demonstrate that the Ancient Greeks likely had some form of contact with parts of Africa and/or South Asia, based on the realistic monkey murals. This indicates that the Minoans were part of an interconnected Bronze Age world.

These exciting findings prove that the Minoans were the first Europeans to use primates in art. This study has also shown that the Bronze Age world may have been more interconnected, than thought. If this was the case it would show that the various cultures probably traded with each other and also had cultural links. This could transform our understanding of the Bronze Age.

Top image: Left, vervet monkey depicted in Minoan art at Akrotiri, Thera; Right, Baboon shown in a fresco at Knossos      Source: Antiquity Publications Ltd

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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