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Left: Barbary apes can are intelligent, nimble, and can get pretty angry. But were they used as military monkeys in ancient times? Right: It’s not unheard of for monkeys to have thoughtful burials. Shown: An Indian monkey buried like a child in Egypt. Source: Left: Peter Mazlan / Adobe Stock, Right: Marta Osypińska / Science in Poland

Ancient Monkey Soldiers? Romans Buried Barbary Ape with Military Offerings

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Militaries from many countries past and present have used animals in their work. Whether using horses to carry men, or dogs to track and patrol, the use of animals has been significant throughout military history. But what about monkeys? Archaeologists in Europe and the UK recently discovered the remains of several Barbary macaques estimated to be over 1,400 years old. The novelty? At least one was buried with military offerings.

So did the Roman army use Barbary apes during their battles, or was this simply a show of respect for a soldier’s well-loved pet? How did the Romans even find apes, anyways? Experts have some fascinating speculations. 

Europe’s One of a Kind Barbary Apes

Barbary macaques, also known as Barbary apes, are native to northern Africa throughout Algeria and Morocco. Though they are nicknamed apes, they are actually monkeys. Most Barbary apes live 25 to 30 years, as long as they remain healthy. Over time, some Barbary apes have traveled to southern Spain due to its proximity to Morocco. This makes Barbary macaques the only known wild monkey species in Europe. 

French author Jules Verne’s satirical novel Gil Braltar (1887) imagined a man dressing up as a Barbary macaque and leading a group of military monkeys to siege the Gibraltar fortress. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later support the population of Barbary apes on the Rock of Gibraltar. (Public Domain)

French author Jules Verne’s satirical novel Gil Braltar (1887) imagined a man dressing up as a Barbary macaque and leading a group of military monkeys to siege the Gibraltar fortress. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later support the population of Barbary apes on the Rock of Gibraltar. ( Public Domain )

A Primate Surprise

There have been a total of seventeen ancient Barbary ape remains found throughout Europe and the UK. Scientists working on the remains discovered that some are from the Iron Age , while the majority are from the Middle Ages . Several of these remains are estimated to be from the time of the Roman Empire or just after, around the 5th and 6th centuries. 

Archaeologists were shocked to find any Barbary macaques in northern Europe and the UK, since their natural habitat is in northern Africa. Many of the remains are still in excellent condition, although some revealed ill health while the monkeys were still alive. Poor dental quality suggests that the monkeys did not have a high-quality diet during their time away from their natural habitat. The size of the remains also suggests most did not live out their full lifespan and likely died prematurely of poor health. 

Of the seventeen discoveries, the most fascinating is one from 2001. Archaeologists excavated the remains of another Barbary ape in Llívia, Spain (which is actually located within the country of France). These remains were similar to the others, in that the ape had poor dental health and likely died of poor health conditions. Upon further analysis, scientists estimated that the ape probably lived during the late 5th century. Unlike the other discoveries, however, this special monkey was buried with grave goods ! These items included food, pottery fragments , iron plates, and bronze military belt buckles. 

The belt buckles discovered in the ape’s grave were typically related to the late Roman period. Military officers, Germanic barbarians , and barbarian allies in the Roman Army would wear these types of belt buckles as part of their identifying uniform. The discovery of this type of belt buckle in a human grave would suggest that they were once a part of this army, so why were some given to a Barbary ape?

Were Barbary apes found in and near forts beloved pets, or military monkeys? A Barbary ape looking at itself in a mirror, from the fifteenth-century ‘Breviary of Isabella of Castile ( Public Domain )

Were Military Monkeys Real?

In ancient times, the Strait of Gibraltar was a common trading area due to its location between northern Africa and southern Europe. Experts believe that these monkeys discovered throughout northern Europe and the UK were likely purchased, traded, or captured at this trade spot and transported to their owner’s home across the continent. This would also explain the poor health these animals were in, as the monkeys would not have had access to the food and environment they needed to thrive. 

Researchers are not entirely sure if the monkeys were used in any sort of combat situation or for defense purposes. It is possible that they were used to perform some sort of task, although evidence has not been found to support that. Instead, they say that it is more likely that these monkeys were simply used as pets or forms of entertainment for those able to afford them at the trade stop. 

Barbary apes and other military monkeys may have assisted with various tasks. The Monkey as Bird Catcher, Byzantine mosaic, 6th century AD (Laurom / CC BY SA 3.0)

Barbary apes and other military monkeys may have assisted with various tasks. The Monkey as Bird Catcher, Byzantine mosaic, 6th century AD (Laurom / CC BY SA 3.0 )

The monkey discovered in Llívia may have been purchased or given to a military officer who then had the monkey travel with his crew throughout Spain and France. This, too, explains the monkey’s poor health, as the soldiers themselves likely had poor nutrition as they traveled and made their rounds. Upon the monkey’s death, it seems the soldiers mourned the loss of their furry friend. They may have left their belt buckles in the ape’s grave to honor it for some unknown duty while it lived, or to mark the ape as a true member of their troop for a last bit of humor. 

Military monkeys seem to have been common for centuries. Pictured, a Marine and Monkey, 1921 (USMC History Division / CC BY 2.0)

Military monkeys seem to have been common for centuries. Pictured, a Marine and Monkey, 1921 (USMC History Division / CC BY 2.0 )

It is also unclear if any of the other discovered monkey remains were owned by individuals in the military. Although they are all from around the same time period, they may not have been used for the same purposes. At the time, traders between Africa and Europe might have been able to capture and trade these monkeys, but later stopped due to lack of demand or a decline in their population. 

Waiting For More Military Monkeys

Regardless of the true reason behind the famous military monkey, it’s clear that he made a great impact on those he lived with. In the future, archaeologists will continue to investigate ancient sites that may contain additional Barbary ape remains. Future discoveries may paint a clearer picture of these monkeys during the Middle Ages, and just why one was so revered by his military caretakers. For now, we will have to wait and see.

Military members frequently incorporate animals into their troops, whether as aids, mascots, or pets. An orphaned monkey adopted by African Union forces. ( Public Domain )

Top image: Left: Barbary apes can are intelligent, nimble, and can get pretty angry. But were they used as military monkeys in ancient times? Right: It’s not unheard of for monkeys to have thoughtful burials. Shown: An Indian monkey buried like a child in Egypt. Source: Left: Peter Mazlan / Adobe Stock, Right: Marta Osypińska /  Science in Poland .

By Lex Leigh

References

Barker, P., White, R., Pretty, K., Bird, H., & Corbishley, M. (1997). The Baths Basilica Wroxeter: Excavations 1966-90 . English Heritage.

Olesti, O., Guardia, J. Maragall, M., Mercadal, O., Galbany, J., and Nadal, J. Controlling the Pyrenees: A Macaque’s Burial from Late Antique Lulia Libica (Llívia, La Cerdanya, Spain). 2013. War and Warfare in Late Antiquity (2 Vols.), 703–731. Available at: https://brill.com/view/book/edcoll/9789004252585/B9789004252585_023.xml

Green, C. February 18, 2018). A North African Barbary Ape in Fifth- to Sixth-century Britain? A Short Note on the Significance and Context of the Wroxeter macaque remains . Dr. Caitlin R. Green. Available at:   https://www.caitlingreen.org/2018/02/barbary-ape-wroxeter.html

A Monkey in the Late Roman Army . December 19, 2014. Strange History. Available at:   https://www.strangehistory.net/2014/12/20/monkey-late-roman-army/

Waters, S., (PSG), J. W., Benrabah, M., Pilot, M., & Majolo, B. (2016, August 4). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species . IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved September 30, 2022, from https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/12561/50043570

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