Ancient monkey soldiers? The Romans buried a Barbary ape with military offerings

The military of many countries past and present have used animals in their work. Whether using horses to transport men or dogs to track and patrol, the use of animals has been prominent 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 in their battles, or was it just a show of respect for a soldier’s beloved pet? How did the Romans even find monkeys, anyway? Experts have fascinating speculations.

The unique Barbary apes in Europe

Barbary macaques, also known as Barbary apes, are native to North Africa through Algeria and Morocco. Although they are nicknamed monkeys, they are actually monkeys. Most Barbary apes live 25 to 30 years, as long as they stay healthy. Over time, some Barbary apes 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 disguising himself as a Barbary macaque and leading a group of military apes to besiege the fortress of Gibraltar. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would later support the Barbary ape population 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 have found that some date to the Iron Age, while the majority date to the Middle Ages. Many of these remains are believed to date from the time of the Roman Empire or just after, around the 5th and 6th centuries.

Archaeologists were shocked to find Barbary macaques in northern Europe and the UK, as their natural habitat is in North Africa. Many remains are still in excellent condition, although some showed poor health while the monkeys were still alive. The poor dental quality suggests that the monkeys did not have a high quality diet during their stay away from their natural habitat. The size of the remains also suggests that most did not live their entire lives and likely died prematurely due to poor health.

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

Belt buckles found in the Monkey Tomb were generally linked to the late Roman period. Military officers, Germanic barbarians, and Barbarian allies of the Roman army wore 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 part of this army, so why was it given to a Barbary ape?

Have Barbary apes been found in and near forts, beloved pets, or military apes? A Barbary ape looking at himself in a mirror, from the 15th 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 North Africa and southern Europe. Experts believe that these monkeys discovered in northern Europe and the UK were likely bought, traded or captured at this place of trade and transported to their owners’ homes across the continent. This would also explain the poor health of these animals, as the monkeys would not have had access to the food and environment they needed to thrive.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure if the monkeys were used in some sort of combat situation or for defense purposes. It is possible that they were used to perform some sort of task, although no evidence has been found to support this. Instead, they say it’s more likely that these monkeys were simply used as pets or forms of entertainment for those who could afford them at the commercial stop.

Barbary apes and other military apes may have helped with various tasks.  The bird-catching monkey, Byzantine mosaic, 6th century AD (Laurom / CC BY SA 3.0)

Barbary apes and other military apes may have helped with various tasks. The Monkey Catching Birds, Byzantine mosaic, 6th century AD. AD (Laurom / CC BY SA 3.0 )

The monkey discovered in Llívia may have been purchased or given to a military officer who then took it on a journey with his crew through Spain and France. This also explains the poor health of the monkey, as the soldiers themselves probably had a poor diet while on the move and on their rounds. When the monkey died, it seems the soldiers mourned the loss of their four-legged friend. They may have left their belt buckles in the monkey’s grave to honor him with an unknown duty while he lived, or to mark the monkey as a true member of their troupe for a final bit of humor.

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

Military monkeys seem to have been common for centuries. Pictured is a sailor and a monkey, 1921 (USMC History Division / DC BY 2.0 )

It’s also unclear whether any of the other ape remains discovered belonged to the military. Although they all date from roughly the same period, they may not have been used for the same purposes. At the time, traders between Africa and Europe could have captured and traded these apes, but then stopped due to a lack of demand or a decline in their population.

Waiting for more military monkeys

Whatever the real reason behind the famous military monkey, it’s clear he had a big impact on those he lived with. In the future, archaeologists will continue to investigate ancient sites that may contain other Barbary ape remains. Future findings could paint a clearer picture of these apes in the Middle Ages and explain why one of them was so revered by its military guardians. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.

The military frequently incorporates animals into their troops, whether as aides, mascots, or pets. An orphan monkey adopted by African Union forces. ( Public domain )

Top Image: Left: Barbary Apes can be smart, agile and can get angry. But were they used as military monkeys in ancient times? Right: It’s not uncommon for monkeys to have thoughtful burials. Shown: An Indian monkey buried as a child in Egypt. Source: Left: Pierre Mazlan /Adobe Stock, right: Marta Osypińska / Science in Poland .

By Lex Leigh

References

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

Olesti, O., Guardia, J. Maragall, M., Mercadal, O., Galbany, J. and Nadal, J. Controlling the Pyrenees: The Burial of a Late Antiquity Macaque 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. 2018 Feb 18). A North African Barbary ape in fifth- and sixth-century Britain? A Brief Note on the Significance and Context of Wroxeter’s 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 story. Available at: https://www.strangehistory.net/2014/12/20/monkey-late-roman-army/

Waters, S., (PSG), JW, 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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