Mystery of Barbary ape at Eamhain Mhacha

“Kilimanjaro is a snow-covered mountain 19,700 feet high, and is said to be the highest mountain in Africa,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “Close to the western summit, there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was doing at that altitude.”

Visiting Eamhain Mhacha last week, I stumbled on a similar mystery. The skull of an African monkey was found there 40 years ago. No one has explained what the monkey was doing at that latitude.

‘The ancient capital of Ulster’ was known to the geographer Ptolemy in the second century AD. The hilltop mound, surrounded by a large bank and ditch, was thought to be the remains of a fort. In fact, it was a ritual site, sacred to local goddess Macha. 

This was the Iron Age equivalent of Armagh’s two cathedrals nearby. The skull, a plastercast of which is displayed in the site’s interpretative centre, came to light during an archaeological dig. Bob Quinn, who filmed it at the British Museum, featured the find in The Atlantean. 

Carbon dating showed that its owner, a ‘Barbary ape’, lived sometime between 390BC and 20BC.

‘Barbary’ refers of the Berber people of north Africa, whose most famous son was St Augustine of Hippo. The so-called ‘ape’ was actually an old world monkey, a macaque. 

Apes, such as humans and chimps, haven’t got tails, whereas almost all monkeys have them. Mistaking the creature for an ape was understandable; several of the 23 macaque species, including the Barbary one, lack tails.

About 300 Barbary macaques live on the Rock of Gibraltar. They, and humans, are Europe’s only free-living primates. A 17th century chronicler described them as the Rock’s “true owners, with possession from time immemorial”.

It’s unlikely, however, that today’s animals are descended from ones living in southern Europe prior to the last ice age; no fossil evidence of macaques has come to light on Gibraltar and the DNA profiles of today’s ones match those of their north African cousins.

Monkeys shun water and could not have crossed the strait from Morocco unaided, even when sea levels were much lower than they are now. 

Were they brought across by home-sick Moors pining for their native turf long ago? Foraging in north African towns, macaques have become pests. 

The Gibraltar ones have no fear of people and will even climb on the backs of tourists. Stowing away on ships long ago would not have been a problem for them.

Archaeologist Chris Lynn, who has directed excavations at Eamhain Mhacha, claims that exotic animals were often traded as pets. A specimen, similar to the Árd Mhacha one, was unearthed at an Iron Age site in Luxembourg, and two incomplete skeletons, dated to Roman times, were found in Britain. 

That a monkey could be transported from Africa to Ireland so long ago, might seem impossible. Shipping it over land certainly wasn’t on; the route would have been impenetrable and dangerous. 

Travelling by sea, however, was easier; Ireland being relatively accessible even from the coast of north Africa.

There’s another possibility. 

No monkey bones, apart from the skull, were discovered at Eamhain Mhacha so, perhaps, only the severed head was imported. Did the skull have ornamental, or perhaps ritual, significance? 

The origins of the Kilimanjaro leopard and the Eamhain Mhacha macaque remain tantalising mysteries.

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