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Medieval monkey found in Basel loo

A chained Barbary macaque, part of a tapestry from the 15th century Musée de Cluny, Paris

The almost complete skeleton of a Barbary macaque has been discovered in a medieval latrine in Basel. Archaeologists are talking of a “sensational find”.

This content was published on November 5, 2020 - 17:31
Keystone-SDA/ts

The skeleton was found in the foundations of a former fortified tower excavated on the construction site of the Museum of Fine Art’s new car park, the archaeological department of canton Basel City said in a statement on Thursday. The tower served as a lavatory and place for disposing of household waste for wealthy residents in the Middle Ages.

The latrine also contained household rubbish including several whole pots, which help give a reliable dating of the monkey skeleton Fabian Bubendorf, Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt

Examination of the bones by specialists from the University of Basel and the Museum of Natural History revealed that they are the remains of a male Barbary macaque kept as a pet in the 15th century. The monkey, which was 5-8 years old, was robust but had broken bones and crushed canines, signs of mistreatment.

The monkey skeleton is almost completely intact Philippe Saurbeck, Archäologische Bodenforschung Basel-Stadt

Expensive purchase

At the end of the Middle Ages, wealthy clerics and humanistic scholars liked to keep monkeys as pets, the archaeologists said.

They think the monkey might have belonged to Heinrich von Bernheim, a scholar who held important positions at the Council of Basel from 1431 to 1449. He had many contacts abroad and had the money to buy a monkey, which was an expensive purchase at the time.

The skeleton is considered by archaeologists to be one of the oldest and most complete discoveries of its kind in Europe. So far, there have been only five such finds dating back to the Middle Ages on the continent.

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