Project (2018)

Man-Like Apes: Chimps, Gorillas, Orangutans, and European Explorers

This project traces and analyzes British and European early attempts to make sense of great apes. Monkeys and apes, claims Donna Haraway in Primate Visions (1989), have a privileged relation to nature and culture for western people. These animals have been subjected to sustained, culturally specific interrogations of what it means to be almost human. The earliest record of European encounters with great apes is dated arguably to the late sixteenth century. In the following centuries—especially the eighteenth and nineteenth—European and British travelers to Africa and Southeast Asia were eager to learn about the mythical man-like animals. They gathered information about great apes from local hunters and missionaries, and based on this, later succeeded in producing first hand accounts. As getting a live specimen was immensely difficult, the dead bodies of chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas became the subject of intense examination. Special hunting expeditions composed of explorers and locals produced bodies to dissect. The explorers prepared size charts of limbs and organs, then they sold and sent bones and dried skins to European museums and other collectors. They seldom managed to trap a living specimen. The latter invoked a wide spectrum of responses, from compassion and nourishment to fear and abuse. This project examines how the encounters with living and dead great apes produced ideas about humanity, race, and the order of nature. Additionally, the records about great apes provide insights into the inception of primatology studies and situate the hunting of great apes in the larger context of colonial extraction of resources for medical use.