Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan

Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan


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Wild Man from Borneo offers the first comprehensive history of the human-orangutan encounter. Arguably the most humanlike of all the great apes, particularly in intelligence and behavior, the orangutan has been cherished, used, and abused ever since it was first brought to the attention of Europeans in the seventeenth century. The red ape has engaged the interest of scientists, philosophers, artists, and the public at large in a bewildering array of guises that have by no means been exclusively zoological or ecological. One reason for such a long-term engagement with a being found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is that, like its fellow great apes, the orangutan stands on that most uncomfortable dividing line between human and animal, existing, for us, on what has been called “the dangerous edge of the garden of nature.”

Beginning with the scientific discovery of the red ape more than three hundred years ago, this work goes on to examine the ways in which its human attributes have been both recognized and denied in science, philosophy, travel literature, popular science, literature, theatre, museums, and film. The authors offer a provocative analysis of the origin of the name “orangutan,” trace how the ape has been recruited to arguments on topics as diverse as slavery and rape, and outline the history of attempts to save the animal from extinction. Today, while human populations increase exponentially, that of the orangutan is in dangerous decline. The remaining “wild men of Borneo” are under increasing threat from mining interests, logging, human population expansion, and the widespread destruction of forests. The authors hope that this history will, by adding to our knowledge of this fascinating being, assist in some small way in their preservation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780824872830
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press, The
Publication date: 01/31/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Robert Cribb is professor of Asian history at the Australian National University.

Helen Gilbert is professor of theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Helen Tiffin is a leading scholar in postcolonial theory and literary studies. She was professor of English at the University of Tasmania and the University of Queensland in Australia.

Read an Excerpt


Between the fifteenth century and the eighteenth, a great extinction took place. Unlike the later wave of extinction that would sweep away species after native species in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and above all the islands of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, this earlier extinction was one of the mind. It did not wipe out living creatures, but rather relegated to the realms of pure fantasy a rich bestiary that had charmed, inspired, and frightened people in ancient and medieval times. Some of these creatures were spectacular but distant perils like dragons, with their glittering scales and flashing wings; some were close by and unobtrusive like the gnomes, sober-suited, taciturn, and inhabiting local woods or caves. Some were monstrous and alarming, like the man-eating cyclops with a single eye in the middle of its head, while others were gentle, noble, and elegant like the unicorn. Some of them were humans in odd forms with tails or with huge pendulous ears drooping to their feet, big enough to be used as umbrellas in time of rain; some seemed to be no more than tribes with strange social customs like sharing one wife among several husbands.

Belief in their existence had been sustained over centuries by the faithful repetition of the statements of ancient authorities such as the Roman naturalist Pliny. More recent travel tales often reworked the pronouncements of these sages, reinforcing their plausibility and occasionally adding new details. According to these stories, fantastical creatures fed on many different things—sometimes humans, or their own young, or honey, or just the air—but the meat and drink of their sustained existence in the human imagination was mystery and symbolism. They were nourished on the one hand by the energizing tension that comes from setting credulity against incredulity, and on the other hand by the ideas and ideals they symbolized for human societies. Western society has persistently drawn strong analogies between humans and animals, though the character of these analogies has changed repeatedly. In ancient times and during the Middle Ages, animals were most commonly seen as providing moral examples to humankind. In Aesop’s Fables, as in the Panchatantra of India, the actions of animals were used to provide models of good or bad behavior: ants modeled diligence, the tortoise determination, the hare complacency, and so on. A myth that the female pelican would tear its own flesh to provide blood to feed its young affirmed the role that human mothers were expected to play in sacrificing themselves for their offspring. The nobility of the unicorn and the uncompromising savagery of the cyclops served as opposing models, inspiring and warning, for human society.

Modern scientific method cut its teeth driving these creatures to extinction. This new way of thinking that began to emerge in the Renaissance gradually set up new standards of belief. Fascination with fantastical beings did not disappear, but it lost the authority that Pliny and others had once given it, and it retreated to the intellectual borderlands of society as superstition and pseudo-science. The desire to look at nature for instructive analogies to the human condition remained powerful, but over a couple of centuries the creatures that had carried those analogies disappeared. From being real but remote figures in a diverse and wondrous global fauna, they became the stuff of refined allusion, wispy figments of the collective imagination. This process of extinction was driven partly by the European overseas expansion that began in the late fifteenth century. Those who sailed to distant lands found many marvels, but they often failed to find confirmation of the wonderful creatures they had once taken for granted. Some travelers simply wrote reports that pushed this bestiary to still more remote parts of the world, but others informed their readers, sometimes gently, sometimes sternly, that the received wisdom was flawed. And yet, here and there, traveling Europeans encountered something that conjured up ancient imaginations and presented the emerging inquisitive scientific frame of mind with a challenge. Early in the seventeenth century a Dutch physician, Jacobus Bontius, neatly captured the spirit of the age in his short chapter on the “Ourang Outang” when he invoked the memory of creatures that Pliny had called “satyrs,” insisted on the importance of a general skepticism, and provided the rudiments of an eyewitness account of something remarkable and perplexing that he had seen for the first time.

In 1699, at the end of Bontius’ century, an English investigative surgeon, Edward Tyson, largely completed the disentanglement of orangutans from the mythologies of the ancient and medieval world when he appended to a report on the dissection of a chimpanzee a long essay whose title reveals its conclusion: A Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies, the Cynocephali, the Satyrs, and Sphinges of the Ancients. Wherein it will appear that they are all either apes or monkeys, and not men, as formerly pretended. “In this opinion,” he commented, “I was the more confirmed, because the most diligent Enquiries of late into all Parts of the inhabited World, could never discover any such Puny diminutive Race of Humans.”1 Even after Tyson’s intervention, a few writers continued to invoke Pliny and others to entertain a broader public hungry for exaggerated accounts of the exotic. In the early eighteenth century, for instance, the Italian priest Giacinto Gimma published a series of dissertations with titles such as De hominibus fabulosis and De fabulosis animalibus, which repeated a potpourri of ancient and medieval legends, enlivened with citations from more recent authorities such as Bontius.2 Travel tales, too, continued to rework old legends, but there was a new and increasingly irresistible insistence on the direct evidence of eyewitnesses and the inspection of specimens, rather than on the pronouncements of venerable scholars. The French traveler Louis Le Comte, writing in the late seventeenth century, repeated the usual collection of remarkable legends about a creature in Borneo that we half-recognize as the orangutan, but he went on to admonish his readers:

I discovered all these particulars from one of our principal French Merchants, who has lived for some time on the Island. Nevertheless, I do not believe that one should give much credence to such accounts; nor should they be rejected altogether, neither must we altogether reject them as fabulous; rather, we should await the unanimous testimony of other travelers that may confirm its truth.3

This modern skepticism replaced the indiscriminate menagerie of the Middle Ages with a new bestiary of real animals, less grotesque than their predecessors but more vivid because they were more accurately described and depicted, and soon to be placed on display, turning into eyewitnesses a public that had once been only a passive audience for countless retellings.

The real orangutan, Pongo, is one of only four genera of great ape. Two of the others—Pan (chimpanzees and bonobos) and Gorilla (gorillas)—are indigenous to Africa, while the fourth, Homo, is considered indigenous to nearly every part of the world. Orangutans are found naturally only on the great equatorial islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are jungle dwellers, tree dwellers with long arms and legs, supple joints, and the strong prehensile fingers and toes needed to support a weight of up to 130 kilograms (285 lbs.). Almost as big as human beings but far stronger, they move with calm assurance in the jungle canopy, from branch to branch, tree to tree, building a nest each night with leaves and branches. They are mainly solitary, ranging over a wide area of jungle in search of fruits, insects, mushrooms, lizards, birds’ eggs, and other sustenance. Observers often comment on the hair of the orangutan, which can range from deep brown to a striking red, otherwise a rare color among mammals. Humans who encounter orangutans at close quarters are frequently struck by their specific looks and personalities. Males are often bearded and may have impressive and distinctive facial flanges. Individual orangutans are easy to recognize, and their faces seem to show a range of complex human emotions, including curiosity, wisdom, mischievousness, and melancholy. Although genetic research indicates that orangutans are more distantly related to humans in evolutionary terms than are chimpanzees, bonobos, or gorillas, they appear to be the most sapiens, the most thoughtful, of all the great apes apart from humans.

Orangutans today face the threat of total extinction. Only a few tens of thousands are left in the wild, a few hundred more in captivity. They will not disappear from the world this decade, and extinction is not a foregone conclusion. Energetic individuals and institutions are working to save the orangutan, but a powerful array of factors is steadily pushing the species toward oblivion and the eventual outcome is, at best, in doubt. In 2004, orangutan specialists systematically assessed recent reports to estimate the size of the population surviving in the wild. The obstacles to conducting such a census are formidable, dwarfing the logistical challenges of most human censuses. Orangutans roam widely and live in places remote from human lines of communication. For the small number of researchers and conservation officials who take serious responsibility for orangutans, better understanding of their behavior and ecology and promoting measures to protect them more effectively have always had priority over the costly distraction of an accurate census. The review, however, concluded that there were around 7,300 orangutans in Sumatra and 57,000 in Borneo, including some 13,000 in Sabah and 1,000 in Sarawak. More than half the Borneo population (32,000) was concentrated in peat forests of southern Central Kalimantan.4
parable expert attempt to tally orangutan numbers since 2004. Some recent estimates, taking account of newly discovered communities, report similar numbers; others suggest the real figure may be only half this number.5

Orangutans have never been of practical importance to humans in the way of domestic animals, prey, or predators—sheep or dogs, bison or cod, wolves or fleas—but along with the chimpanzee, the orangutan has had a special place in the imagination because of its striking similarity to humans. For centuries before European science encountered orangutans, the smaller apes of North Africa and the monkeys of parts of Asia had been kept as pets or put on display for both popular and court entertainments. Their humanlike behaviors gave rise to a rich store of ape lore, associating them with foolishness, sinfulness, slyness, imitation, and But these apes had been miniature, vulgar parodies of humanity that did not raise metaphysical questions of any great depth. The great apes that began to appear in European travelers’ tales, and as occasional curiosities exhibited in Europe itself in the sixteenth century, were different, closer to humans in size, in physical form, and in behavior than any creature that had previously come to the attention of the West. At a time when assumptions about the nature of humanity that had governed medieval thinking were under unprecedented questioning, the red ape and its African relatives presented observers with the exciting challenge of assessing, expressing, and judging just how much of humanity there could be in a creature from the jungle and just what it might mean for humans to know that there was something of the jungle in them.

In their tropical homelands, however, orangutans appear to have attracted much less attention from indigenous people than they did from Europeans. For Indonesians, even those who lived closest to the red apes in the jungles of Borneo, the orangutan seems to have conjured up no special metaphysical challenges; it was normally no threat to humans and could only survive far from human settlement. Orangutans appear in some folkloric tales, but the most striking ones seem to have been brought to Borneo by Europeans and then re-exported, as it were, as ostensibly indigenous beliefs.

Orangutans—however quasi-solitary by habit—have, like the other great apes and indeed many animal species, individual and community interactions and habits of daily life in which we can perceive cultural complexity. But this book is less about their actual behaviors (in the wild or in captivity) or their anatomy, tool use, intelligence, mating, and rearing practices than it is about the orangutan-human encounter over four centuries, about the ways in which their actual or imagined presence has impinged upon us, and how we have envisioned, studied, and treated them. These relationships have been protean and multifaceted, fostering an enduring curiosity about the red ape, whether to learn more about ourselves or (and potentially less anthropocentrically) to learn more about them. As the possibility of their extinction galvanizes us into concern for their preservation, we increasingly deploy scientific, diplomatic, and cultural resources on their behalf, yet still to a degree for our own benefit, hoping to arrest a decline for which we have been largely responsible.

Over the centuries, many studies of orangutans have aimed to determine the precise character of their differences from and similarities to humans. Some of the earliest naturalists and their contemporaries asked whether orangutans could walk upright or speak, while others sought in orangutan life moral lessons for the “human condition.” Later investigators wanted to know whether humans and orangutans could produce offspring together. Still later, we have asked how much genetic makeup the orangutan has in common with us, how much it shares high-level human emotions, such as the capacity to empathize, how much it can plan complex actions. Scientists offered answers to these questions as they arose, but since the early nineteenth century, as orangutans were increasingly presented to the general public in the West, first in philosophy, menageries, and exhibitions and later through literature, theater, and eventually film, ordinary people also came to firm conclusions about what orangutans could and could not do. Scientific answers, however, did not move in a simple linear trajectory from unknown to known. The question of whether orangutans could speak appeared to be resolved in the negative in about 1770, yet it returned to the scientific agenda in a slightly different form in the twentieth century. In the century following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), scientific attention shifted significantly from the orangutan to the chimpanzee, partly because chimps were identified as the closest living relatives of humans and partly because they were more convenient laboratory subjects. In the twentieth century, scientific research shifted away from questions related to the definition of the human and the animal to interest in orangutans themselves. Such research was frequently combined with conservation initiatives conducted in the field and thus much more closely linked to orangutan behavior and habitat.

Knowledge about orangutans came not just from the world of science—and scientists themselves were often at odds over what might be the correct answers to questions of the time—but also from the broader world of public and popular culture. Popular enthusiasms and anxieties encouraged authors, playwrights, artists, and impresarios to toy with the implications of granting orangutans, or recognizing in them, still more human characteristics than scientists might have done. In most cases, however, the purpose of this apparent accentuation of the human in orangutans was to find a line along which it was still possible to differentiate the two species, to keep the orangutan just on the other side of the crucial boundary. To identify human characteristics in an orangutan was not to say that orangutans were human, but rather to suggest that the essence of humanity lay elsewhere.

The reflective spirit of the post-Enlightenment era made it of fundamental importance to determine just what constituted humanness. The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who devised what became the modern system of classification of all living things, gave humankind the scientific name Homo sapiens, but he shied away from defining humanity. Instead he simply instructed his readers in Latin, nosce te ipsum, to know themselves. Of course not everyone turned to science for an answer to this question, but contemplating the creature that seemed closest of all to humankind was a constant part of self-definition. Precisely because the intention was to decide the limits of humanness, this contemplation was loaded against the orangutan. For most observers, the answer was already known: orangutans were not humans and the challenge was to put a finger on just what it was that disqualified them. Always, however, and with increasing volume in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there have been a few daring figures who have been willing to regard orangutans as human and to consider the implications of doing so.

The cultural history we offer in the following pages begins with the story of how the red ape received its names, both the common name orangutan and the scientific name Pongo pygmaeus. This naming established the red ape definitively in the eyes of science as a creature distinct from human beings. Yet both while this naming process was under way and ever since, those working outside the rigorous but limiting framework of scientific reasoning probed and tested the species boundary created by the scientists. In the eighteenth century, European philosophers and writers explored the proposition that orangutans were truly human, albeit not quite the same kind of humans as Europeans. This exploration ended for science with the conclusion that orangutans were wholly animal, but the idea of a human-orangutan nexus never lost its fascination for the public or for many artists and thinkers. In this book, therefore, the history of developing scientific knowledge of the orangutan is intertwined with the history of the representation of orangutans in key areas of human culture: travel writing, literature, exhibitions, stage performance, film, zoos, and circuses. The focus is on Western culture, where images of the orangutan have been widely used and extensively preserved, but we have drawn in elements from Asian cultures where possible.

Just as investigating, writing, and thinking about orangutans (and humans) has tended to be a pursuit of Western cultures rather than those of Southeast Asia, it is primarily in the West that the orangutan has become iconic, a charismatic example of an endangered species. Because of its iconicity, the orangutan image has percolated into recent advertisements for luxury cars, electronic communications, pension funds, and other areas that have nothing to do with species endangerment. The scenarios featured in such advertisements are as fanciful in linking orangutans with human worlds as was the famous nineteenth-century fairground exhibit The Wild Men of Borneo,7 from which this book derives its title. Devised in 1852 by American showman Lyman Warner, the act featured twin dwarf brothers as “savage” creatures taken by sailors, it was claimed, after a great struggle in the jungle. Warner had actually purchased the brothers, Hiram and Barney Davis, from their parents in Ohio; they were renamed Waino and Plutano and became from which this book derives its title. Devised one of the most popular acts on the exhibition circuit, touring for more than half a century in their home country and to most major European cities:

The boys learned to play their part well, snarling and hooting, capering frantically about the stage, and even feigning attempts at attacking audience members. They performed before a painted jungle backdrop purported to represent the remote island home of their “lost race.”8

This popular performance later evolved into feats of strength as it became harder to promote the gentle dwarfs as wild and dangerous. The expression “the wild man from Borneo” has since been used in a range of vernacular contexts to signify brutishness, outlandish behavior, recklessness, hucksterism, lawlessness, or simply unkempt looks. In an intertextual move that has particular significance for this book, the term was also reappropriated to refer to the orangutan itself, notably in late nineteenth-century zoo exhibits. Today, travel brochures invoke this cultural history in advertisements for orangutan sanctuaries in Sabah where tourists can encounter the “original” wild man of Borneo in his natural habitat. Though the phrase’s usage has waned as a behavioral descriptor, other terms have sprung up to draw new orangutan-human analogies. In contemporary Australia, for instance, people with auburn hair are commonly called “rangas” in acknowledgment of the vivid red hue of the orangutan.9

A cultural history is not a history of science, though it inevitably draws on it. Many different approaches, including those science would regard as lacking its own authority, are crucial components. The “truth” of a cultural history of orangutans lies not in biological or behavioral “facts” alone, but in recording the various ways in which orangutans have been perceived and represented in a number of disciplines, discourses, and domains of practice. To alter Claude Lévi-Strauss’ phrase a little, orangutans have proved good to think with,10 and not just about the nature of humanness, our proximity to other great apes, or our treatment of our fellow planetary beings. We have also “thought with them” in less general terms at particular times: about race during the period of European slave trading, the late nineteenth century and beyond; about the nature, status, and place of women, particularly in the era of the “new woman”; about friendship, desire, and sexuality; about the decline and degeneration of humans at the turn of the nineteenth century; about our future as a species; and about our biological ancestors and our myths of human exceptionalism as the special creation of God.

We have begun this orangutan-human narrative with accounts of the discovery of the red ape and the Western anatomical and philosophical investigations undertaken to differentiate it from other apes, monkeys, and humans. In the next chapters we move from these early inquiries to consider the public exhibition of orangutans in Europe and the United States as well as their encounters with humans in Borneo and Sumatra. While scientists and philosophers continued their inquiries into the anatomy and status of the orangutan, writers, dramatists, and filmmakers began to include orangutans in their creative works. The following chapters, therefore, give accounts of the ways the red ape has been imaginatively represented in fiction, on stage, and on the screen, from the eighteenth century to the present. Today the targets of scientific interest have become orangutan psychology and behavior in what is left of its natural habitat. Hence, we conclude with a discussion of moves made toward the orangutan’s conservation, crucially habitat preservation, rehabilitation, and with the complex emergence of the idea that orangutans possess rights. In so doing, we hope this book may in some way contribute to the orangutan’s survival in the wild.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 From Satyr to Pongo: Discovering the Red Ape 10

2 "A More than Animal Intelligence": Exploring the Specks Boundary 30

3 Wanted Dead or Alive: Orangutans on Display 58

4 Darkest Borneo, Savage Sumatra 85

5 Imagining Orangutans: Fictions, Fantasies, Futures 107

6 Close Encounters and Dangerous Liaisons 128

7 Monkey Business: Orangutans on Stage and Screen 156

8 Zoo Stories: Becoming Animals, Unbecoming Humans 185

9 On the Edge: Conservation and the Threat of Extinction 209

10 Faces in the Mirror: Evolution, Intelligence, and Rights 232

Afterword 248

Notes 251

Bibliography 279

Index 307

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