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Wild Man from Borneo

Wild Man from Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan

Robert Cribb
Helen Gilbert
Helen Tiffin
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Wild Man from Borneo
    Book Description:

    Wild Man from Borneooffers 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-4026-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-9)

    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;...

  6. 1 From Satyr to Pongo: Discovering the Red Ape
    (pp. 10-29)

    In 1641, the Dutch anatomist Nicolaes Tulp published a book with the bland titleObservationes Medicœ(Medical Observations). Tulp is best known now for his depiction in Rembrandt’s celebrated paintingThe Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, in which the doctor is shown explaining the features of a human cadaver to an audience of students. Tulp’s real-life interests, however, extended beyond human anatomy to the biology of other creatures. Chapter 56 of Tulp’s book was titled “An Indian Satyr” and opened with the paragraph:

    Although it lies just outside the field of medicine, I shall weave into my account here a...

  7. 2 “A More than Animal Intelligence”: Exploring the Species Boundary
    (pp. 30-57)

    Although the Linnaean system proposed that species could be distinguished from one another by their physical characteristics alone, the striking exception that Linnaeus himself made for humans—exhorting them to know their own character—hinted at another way of defining humanity. Linnaeus’ instruction could be read in several ways. In Classical and medieval times, the maximnosce te ipsumhad been a warning against hubris, advice not to overestimate one’s capacities. In the sixteenth century, it was often meant more literally, commonly appearing on so-called anatomical fugitive sheets, which were printed for public sale and purchased by members of the...

  8. 3 Wanted Dead or Alive: Orangutans on Display
    (pp. 58-84)

    In the eighteenth century, European elites began to develop an appetite for natural history collection. Kings and queens, princes and dukes, doctors and merchants, accumulated so-called cabinets of curiosities, some from the natural world (naturalia), some made by humans (artificalia). In the same spirit, a smaller number of wealthy or powerful individuals maintained menageries of exotic animals, often sponsoring artists to record them in sketches, paintings, and figurines. In the beginning, both kinds of collection were fundamentally miscellaneous. The tooth of a bear might sit incongruously on a shelf alongside a piece of filigreed silverwork or, in the menagerie, a...

  9. 4 Darkest Borneo, Savage Sumatra
    (pp. 85-106)

    The orangutans presented to Western audiences throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were creatures detached from their natural habitat both literally and symbolically. Linnaean classification and comparative anatomy paid as little attention to where an animal came from as they did to its behavior. The earliest carers for captive orangutans in Europe, apart from trying to keep their charges warm, made no effort to replicate the natural environment from which the animals had come. When philosophers and writers elaborated on a half-mythical “orangoutang” that behaved like a human and resembled certain human races, they imagined a creature that was potentially...

  10. 5 Imagining Orangutans: Fictions, Fantasies, Futures
    (pp. 107-127)

    During the eighteenth century, the orangutan began to appear in plays and novels, and later in short stories. Most of the early authors had not seen an orangutan, even in captivity, but the writings of travelers such as Beeckman and of scientists such as Tyson were so widely circulated, the illustrations of Bontius and Tulp so often redrawn, and public displays of orangutan-like creatures so common that a knowledge of the term “orangutan” and a sense of what it stood for was widespread within the literate elite of western Europe by the second half of the eighteenth century. The fiction...

  11. 6 Close Encounters and Dangerous Liaisons
    (pp. 128-155)

    The fictional orangutans discussed in chapter 5 offer commentary on Western society, either by directly addressing a human audience or by behaving in ways that highlight human shortcomings. Most of these apes have been removed from their original environment, and even Boulle’s advanced apes live in a world that is functionally similar to the human world of the twentieth century rather than the jungle world of their ancestors. Only the Old Man inWhat the Orangutan Told Aliceis still in his natural surroundings, but his message to humans relates specifically to what they are doing to that environment in...

  12. 7 Monkey Business: Orangutans on Stage and Screen
    (pp. 156-184)

    On March 16, 1825, a young French “character dancer” known simply as Mazurier created a buzz among Paris audiences with his beguiling simian antics in a ballet-drama that was to become one of the most influential stage pieces of its time:Jocko, ou le singe du Brésil.¹ Although set in Brazil, well away from the known habitat of any great ape, the drama appears to have drawn substantially on existing representations of orangutans. Within months, entrepreneurs had negotiated to bring the production to London to showcase Mazurier’s singular talents as Jocko, the trickster ape of the play’s title, and plans...

  13. 8 Zoo Stories: Becoming Animals, Unbecoming Humans
    (pp. 185-208)

    Ideas of human responsibility for animals, along with debates over the ethics of their captivity, began to shape the orangutan’s appearances in zoos more than a century ago, albeit in a more limited range of ways than is evident in fiction or film. By the early 1900s, innovative zoo directors were attempting to present exotic animals in more humane, quasi-natural contexts rather than in bare cages. This mode of presentation lent itself well to incorporating educational and scientific goals as part of the Western zoo mandate, leaving institutions that did not establish themselves in such terms to continue as mere...

  14. 9 On the Edge: Conservation and the Threat of Extinction
    (pp. 209-231)

    The orangutan’s decline toward extinction began several thousand years ago, well before the start of human history. The red ape’s dwindling in numbers is underpinned by basic features of the animal’s biology. As with all apes, the natural reproduction rate of orangutans is slow.¹ Females do not normally give birth before they are fifteen years old, and they typically have no more than four offspring in a lifetime, with intervals of several years between births. For tree dwellers with few natural predators, this basic biology is unproblematic and allows for the investment of time and energy in the socialization of...

  15. 10 Faces in the Mirror: Evolution, Intelligence, and Rights
    (pp. 232-247)

    For four centuries, the West has been fascinated by the orangutan. So similar to humans, yet with so many differences, the red ape has challenged us to think about the nature of humanity and the character of human relationships with the animal world. As knowledge of the orangutan has developed, and as scientific understanding of biological processes has grown, the specific challenge presented by the orangutan has also changed. As the preoccupations of human society have changed, too, literature, theater, film, and other cultural productions have reflected on the orangutan in different ways. Yet many of the concerns the orangutan...

  16. Afterword
    (pp. 248-250)

    In many ways the great apes are very like us, yet we simultaneously hold the conviction that they are not like us. It may be true that they lack the capacity to feel remorse, a sense of duty, and historical consciousness, but they can feel sadness, curiosity, and love, and they can demonstrate mischievousness. It may be true that they do not speak in the sense in which humans understand language, but they communicate, listen, and comprehend, and they teach. It may be easy to construct a list of traits that humans alone possess in serious measure; it is hard...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 251-278)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 279-306)
  19. Index
    (pp. 307-318)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-323)