Apes and Ancestors

By Moser, Stephanie | Antiquity, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Apes and Ancestors


Moser, Stephanie, Antiquity


Corbey & Theunissen's edited volume marks an important development in the study of human ancestry. While human-origins research has long boasted of having an interdisciplinary approach, this volume represents a different kind of interdisciplinarianism. It marks the move into the realm of history of science, which is an area where few palaeoanthropologists have ventured (cf. Hammond 1982; Landau 1991; Spencer & Langham 1990). Ape, man, apeman not only provides an interdisciplinary approach to questions concerning the historical study of apes and hominid ancestors, it firmly locates the study of human origins in traditions of historical understanding and scholarship. The book is the result of the coming together of a wide range of scholars with diverse interests regarding the interpretation of apes and ancestors. If there is one unifying theme, it is the vexed and age-old question of the status and relation of apes to humans, and the obsession with the idea of a missing link. One of the most significant achievements of the volume is that it does not start with, or only deal with, the history of academic study regarding apes and ancestors; it demonstrates something we have been avoiding for far too long, which is that contemporary scientific research on primates and hominids draws heavily on interpretative frameworks developed since classical times.

The volume begins with the acknowledgement that apes and monkeys, more than any other animals, had a profound impact on the understanding of human status. As Corbey notes, 'Nowhere in the animal, or not-so-animal, world, it would seem is the emotional involvement of our species, studying its own ancestry and next of kin, so great' (p. 3). The book is then structured according to four major sections. The first, 'Interpreting Apes', deals with the ways in which apes have been understood, described and studied since classical times. Beyond clarifying the terminological confusion regarding non-human primates, the authors provide important insights into the major frameworks through which the status of the apes has been perceived prior to their scientific understanding. Starting with perceptions of primates since classical times, Spencer reports that Aristotle described three non-human primates - the monkey, the baboon and the ape. His 'tailless ape' provided a general portrait of the anthropoid apes of Africa and Asia, which remained unknown to the scientific world until the mid 17th century. Thijssen notes that Aristotle raised the issue of the ambiguous status of the apes, classifying them somewhere between humans and quadrupeds. Other classical sources included Claudius Galen and of course, Pliny the Elder, whose monstrous races of Ethiopia became profoundly influential in the perception of apes and ancestors. Amongst these races, described in Pliny's Historia Naturalis, was the 'Pygmie'. The Pygmie was not a contemporary Pygmie nor a non-human primate, rather it was a mythological creature that was about 50 cm tall. Classical authors debated the human status of the Pygmies and their place in the Great Chain of Being.

In the medieval period apes were characterized as aberrant humans. Spencer argues that the general framework through which they were perceived reflects the mix between science and religious philosophy. Among the many works that deal with apes during this time are those by Albertus Magnus (c. 1206-1280), who saw the crucial difference between apes and humans as being based on their souls. Thijssen argues that the conceptual framework for understanding ape ancestors or the Pygmies in the Middle Ages derived from Aristotle and Saint Augustine, who addressed the question of whether the Plinian races were humans. Another important influence on the perception of apes was the Medieval construction of the Wildman, which was a powerful icon widely known in literature and art (see Bernheimer 1970; Husband 1980). In addition to examining the evolution of Western traditions of understanding, we get some glimpses into different cultural perceptions of apes. …

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