Historical Anthropology: Monstrous Beings and Creatures of the Forest

In the 17th century, English anatomist Edward Tyson classified chimpanzees as human dwarves. Hans-Konrad Schmutz researches the history of anthropology - and the images in the minds of scholars.

By Thomas Gull, translation by Karen Oettli-Geddes

In 1699, English anatomist Edward Tyson dissected the first chimpanzee. He did this with trademark precision and established that the creature had 38 anatomical characteristics pertaining to humans and 27 to apes. And, he declared, they both had the same brain. In his elaborately constructed monograph Orang-Outan, sive Homo Sylvestries, he portrayed the chimpanzee as a small, muscly human that walked erect.

However, Tyson's classification of the hominid as a human dwarf was based not only on his anatomical findings. It was also the result of his humanistic education, says anthropology historian Hans-Konrad Schmutz who researches the visual tradition of modern anthropology. "Like other researchers, Tyson already had certain preconceived ideas and images," Schmutz says. For example, the term "pygmy", which Tyson also attributed to the chimpanzee, did not refer to a group of short people in Africa, but to all faraway beasts– hybrid creatures that were half animal, half human, about whom Pliny the Elder (23-79) wrote in his Historia naturalis. These monstrous creatures formed a firm component of Western imagination of the time and were often represented in academic publications as apes with human features and vice versa.

When the Europeans set out to discover the world, they carried these pre-formed images with them. Thus, on returning from Batavia (today Jakarta), Dutch physician Jacob de Bondt (1592-1631) told of strange creatures that the locals called Ourang Outang:

"I have seen several of them of both sexes. They walk upright. They lack nothing human except language. The Javanese say they can speak, but they don't because they are afraid of being forced into work. They call them 'Ourang Outang', which means 'person of the forest', and they claim that they were born out of the lust of Indian women mating with apes..." The posthumous publication is illustrated with an image of a hairy female body with a lion's head (see picture).

The tradition of humanizing apes, especially chimpanzees, continued into the 18th century. The best-known example of this is the chimpanzee Jocko, owned by French naturalist Georg-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). Buffon described the gallant way in which Jocko would drink tea in the company of ladies and depicted him walking erect.

Buffon's contemporaries, however, were already seeing things differently: When Dutch anatomist and surgeon Pieter Camper (1722-1789) compared humans and apes, he came to the conclusion that apes could neither walk upright nor speak. And the famous Jocko, whom he later saw stuffed and on display at the royal chamber of art in Paris, was in his eyes nothing but a "small, unsightly, stuffed animal".

German anthropologist and anatomist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) also made a clear distinction between humans and apes. The decisive feature was man's two-handedness, while apes are four-handed. "At the same time, he divided humans into five equal 'races'," says Hans-Konrad Schmutz, "which was controversial in view of the discussion about slavery – it destroyed the argument that Africans were inferior and could therefore be enslaved."

Indeed, the dispute as to whether Africans were closer to humans or apes continued into the 19th century. As late as 1874, artwork from Ernst Haeckel's (1834-1919) Anthropogony shows a black man sitting on a tree with a chimpanzee, orangutan and gorilla.

It was the arrival of Darwinism that led to the reclassification of the relationship between man and apes: Based on Darwin's theory, they no longer stood apart as different species, but were relatives belonging to the same line of hominids. "The questions that arose from this were those of the common link," says Schmutz. Was it the Neanderthal, remains of which were first unearthed in 1856, or Ernst Haeckel's fictitious Pithecanthropus alalus, a hybrid of human and ape, that captivated the imagination of people at the time?

Around 1900, "marginalists of the scientific community", as Schmutz calls them, proposed an experiment to actually create the missing link between man and ape by fertilizing gorillas and chimpanzees with sperm from Africans. It is, however, not known whether such experiments proved to be successful.

Today, science agrees on the distinction between humans and apes, but the search for a common ancestor continues. Paleoanthropology is constantly bringing new ancestors to light, including the hominid species Australopithecus sediba, discovered in 2010 by a team led by UZH anthropologist Peter Schmid in South Africa – and it certainly won't be the last discovery of this type.