Posted by: Loren Coleman on September 29th, 2008
The bonobo or pygmy chimpanzee was first known to Africans, Arabs, and even probably the Egyptians long before so-called “contemporary” Europeans “discovered” the species.
Nevertheless, the story of the most recent revealing of a great ape is a classic tale of finding “treasure in the basement,” of political intrigue, and of unanswered questions.
In the July 20, 2007 issue of The New Yorker author Ian Parker summarizes the find:
“One afternoon in 1928, Harold Coolidge, a Harvard zoologist, was picking through a storage tray of ape bones in a museum near Brussels. He examined a skull identified as belonging to a juvenile chimpanzee from the Belgian Congo, and was surprised to see that the bones of the skull’s dome were fused. In a young chimpanzee (and in a young human, too), these bones are not joined but can shift in relation to one another, like broken ice on a pond. He had to be holding an adult head, but it was not a chimpanzee’s. Several similar skulls lay nearby.
“Coolidge knew that this was an important discovery. But he was incautious; when the museum’s director passed by, Coolidge mentioned the skull. The director, in turn, alerted Ernst Schwarz, a German anatomist who was already aware that there were differences between apes on either side of the Congo. And, as Coolidge later wrote, ‘in a flash Schwarz grabbed a pencil and paper,’ and published an article that named a new subspecies, Pan satyrus paniscus, or pygmy chimpanzee. This was the animal that eventually became known as the bonobo. (In fact, bonobos are barely smaller than chimpanzees, except for their heads; but Schwarz had seen only a head.) ‘I had been taxonomically scooped,’ Coolidge wrote. He had the lesser honor of elevating Pan paniscus to the status of full species, in 1933.”
Today, frequently used popular sources such as Wikipedia and some books have German anatomist Schwarz fully credited with discovering the “pygmy chimpanzee” in 1928, even incorrectly saying he was the one who found the type specimen skull in the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium (sometimes called the “Tervuren museum”). Schwarz published his (overheard? borrowed? stolen?) findings in 1929. Coolidge finally published his notes fully in 1933.
Clearly, the near human-like appearance of the bonobo caused early descriptions of it being discussed as a pygmy but slightly hairier human than Homo sapiens.
The common name for the species is the bonobo, but when it was first discovered it was casually called the pygmy chimpanzee (and less often the dwarf or gracile chimpanzee). It is one of the two species making up the chimpanzee genus, Pan. The other species in genus Pan is Pan troglodytes, or the common chimpanzee.
But it seems a funny thing might have happened on the way to the discovery of the bonobo. The “first chimpanzee” discovered might have been a bonobo and not a common chimpanzee, it turns out.
In the tenth edition of 1758 [ System of Nature], which modern systematics has adopted as its starting point, Linnaeus renamed the Anthropomorpha as the Primates, and gave as its constituent genera Homo, Simia, Lemur, and Vespertilio (bats). Linnaeus, however, lists not one, but two species of humans, the second being Homo nocturnus (or troglodytes), a primitive, apish species of humans. And thus would Buffon criticize him for his uncritical acceptance of the literature and his confused species Homo troglodyes, “from which it is scarcely possible to decide whether it is an animal or a man.” The difference between Homo nocturnus and Simia satyrus is that Linnaeus used uncritically the more anthropomorphic descriptions of apes as the basis for the former, and the less anthropomorphic as the basis for the latter.
Most importantly, Linnaeus ignored the major treatise bearing on this subject: “Orang Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris, Or The Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, and Ape, and a Man” by the English anatomist Edward Tyson. Particularly insofar as this 1699 work was virtually the only in depth scientific study of an ape even half a century later, the omission is glaring. Tyson had dissected a young male chimpanzee, and in collaboration with William Cowper, had monographed the animal’s anatomy and speculated on its relationship to man.
The formal descriptions of “Jockos” (another name for apes) were published often with drawings accompanying them showing the standard bipedal poses with a cane or a tree.
The Anglophile Buffon was well aware of Tyson’s work, and quoted it at length in his “Nomenclature of the Apes” (Vol. XIV, 1766). He concludes that the creatures known mostly from travelogues are indeed real, and are reports of two creatures, a large “Pongo” and a small “Jocko”, which he takes to be one species. His figure is recognizably a chimpanzee, modeled as bipedal with the aid of a cane, following Tyson. (Immediately thereafter, Buffon produces the first scientific description and illustration of a gibbon.) In his “Supplement” to this article, written two decades later, Buffon acknowledges that the Pongo and the Jocko indeed encompass two species, one black-haired and from Africa, and the other red-haired and from Asia.
Buffon treats the chimpanzee, as Tyson did, as part of a continuum ultimately linking people and nature. In his Synopsis of Quadrupeds (1771), Thomas Pennant also discusses the apes, and follows Buffon in criticizing “Linnaeus’s Homo nocturnus, an animal of this kind, unnecessarily separated from his Simia satyrus”. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was also explicit about the “great mistake” in System of Nature, “that the attributes of apes are there mixed up with those of men” (Blumenbach 1775:133). anthropology professor Jonathan Marks
Edward Tyson, an English physician and comparative anatomist, in 1699 published his best-known work, Orang-Outang, Sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared With That of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man. (“Orang-Outang” is a native Malaysian term for “man of woods” and was long used as a generic term for the larger nonhuman primates.)
Tyson’s writings are curious to read today. He was able to overturn the notion that chimpanzees had horns, but he maintained that apes had a taste for human white blondes, while later “scholars” repeatedly reported sexual raids on young African females, as well as sexual violence against white women.
The first animal described as a “chimpanzee” by Tyson was actually a juvenile – two to three years old – reportedly from Angola. The chimpanzee had died a few months after its arrival in London in 1698. Its death was the result of an infection to a wound contracted after an accident aboard a ship on its voyage to England. Tyson was assisted on the examination of this African “Orang-Outang” by Cowper, who did the sections on myology, created the drawings for the plates that illustrate the text, and mounted the skeleton.
The skeleton of the “Pygmy” from: Edward Tyson. The anatomy of a Pygmy compared with that of a monkey, an ape and a man. Second Edition. London: Printed for T. Osborne, 1751.
External appearance of “Pygmy” from: Edward Tyson. The anatomy of a Pygmy compared with that of a monkey, an ape and a man. Second Edition. London: Printed for T. Osborne, 1751.
Title-page of: Edward Tyson. The anatomy of a Pygmy compared with that of a monkey, an ape and a man. Second Edition. London: Printed for T. Osborne, 1751.
The skeleton passed through generations of the Tyson family until it was depositied, on loan, to the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1820. It was reclaimed in 1821 and sometime before 1863, the husband of one of Tyson’s great-great-grandnieces, Dr. James Allardyce, gave it to the Cheltenham Hospital, which in 1894 gave it to the British Museum. It is still to be seen on display in the British Museum (Natural History), London, to this day.
Based on the detailed engravings of this young ape in Tyson’s thesis, many today believe that this was a bonobo specimen, not a common chimpanzee, as per Desmond Morris’ writings, and in books such as The Metaphysics of Apes (2005) by Raymond Corbey.
The common chimpanzee was named Simia troglodytes by Johann Friedrich Blumenbach in 1799; Lorenz Oken moved it to the new genus Pan in 1816, so the valid name, as noted, is now Pan troglodytes.
In fact, many mysteries surround some of these early chimps. Were any of them actually bonobos? For example, the first chimpanzee to reach a zoo in England was brought to Bristol in the autumn of 1834 by a Captain Wood, who had picked it up on the Gambia Coast.
Therefore, the first Westerner who discovered the bonobo may never be known. Yes, the American Harold Coolidge, not the German Ernst Schwarz, should be credited with finding that “first” bonobo in 1928 in the Tervuren museum. But that leaves open these questions: Who obtained that specimen for the Tervuren collection? Who secured the so-called “first common chimpanzee” (that was really probably a bonobo), which Tyson described in 1699? Was Captain Wood’s animal a common chimpanzee or a bonobo?
The range of the bonobo is clearly distinct from the chimpanzee and gorilla.
The great discovery of the bonobo by Science, therefore, in 1929 is anything but simple.
The bonobo’s discovery of 1929 is the story that frames and introduces my next essay, on the interrelationship between cryptid conspiracies, hoaxes, and the US Stock Market crash of 1929.
It will be recalled that in 1929, perhaps not coincidentally, the announcement of (the elaborate hoax of) the Ameranthropoides loysi was yet another new ape discovery attempted.
To continue on reading about this angle, please see here.