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October 11, 2004

How many apes?

In commenting on the report that a new species of ape may have been discovered in the Congo, I mentioned that the 19th century explorer Paul Du Chaillu claimed to have identified three different types of ape in Africa.

I just checked his account in Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa (1861), and I find that he mentions four different kinds of ape:

- the gorilla

- the ordinary chimpanzee

- a 'bald' chimpanzee, distinguished from the ordinary chimp by having a bald, shiny black head, being less fierce, and having its young white rather than black (as with the gorilla), or yellow (as with the chimp, according to Du Chaillu). He also mentions that it builds nests in the trees to sleep in at night. It was known locally as the nshiego mbouve

- finally, the rarest ape was known as the kooloo-kamba from its distinctive cry. Du Chaillu describes it at length and gives illustrations. He claims it is the most human looking of all the apes.

The 'bald' chimp is possibly the bonobo, but the illustrations of the koolo-kamba do not look much like either a chimp or a gorilla. I would recommend primatologists to take a closer look at Du Chaillu's accounts. He got a reputation for unreliability - not to say fantasy - in some of his writing, but at least some of his claims that were ridiculed at the time - such as the gorilla drumming on its chest before attacking - have been vindicated by subsequent observers.

Posted by David B at 10:58 AM