Gorillas emerge from the mists

When it comes to reports of mythological creatures from far away lands, it is interesting to look at a real-life creature and see how difficult it was for information about its existence to travel. Take for example, the Gorilla.

Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi NP, Uganda by Duncan Wright distributed under GNU Free Documentation License

The earliest report outside of Africa of what could possibly be gorillas comes from the Greek explorer Hanno, who travelled the Western coast of Africa, and spoke of “an island filled with savage people, most of them women, and covered on hair. Our interpreters call them gorillae.” Hanno was from Carthage (modern day Tunisia) and had sailed around the coast down to modern day Sierra Leonne or even the Gulf of Guinea. Hanno goes on to say that he tried to capture some of them alive, but on failing to do, he returned with three dead females. [ref] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18825192-200-histories-gorillas-i-presume/ [/ref]

The “Mount Cameroon” personnal interpretation of Hanno’s route. An English version of Bourrichon’s French original distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

It is not certain though if Hanno actually came across Gorillas or Chimpanzees on his journey, and afterwards there is little further information in the European literature until the bestselling adventure of Andrew Battel published in 1613. Battel was an English sailor who was held prisoner by the Portuguese in Africa for many years.  He speaks of two kinds of ape, which could well be Gorillas and Chimpanzees.

“the greatest of these two monsters is called Pongo \Mpungu\ in their language, and the lesser is called Engeco. This Pongo is in all proportions like a man, but that he is more like a giant in stature than a man ; for he is very tall, and hath a man’s face, hollow-eyed, with long hair upon his brows. His face and ears are without hair, and his hands also. … They sleep in the trees, and build shelters from the rain. They feed upon fruit they find in the woods and upon nuts, for they eat no kind of flesh.” [ref] The strange adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the adjoining regions, by Battel, Andrew, 1613 [/ref]

Chimpanzees would become known to Europe from 1630 when a living chimpanzee was sent as a gift to Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange-Nassau. However, it was not until 1846, that the bones of a gorilla would be sent from Africa to the United States to be studied. An American missionary, John Leighton Wilson discovered a large skull in Gabon and showed it to fellow missionary, Thomas Staughton Savage. Savage was also a doctor and had earlier published a paper on chimpanzees, and realised the skull was from another species. He obtained further bones and sent them to be studied. It was only then that the Gorilla was officially classified. [ref] The Great Apes: A Short History By Chris Herzfeld p43 2017[/ref]

A Gorilla skull, Augsburg Naturmuseum. photo by Tiia Monto. distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One could be thinking that the slow global awareness of the Gorilla was something that could only happen in the past, but we just need to look at a recent discovery to understand how difficult it can be studying a creature in its habitat. In 2004, scientists began investigating reports of large chimpanzees that exhibited many gorilla like behaviors in the Congo. The area had previously been hard to reach, due to years of civil war in the country.

Named the Bili apes, after a local town, the chimpanzees were located 40 kilometers away from the nearest road in dense jungle. Unlike regular chimpanzees, the Bili apes nest on the ground and exhibit ‘smashing’ behavior where they use sticks to break open stone fruits and the shells of snails. [ref] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/jul/14/conservation.internationalnews [/ref]

Unfortunately, for Gorillas the dense wilderness that kept them hidden for so long is at threat of being cleared for agriculture, while the very exotic nature of Gorillas leave them vulnerable to poachers. Let’s hope that they will not slip once more into the realm of myths.

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