Just How ‘Human’ Are Apes, Anyway? (Oct, 1954)

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Just How ‘Human’ Are Apes, Anyway?

From a Malayan jungle comes a strange story that may prove they’re more like us than not.

By Lester David

A SCIENTIFIC discovery of global importance may stem from the dark and wild jungleland of Northern Malaya. Here is the bizarre series of events which led to an exciting hunt now in progress: A native workman was tapping a rubber tree on an outlying plantation a few months ago when he felt a pair of strong arms encircling his waist. Startled, he whirled around and stared squarely into the grinning face of a creature half-ape, half-human, whose lips were drawn back over protruding fangs.

The workman stood rooted for an instant, then broke away with a terrified scream, leaving part of his clothing clutched in the monster’s hairy hands.

A few days later a woman rubber worker named Wong Ah Mooi appeared at an official’s shack in a state bordering on collapse. Almost incoherently she blurted out her story. A hand had fallen on her shoulder while she was bending over a tree—she had looked up and seen a woman with long, matted hair, fair skin and apelike teeth. The strange female was clothed in yellow bark, Ah Mooi said, and “spoke in a funny language which sounded like a bird croaking.”

Incidents such as these multiplied and finally government officials sent squads of security troops into the jungles with strict orders: Bring ’em back alive! So far, the story has all the aspects of a grade C movie thriller. But there’s a punchline to it that has all of Northern Malaya and far beyond in a big dither.

It’s this: Government officials believe strongly that these monsters could be the much-discussed, all-but-phantom missing link that has eluded scientists for more than a century!

The hunt for this link has been pursued ever since Charles Darwin told the world that man evolved from some primate ancestor. But there was one question neither Darwin nor anyone else could answer— where were some specimens of the intermediate forms between apes and men; where was the missing bridge in the chain of evolution?

Anthropologists, hunting in all the far-flung reaches of the globe, have unearthed a number of fossilized remains such as the Java Man, Peking Man and Kromdraii Man. These were milestones in the search but not the actual links between the man who walks the streets and the ape who swings from trees.

Could these amazing creatures who wandered from the jungle only last Christmas to terrify the natives be the answer at last? And living ones, at that? American anthropologists are frankly skeptical but one official in Malaya told a correspondent: “They could be one of the biggest anthropological discoveries in years.” In addition, experts in the department of aborigines at Kuala Lumpur in Malaya are leaving no stone unturned. They conducted an intensive investigation and got four important clues by piecing together the stories of witnesses. These are: 1. The creatures had apparently seen rifles before, because several fled in alarm when a security officer aimed one at them. 2. All had light skins, indicating they had lived for years in the sunless, overgrown jungles. 3. They knew about some food crops, particularly tapioca. They were discovered munching some of the plant roots on one estate. 4. Their language was neither Chinese nor Malayan, but a series of gutteral grunts, understood by no one.

A few persons have mentioned the possibility that they are either disguised Communists or Japanese soldiers in hiding since the war ended. However, the manager of the great Trolek Forest Preserve, a Mr. S. Brown, discounts the theory completely and adds that their animal-like smells, observed by witnesses, “indicates they are not ordinary human beings.”

In any event, scientists want to see them, talk to them, study them. Because if they really are the missing link, the story of man’s evolution will be finally complete and one of the most perplexing puzzles of the past century will at last be solved.

But the hunt for the link is by no means the only interest science has in these queer ancestors of ours. Anthropologists and psychologists have always been fascinated by what makes them tick and their experiments have brought some amazing facts to light.

One of the riddles the experts particularly want answered is: Just how close are the anthropoid apes—that is, the gibbon, orangutan, chimpanzee and gorilla—to being human? To find out, a man and wife research team, Mr. and Mrs. W. N. Kellogg, once took a baby chimpanzee and raised him with their own child.

The chimp, named Gua, began life in the Kelloggs’ Bloomington, Ind., home when he was seven-and-a-half months old, two-and-a-half months younger than little Donald. The two infants lived together as playmates and companions, while the scientists made careful tests and observations.

Among the things the Kelloggs wanted to find out was which youngster learned how to understand and obey spoken commands more rapidly. One of the significant results: The chimpanzee actually made faster progress in many ways than the human infant!

For instance: Little Donald responded to the command “Come here” when he was 11 months old—but Gua the chimp heard and obeyed when he was but nine months. The little boy was 12-1/2 months before he understood that “no, no” meant he should stop whatever mischief he was engaged in; while Gua understood—and stopped!—a full five months earlier. When the chimp was 11 months, he learned that “Do you want to go bye-bye?” meant he was going for an airing. Accordingly, he would run to his perambulator and climb in. Donald, on the other hand, was two-and-a-half months older before the phrase registered.

Gua, to all intents and purposes, was a second child in the family. By the end of the first week, she was clothed in a diaper and shoes and got her meals in a high chair, being fed from a spoon and cup. She slept in a crib, had her fingernails pared and before she had been in residence a month was letting the Kelloggs brush her teeth in the morning!

A fascinating, perfectly human trait was noticed about this tooth-brushing ritual. Take a child. He is easily conditioned to react in advance to something he doesn’t like. He bellows, for instance, when you take him to a doctor for a physical examination because he remembers the prodding and probing as unpleasant experiences. So with the chimp. Gua didn’t like the pricking of the bristles. Thus, after a while, she would immediately draw back her lips from her gums whenever she caught sight of the toothbrush. She also knew when she was going to be tickled. All the Kelloggs had to do was make a gesture and the chimp would begin laughing and squirming in advance.

One of the experiments by which the Kelloggs tried to determine the relative learning ability of chimp and boy was the cookie test. They tied a cord to the ceiling and put a small clamp at the lower end to which they attached a cookie. Now the cookie hung put of reach and could be gotten only by pulling over a chair and standing on it. The room was entirely empty, except for the chair, which was deliberately placed on one side.

The scientists put Gua and Donald in the room separately and watched. They let them try for five minutes and if they didn’t succeed in pulling the chair over and obtaining the prize, the attempt was scored as a failure. Here’s what happened: Donald failed in four out of 20 trials but Gua the chimp was smart enough to figure out the way every time but once!

But let’s face it. There were a number of things Donald could do which Gua could not. Try as he would, the chimp was a hopeless failure at the game of pat-a-cake, which Donald learned to perform admirably.

How close are apes to being human? Closer than you thought. Consider memory. . .

Kenneth Wells of Washington received a dramatic lesson recently in the remembering powers of gibbons. His family acquired Bimbo as a pet while he was headmaster of an American mission school in Thailand. The animal became greatly attached to Wells’ young daughter, Roberta, and there was sadness all-around when the family finally moved back to Washington and left Bimbo in his native habitat.

It was almost a year-and-a-half later that Wells spotted a picture in a Washington newspaper—the National Zoological Park had just acquired a new inmate, a gibbon from Thailand, which looked suspiciously familiar. Could it be Bimbo? They decided to find out. At the zoo, Roberta stood in front of the cage and called softly. The gibbon stared, then its lips slowly widened in a smile of recognition. Finally, the girl was allowed within the enclosure and the gibbon wound its arms around her in a tender embrace. It was Bimbo and he had remembered halfway around the world, in completely different surroundings and over the long months.

Prof. W. Kohler, an eminent authority on anthropoids, found that chimpanzees can remember for 13 to 18 months. A gorilla being trained by Prof. R. M. Yerkes of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology in Orange Park, Fla., remembered her lessons perfectly ten months after they were discontinued.

Consider intelligence, the kind used in planning. Baboons, the largest of the monkey family, have been found to be almost unbelievably smart. In Africa, for example, they frequently make forays upon the crops of local fanners. But they never swoop down like wolves, pell-mell, helter-skelter. Listen to how Prof. Earnest A. Hooton, the noted anthropologist of Harvard University, describes these raids: “On such occasions they march in regular formation, with advance guards, rear guards and flanking parties of old males, the females and young moving in the center.” And do they leave themselves unprotected? Not in these monkeyshines. When robbing an orchard, they actually post a sentinel at a strategic point, Prof. Hooton explains, and if danger threatens, the sentry gives the alarm and the entire pack scoots off.

Prof. Hooton cites an authentic instance of a legless railway signalman in South Africa who trained a baboon to push down his signal-box on a hand-car and to pull the lever which threw the switches! The ancient Egyptians, he says, taught baboons to pick dates and a modern bricklayer in South Africa is said to have trained one as a hodcarrier.

And now consider speech, either their own language or the human one. A number of experts are convinced that the anthropoids possess a special language all their own which they use among themselves. Prof. R. L. Garner made an intensive study of chimpanzees and announced that he actually understood their talk. He said they definitely employ sounds that stand for words. Mrs. William S. Learned transcribed 32 different sounds made by chimps which she listed as speech elements.

A few tireless workers have succeeded in teaching some members of the ape family to speak human words. For example, Dr. William H. Furness, after many months of daily training, taught a young orangutan to say “papa” and “cup.” Another husband and wife scientific team, Dr. and Mrs. Keith J. Hayes, reared a baby chimp as their own child and taught her to speak a few words.

Apes, therefore, are darned close to being human. How much farther do they have to go? There are five changes which must be made before they can take their place in the human family, Dr. and Mrs. Hayes reported at a recent session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:
1. Remake the ape hands to enable them to use tools and weapons.

2. Develop the pelvis, the bone ring that supports the spine, to allow walking upright.

3. Refine the vocal cords so they could talk.

4. Change the micro-anatomy of the brain to produce man’s ability at abstraction, symbolism and foresight.

5. Acquire new inborn tendencies toward various kinds of play.

But even though they’re not human enough to take over your job at an aircraft factory or an office, they’re smart enough to take over some complex chores for working folks. In the Jimma country of Abyssinia, for example, monkeys (who are not apes, by the way) have been taught a number of useful jobs. One explorer wrote that he saw them officiating as torch-bearers at supper parties! They sat in a docile row on a raised bench, patiently holding aloft their torches so that the guests could see their dinners.

According to R. W. C. Shelford, formerly curator of the Sarawak Museum, the pig-tailed macaque is used in Malaya and Sumatra to pick coconuts for the natives. A cord is tied to the monkey’s waist and it’s sent up a coconut palm. Aloft, the monkey grabs a nut and glances down. If the owner doesn’t think it’s ripe enough, he shakes his head and the monkey grabs another until he gets an assent from below. Then the animal twists the coconut from the stalk and lets it drop.

Smart? There’s the organ grinder’s monkey in Detroit who no longer accepts nickels. He hands them back scornfully, meanwhile dipping in his vest pocket for a quarter to illustrate the denomination he wants. In Paris, a monkey robbed seven women of their gems. He was trained to enter windows and pluck jewels from dresser drawers and tables by its master.

Apes and ape-men have figured in a number of fabulous hoaxes, the most recent of which was the whopper just exploded at the British Museum. It seems that the skull of the famous “Piltdown Man,” accepted for 40 years as a relic of man’s earliest history, is a fraud. The skull, thought to be 500,000 years old, has the jawbone of a very modern ape who lived less than 50 years ago! Chemical tests exposed the fake. Who did it? There’s not the slightest clue to what the museum calls a hoax unparalleled in the history of paleonotological research.

A hoaxer of a different bent scared the wits out of a number of suburban New Yorkers not long ago. He sent letters to housewives, blandly announcing that “one of our educated apes is available to you for a 30-day trial.” The letter explained that many of the firm’s apes are doing domestic service in many homes, waiting on table, washing dishes and scrubbing floors. It concluded with the shocker: “Unless we hear from you to the contrary, we will send your ape together with an instructor in the near future.”

The petrified ladies called everyone from the zoo to the F.B.I, and the “ape employment agency” was finally traced to a James C. Adams of New Jersey, who explained that he was simply testing the gullibility of the American people.

But you can own a little monkey or an ape, if you wish. They’re for sale. The price? Ask Henry F. Trefflich, head of the Trefflich Bird and Animal Co., one of the largest animal dealers in the country. Baby gorillas have sold for between $3,500 and $5,000, he says. Chimps run between $500 and $1,500, while baboons cost from $50 to $350. You might pick up a gibbon for anywhere from $125 to $175 and a monkey, depending on the species, for as low as $25 to about $275.

Maybe they can be profitable investments, at that. Look at J. Fred Muggs, actor by profession, chimpanzee by birth. He’s now a featured attraction on the morning television show, Today, and he earns a whale of a lot more money than most people! •

  1. LightningRose says: October 6, 20119:44 am

    Whenever we visit the Denver zoo or museum of natural history, my sweetie and I each wear t-shirts that say, “98% Chimp”

  2. Hirudinea says: October 6, 20118:08 pm

    Just remember that the average chimp is ten times stronger than a man, so they’re not pets, that and they’ll keep bumming your smokes, lousy mooches!

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