We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Wild Man from Borneo

A Cultural History of the Orangutan

Robert J. Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin

Publication Year: 2014

Wild Man from Borneo offers the first comprehensive history of the human-orangutan encounter. Arguably the most humanlike of all the great apes, particularly in intelligence and behavior, the orangutan has been cherished, used, and abused ever since it was first brought to the attention of Europeans in the seventeenth century. The red ape has engaged the interest of scientists, philosophers, artists, and the public at large in a bewildering array of guises that have by no means been exclusively zoological or ecological. One reason for such a long-term engagement with a being found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is that, like its fellow great apes, the orangutan stands on that most uncomfortable dividing line between human and animal, existing, for us, on what has been called “the dangerous edge of the garden of nature.”

Beginning with the scientific discovery of the red ape more than three hundred years ago, this work goes on to examine the ways in which its human attributes have been both recognized and denied in science, philosophy, travel literature, popular science, literature, theatre, museums, and film. The authors offer a provocative analysis of the origin of the name “orangutan,” trace how the ape has been recruited to arguments on topics as diverse as slavery and rape, and outline the history of attempts to save the animal from extinction. Today, while human populations increase exponentially, that of the orangutan is in dangerous decline. The remaining “wild men of Borneo” are under increasing threat from mining interests, logging, human population expansion, and the widespread destruction of forests. The authors hope that this history will, by adding to our knowledge of this fascinating being, assist in some small way in their preservation.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (72.8 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (62.4 KB)
pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

pdf iconDownload PDF (68.8 KB)
pp. vii-x


pdf iconDownload PDF (69.5 KB)
pp. xi-xiv

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (184.1 KB)
pp. 1-9

Between the fifteenth century and the eighteenth, a great extinction took place. Unlike the later wave of extinction that would sweep away species after native species in Africa, the Americas, Australia, and above all the islands of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, this earlier extinction was one of the mind. It did not wipe out living creatures, but rather relegated to the realms of pure fantasy a rich...

read more

1. From Satyr to Pongo: Discovering the Red Ape

pdf iconDownload PDF (746.9 KB)
pp. 10-29

In 1641, the Dutch anatomist Nicolaes Tulp published a book with the bland title Observationes Medicæ (Medical Observations). Tulp is best known now for his depiction in Rembrandt’s celebrated painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, in which the doctor is shown explaining the features of a human cadaver to an audience of students. Tulp’s real-life interests, however, extended beyond human anatomy...

read more

2. “A More than Animal Intelligence”: Exploring the Species Boundary

pdf iconDownload PDF (610.6 KB)
pp. 30-57

Although the Linnaean system proposed that species could be distinguished from one another by their physical characteristics alone, the striking exception that Linnaeus himself made for humans—exhorting them to know their own character—hinted at another way of defining humanity. Linnaeus’ instruction could be read in several ways. In Classical and medieval times, the maxim...

read more

3. Wanted Dead or Alive: Orangutans on Display

pdf iconDownload PDF (690.3 KB)
pp. 58-84

In the eighteenth century, European elites began to develop an appetite for natural history collection. Kings and queens, princes and dukes, doctors and merchants, accumulated so-called cabinets of curiosities, some from the natural world (naturalia), some made by humans (artificalia). In the same spirit, a smaller number of wealthy or powerful individuals maintained menageries of exotic animals, often...

read more

4. Darkest Borneo, Savage Sumatra

pdf iconDownload PDF (702.7 KB)
pp. 85-106

The orangutans presented to Western audiences throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were creatures detached from their natural habitat both literally and symbolically. Linnaean classification and comparative anatomy paid as little attention to where an animal came from as they did to its behavior. The earliest carers for captive orangutans in Europe, apart from trying to keep their charges...

read more

5. Imagining Orangutans: Fictions, Fantasies, Futures

pdf iconDownload PDF (273.7 KB)
pp. 107-127

During the eighteenth century, the orangutan began to appear in plays and novels, and later in short stories. Most of the early authors had not seen an orangutan, even in captivity, but the writings of travelers such as Beeckman and of scientists such as Tyson were so widely circulated, the illustrations of Bontius and Tulp so often redrawn, and public displays of orangutan-like creatures so common that a...

read more

6. Close Encounters and Dangerous Liaisons

pdf iconDownload PDF (510.0 KB)
pp. 128-155

The fictional orangutans discussed in chapter 5 offer commentary on Western society, either by directly addressing a human audience or by behaving in ways that highlight human shortcomings. Most of these apes have been removed from their original environment, and even Boulle’s advanced apes live in a world that is functionally similar to the human world of the twentieth century rather than...

read more

7. Monkey Business: Orangutans on Stage and Screen

pdf iconDownload PDF (597.4 KB)
pp. 156-184

On March 16, 1825, a young French “character dancer” known simply as Mazurier created a buzz among Paris audiences with his beguiling simian antics in a balletdrama that was to become one of the most influential stage pieces of its time: Jocko, ou le singe du Brésil.1 Although set in Brazil, well away from the known habitat of any great ape, the drama appears to have drawn substantially on existing representations...

read more

8. Zoo Stories: Becoming Animals, Unbecoming Humans

pdf iconDownload PDF (393.7 KB)
pp. 185-208

Ideas of human responsibility for animals, along with debates over the ethics of their captivity, began to shape the orangutan’s appearances in zoos more than a century ago, albeit in a more limited range of ways than is evident in fiction or film. By the early 1900s, innovative zoo directors were attempting to present exotic animals in more humane, quasi-natural contexts rather than in bare cages. This...

read more

9. On the Edge: Conservation and the Threat of Extinction

pdf iconDownload PDF (391.8 KB)
pp. 209-231

The orangutan’s decline toward extinction began several thousand years ago, well before the start of human history. The red ape’s dwindling in numbers is underpinned by basic features of the animal’s biology. As with all apes, the natural reproduction rate of orangutans is slow.1 Females do not normally give birth before they are fifteen years old, and they typically have no more than four offspring in...

read more

10. Faces in the Mirror: Evolution, Intelligence, and Rights

pdf iconDownload PDF (267.5 KB)
pp. 232-247

For four centuries, the West has been fascinated by the orangutan. So similar to humans, yet with so many differences, the red ape has challenged us to think about the nature of humanity and the character of human relationships with the animal world. As knowledge of the orangutan has developed, and as scientific understanding of biological processes has grown, the specific challenge presented by...


pdf iconDownload PDF (71.7 KB)
pp. 248-250


pdf iconDownload PDF (220.3 KB)
pp. 251-278


pdf iconDownload PDF (248.7 KB)
pp. 279-306


pdf iconDownload PDF (245.9 KB)
pp. 307-323

About the Authors, Production Notes, Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (161.9 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9780824840266
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824837143

Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Orangutan.
  • Orangutan -- Symbolic aspects.
  • Human-animal relationships.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access