One of the most frustrating factors in studying early descriptions of apes is the multiple meanings of words like “baboon,” “Jocko,” “Pongo,” “mandrill,” and “Orang-Outang.” Even though we now know apes are our closest living relatives, it has only been recently (within the last 250 years or so) that we have come to know very much about them. Even after they receiving scientific names and the distinct varieties were figured out, there was more myth, legend, and hearsay about them than fact until the latter half of the 20th century!
The confusion over apes in descriptions from the 18th and 19th centuries can yield some very interesting facts for historians of science, though. Of particular interest are representations of apes, often based upon one or two specimens that had been observed by naturalists (alive or dead) and reports of travelers. In Buffon’s epic 18th century work Historie Naturelle, for instance, we see a very human-like creature with ape-like feet propped up with a cane. This may have been inspired by Edward Tyson’s 1699 dissection of a juvenile chimpanzee, which he had illustrated propped up with a cane.
Tyson probably did this because the animal he observed (and later dissected) was sick from an infected wound, and so Tyson took knuckle-walking to be the result of illness, not a normal mode of locomotion. Having the chimpanzee stand upright also fit into his concept of what the animal was. To Tyson it was neither ape nor human, but something in the Great Chain of Being that held a station between the two.
Illustrations of apes with canes even persisted to almost the mid-19th century. In the second volume of the 1834-5 Family Magazine, not only is there a homunculus-like gibbon, but a chimpanzee-like “orang-outang” propped up with a stick. It is true that this was a family encyclopedia and not a scientific treatise, but I was surprised to see that so little was known about apes that Tyson’s imagery was able to persist for so long.
There is one final note that I would like to make, however, and it deals with Buffon’s natural history volumes. Last year one of my professors told my primatology class that the origins of the word “chimpanzee” were unknown; it simply seems to have appeared out of nowhere. I do not know if this is still the case, but if it is, the English translation of Buffon’s book provides a startling lead. In discussing various apes called orang-outangs, quotes the traveler M. de la Bresse, who traveled to Angola;
…that the Oran-otangs, which he calls Quimpeazes, often attempt to surprise the female negroes, which they keep with them for the pleasure of their company, feeding them very plentifully all the time.
This, obviously, dealt with the mythology that apes would regularly raid villages for women, such stories being used to both affirm the near-human character of the apes and to denigrate native people. That topic deserves an entire book to itself, but it is the term “Quimpeazes” that interests me here. I am no linguist, but it seems to me that our word “chimpanzee” is merely a bastardization of “Quimpeazes,” which would have come out of south-west Africa (where many of the first African apes shipped to Europe came from). As I have said, perhaps someone has already anticipated my minor find, but if not, the origin and transmutation of the word “Quimpeazes” is something that merits more attention.