jump to navigation
  • A Mystery Animal in Ancient Africa July 3, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Beachcombing has been fascinated by the Voyage of Hanno since he was in short classicist pants. For this text, written in Hellenistic Greek, purports to describe a Carthaginian expedition down the western coast of Africa in the early centuries B.C., at a time when good Mediterranean folk had as little to do with the sub-Saharan side of the continent as possible. (For another ancient African jaunt follow this link).

    There are many problems with the Voyage, not least the fact that it describe Mediterranean penetration into the area around Guinea or perhaps even Cameroon. Indeed, when one sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer, who had been down the same coast, read the description he expressed astonishment that his ‘discoveries’ were no such thing (Ramusio).

    But most interesting for Beachcombing is the following passage and the strange creature described there.

    On the third day after our departure thence, after sailing past those streams of fire, we reached a gulf called the Southern Horn. At the head of the gulf lay an island like the previous one with a lake; and in this lake was another island full of savages. By far the greater number of them were women, with hairy bodies; our interpreters called them gorillas. Though we gave chase to the men, we could not capture any of them; for they were used to scampering up the precipices and kept us off with stones, and so all escaped us. However, we secured three women, who bit and scratched those who led them, and would not accompany us. So we killed and flayed them and brought their hides to Carthage.

    So what is being described here? Well, the simple answer would, of course, be, rejecting the human references, the gorilla. But Dr Thomas Savage when he, in the mid nineteenth century, named the animal that we today call the gorilla borrowed the word from the Voyage. So the relationship between this gorilla and our gorilla is the reverse of what might be expected.  

    Is there the possibility though that this creature was Savage’s gorilla? Well, it is true that gorillas live in communities with many more females than males – the point that struck Savage. But our gorilla is when necessary, a violent animal. As one scholar put it ‘Had Hanno and his men encountered any [gorillas], the ‘scampering’ would not have been on the gorillas’ side’ (Kaeppel)!

    If the gorilla is out what is left? Well, one possibility is to reconstruct the word ‘gorilla’ linguistically. Is it possible that the ‘gorilla’ of the interpreters comes from a West African word similar to Yolof ‘s gorhl, meaning a man monkey or a tall monkey? If so perhaps we have a chimpanzee. Beachcombing would note though that primates do not typically pelt their enemies with objects: though films and books enjoy putting missiles in primates’ hands.

    So what other possibilities are there? Well, in perhaps the best essay on The Voyage Paul Hair, with a little help from the Roman writer Pliny, suggested that gorilla was a mispelling of the mythic Greek gorgon – dreadful women with snakes for hair – and that The Voyage as a whole or in part is fantasy.

    Beachcombing cannot square this with the passage quoted above. First, gorgon is a common Greek word and might be miscopied, but any mistake would be easily spotted and corrected. Second, Beachcombing is marginally more optimistic than Hair that the Voyage, if not entirely factual, recalls facts from genuine Carthaginian and perhaps Greek and Roman voyages in the region. Third the word gorilla is associated with the interpreters suggesting that it is foreign. Then, fourth, Beachcombing does not think that any gorgons would be portrayed – were this fiction – as such wimps, biting and scratching like bilious school girls: ‘Let go of my snakes…’

    Beachcombing would suggest, instead, that we have here a description of the most dangerous primate of all: man. Modern readers are perhaps misled by the detail of ‘flaying’ and ‘hides’ that demands, to our sensibilities, an animal. Elsewhere though in The Voyage there are tribal peoples dressed in the skins of wild animals who pelt the Carthaginians – sound familiar? – and the text itself does not talk of animals but of human opponents. 

    Is there method in Beachcombing’s madness? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom

    The hides of the poor ‘gorillas’, in any case, ended up in the Temple of Juno in Carthage and presumably disappeared when Rome overran the city in the second century B.C.


    Aug 1st

    This post got the most responses in the last thirty days. Eric Michael Johnson, who is a primate expert with his own blog, wrote a fascinating email. On primates throwing things: ‘I did my masters research on a troop of bonobos and on at least four or five occasions there would be a great deal of excitement as one of the members pushed another’s button and there’d be a wild chase only to have them redirect their aggression towards me.  They had extremely good aim and would hurl whatever they could find (sticks, rocks, fruit) in my direction with one nearly striking my head.  I have never heard of gorillas throwing anything though (but it wouldn’t be out of the question).’ The question of ‘mostly females’: ‘gorillas are the only apes that live in polygynous mating systems (baboons are a notable example among monkeys).  Chimpanzee females typically travel their territory with only their offspring while males travel in all male groups. Bonobos more frequently travel in mixed-sex groups and, depending on the day, there might be more females than males.’  And the identification of this strange animal: ‘Without knowing any more than what you’ve cited I would guess a chimpanzee or bonobo is what they were referring to.  Like you said, gorillas would have had them running rather than the reverse since alpha males don’t appreciate interlopers.’  Many thanks to Eric.