Book Review: Wild Man from Borneo. A cultural History of the Orangutan, written by Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin

in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia

Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffin, Wild Man from Borneo. A cultural History of the Orangutan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014, xii + 318 pp. ISBN 9780-824837143. Proce USD 54.00 (hardback).

The authors include a scholar in post-colonial theory and literary studies (Tiffin), a professor of theatre (Gilbert), and a historian (Cribb). As this might suggest, the book does not concern the Southeast Asian primates that have come to be known as orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) so much as Western reactions to and interpretations of these apes, from their European discovery in the seventeenth century to the present. In its detailed attention to changing Western views, the book is certainly comprehensive. Different chapters deal with the earliest reports and descriptions of the apes by travelers and scholars; the introduction of specimens to Europe as exhibits in menageries, taxidermic displays, and graphic art; representations of orangutans in Western fiction, theatre, cinema, and television; the treatment of apes in modern zoos; twentieth century conservation efforts; and the place of the apes (and especially debates concerning their intelligence) in evolutionary theory and movements promoting animal rights. Chapter 4 deals with orangutans in their native environments in Borneo and Sumatra and briefly describes their conceptual and practical treatment by indigenous peoples whose territories they share. The book concludes with a two-page Afterword.

Employing a constructivist or cultural determinist approach which situates the book in the mainstream of current writing in the humanities and some social sciences, the general argument depicts orangutans as variable images that have symbolized ‘the ideas and ideals of human society’ (pp. 1–2). The statement is misleading only insofar as the book is squarely focused on Western society—as confirmed by later descriptions of orangutans, as the apparently ‘most sapiens’ of the great apes, as holding a special place ‘in the [Western] imagination’ (p. 4) and as the object of a distinctly Western concern—even amounting to an ‘anxiety’—with the species boundary separating humans and non-human animals.

The book’s greatest value is its exhaustive demonstration of how Western representations of the ape have alternated between a view of the orangutan as a very humanlike and a definitely non-human creature, a mere animal among other animals. Although people at various historical periods (including Queen Victoria) have remarked on the striking and sometimes disturbing resemblances between orangutans and humans, it remains doubtful whether the apes have ever genuinely been mistaken for humans or identified as instances of Homo sapiens. Nevertheless, in this respect the book provides a salutary corrective to a current and popular anthropological claim (exemplified by Descola and other proponents of a neo-animism) that European thought is characterized exclusively by the second view, while members of small-scale non-western societies subscribe only to the first assessment, regarding animals as in some essential sense identical to human beings. At present, it seems, an anthropomorphic assessment of apes is gaining ground among some Westerners, as exemplified by the December 2014 decision of an Argentine court (too recent to be cited in this book) declaring an orangutan held in a zoo to be a ‘non-human person’ unlawfully deprived of its freedom. At the same time, the authors correctly describe how indigenous Southeast Asians occupying territories in Borneo and northern Sumatra also inhabited by orangutans treat the apes like other non-human animals, thereby implicitly embracing a categorical distinction similar to that of international scientists.

An early impression that the authors have unduly singled out the ape Pongo pygmaeus is somewhat countered by increasing attention given towards the end of the book to chimpanzees. Still, one is sometimes left wondering how distinctive orangutans might be in their reception among Westerners. As the authors show, for some time the identity of orangutans among the great apes was anything but clear, and ‘orang utan’ (and variants), and ‘Pongo’ (the Latinate name for the genus) were once applied indiscriminately to orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Thus, Edward Tyson, the first European to dissect a chimpanzee, called his subject an ‘orang-outang’; and although the authors do not mention it, ‘gorilla’ derives from an alleged African word meaning ‘wild or hairy man’ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) just as Malay ‘orang hutan’, ‘forest or wild man’, has evolved into the vernacular English name for the orangutan. In a related vein, the book goes so far as to claim that this confusion of species was more seriously compounded by the Dutch physician Bontius, the first Westerner to record the name ‘ourang outang’, who, it is argued, applied the name not to an ape at all but to humans suffering from ‘endemic cretinism’ caused by iodine deficiency. In this regard the authors might have referred to a more palpable and better substantiated confusion perpetrated by the nineteenth century American adventurer Walter Gibson (The prison of Weltevreden 1856), who evidently mixed up orangutans and Kubu hunter-gatherers.

Although the book is on the whole well written, there is, as noted earlier, an unfortunate tendency to equate ‘human’ with ‘Western’, as when the authors refer to ‘the orangutan-human encounter over four centuries’ (p. 4). More specific infelicities also deserve mention. In one place the authors appear to describe the Batak and Gayo people of Sumatra, as well as Bornean Dayaks, as being ‘orang hutan (people of the forest)’ (p. 86)—a term that has actually been applied to food collectors like the aforementioned Sumatran Kubu. A tendentious claim that Bornean tales involving fantastic depictions of orangutans ‘seem to have been’ imported ‘by Europeans and then re-exported […] as ostensibly indigenous beliefs’ is poorly supported (pp. 87–88) and ignores the human propensity to deploy similar mythological themes in otherwise very different cultural and historical settings. There is also a curious suggestion that the current classification of Neanderthals as a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis, reflects a ‘deep-seated contempt for the primitive’ which has found further expression in western attitudes to apes (p. 245). A less equivocal inaccuracy—though one perhaps less important—is the description of both Andrew Battell (of Leigh, in Essex) and Alfred Wallace (who was born in Wales) as Scottish. The former was English, as was the latter, at least on his mother’s side.

As remarked, the book’s treatment of its topic is generally exhaustive. More might have been said about current practice of keeping orangutans as pets in China, Indonesia, and other Asian countries, but this finds some explanation in the book’s European focus. Although the Sumatran orang pendek gets a brief mention (p. 211), I was also hoping for more discussion of possible connections between orangutans and reputedly more humanlike Indonesian ‘wild men’ (Forth 2008/12). But the authors may well consider this topic to have been adequately treated elsewhere—a view the present reviewer does not necessarily dispute.


Forth, Gregory (2008/2012). Images of the wildman in Southeast Asia. An anthropological Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.



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