The Person in the Ape: A history of humans trying (and failing) to understand the minds of apes

Around 500 bc, the Carthaginian explorer Hanno the Navigator guided a fleet of sixty oared ships through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the northwest lobe of the great elephant ear that is the African continent. Toward the end of his journey, on an island in a lagoon, he encountered a “rude description of people”—rough-skinned, hairy, violent. The local interpreters called them Gorillae. Hanno and his crew attempted to capture some of them, but many climbed up steep elevations and hurled stones in defense. Eventually, the Carthaginians caught three female Gorillae, flayed them, and brought their skins back home, where they hung in the Temple of Tanit for several centuries.

Though scholars dispute whether the Gorillae were gorillas, chimpanzees, or an indigenous tribe of humans, many regard Hanno’s account as the oldest surviving record of humans encountering another species of great ape. The ambiguity of Hanno’s early descriptions—are the Gorillae human or beast, people or apes?—is not just an artifact of translational difficulties; it is exemplary of a profound misunderstanding in historical attitudes about our closest animal cousins, a confusion that is still being resolved today.

On a windy spring morning two years ago, at an ape sanctuary and research facility in the heart of North America, I had an encounter of my own. Spread over six acres of forest, fields, and lakes in Des Moines, Iowa, the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative is home to a clan of five bonobos, including the renowned Kanzi, perhaps the most linguistically talented ape ever studied. When Kanzi was an infant, researchers tried to teach his adoptive mother to communicate using an array of lexigrams on a keyboard. She never made much progress, but Kanzi, like a human child exposed to language, began to use the symbols on his own. Today, he knows the meanings of hundreds of lexigrams and understands many phrases of spoken English as well.

Inside the research facility, I approached a glass panel separating an experiment chamber from a hallway. Kanzi rushed forth, slapping and pounding the glass—a typical greeting for a stranger. Initially, he was more interested in playing—lolling around in blankets, drizzling himself with cool water—than demonstrating his vocabulary. But one of the researchers eventually coaxed him onto a platform in front of a large touch screen. With the perfunctory tone of a teacher giving a spelling test, a computerized voice spoke one word at a time: bugfishtickle. The screen simultaneously presented a selection of colorful symbols, which looked like hobo signs contrived by Matisse. Kanzi’s goal was to press the symbol that corresponded to the spoken word. He got the first few wrong. “Kanzi, you got to listen, bud!” said Jared Taglialatela, one of the research directors. [ … ]

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