The Gorilla (500 BC – 1861 AD)

04 Oct

Today, it is hard to remember what  used to be myth. I was amazed when I first learned that plate tectonics is actually a relatively new theory, having only been accepted since the 1960’s. Was it really in doubt so long? The same thing happened with gorillas. Today they are a ubiquitous cultural touchstone, but it was not always this way.

The first recorded accounts of gorillas is credited to a man known as Hanno the Navigator. Hanno the Navigator lived in Carthage (modern day Libya) around 500 BCE. He was one of the first explorers to make a major expedition up and down the Atlantic coast of Africa and described his gorilla encounter thusly:

In its inmost recess was an island similar to that formerly described, which contained in like manner a lake with another island, inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.

Whether or not Hanno the Navigator really saw gorillas has been disputed. The explorer himself seemed to think they were a kind of human, which leads many scholars to point to indigenous tribes rather than animals. Others have pointed out that Hanno would have been unfamiliar with the concept of the great apes. The only rubric he would have had to compare them to would have been humans. Either way, the name stuck.

Amazingly, gorillas wouldn’t be encountered again by western explorers until the sixteenth century AD, nearly two thousand years later. An English sailor named Andrew Battel was captured by the Portuguese off the coast of West Africa. Battel, kept on the mainland, described two kinds man-like apes (gorillas and chimpanzees) that could occasionally be seen prowling around the campfire. Later accounts in the 1600’s would confuse these animals with pygmy tribesmen.

Science was introduced to these creatures in the 19th century. The first collection of skulls and bones is credited to an American doctor named Thomas Staughton Savage and the naturalist Jeffries Wyman circa 1847, although it was a French-American explorer named Paul du Chaillu who named himself as the first recorded white man to actually see a live gorilla in the daytime*. He was conducting an equatorial expedition from 1856-59 and brought back whole deceased specimens when he returned to the UK in 1861. It was his detailed anatomical and behavioral accounts that cemented them in the public mind, although unfortunately he also depicted them as savage, bloodthirsty creatures. This image would not be dispelled until well into the 20th century with the works of George Schaller and Diane Fossey.

So as westerners we’ve really only known of gorillas as living breathing animals since the 1850’s, less than two hundred years. I would personally love to find more Victorian accounts of seeing these great apes revealed to science for the first time.

Sources:,, The Encyclopedia Brittannica, The Darwin Poems, Wikipedia

*Note: du Chaillu may have actually been beaten. “Jenny”, an ape that was only later identified as a gorilla, was exhibited since atleast the late 1850’s in George Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie. I’m looking for more information about this, so if you know of any resources I’d love to hear about them.

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Posted by on October 4, 2011 in History


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