Sunday 27 September 2015

Gorillas from Carthage to Illinois

Welcome to Planet Earth, Zach
Diversionary topic this week, the first of full-on university term, has been gorillas. Kamba’s new baby Zachary was born at Brookfield Zoo, Illinois (video here), just in time to help us celebrate our firstborn’s birthday. 17 years ago really did see one of the two best moments of my life, even if wildly enhanced by an opium-based painkiller.

"Gorilla" by Henrik Gronvold in Natural History Museum
I am a fan of gorilla dads.  They are fiercely protective, spend a great deal of time with their young, settle disputes between rival siblings, and always make sure their females get enough to eat.

There is a greater dimorphism (disparity between the size and weight) of male and female gorillas than in any other ape: males are 1.5 times the size. This contrasts with only 1.1 on average in homo sapiens. This means that human females have always preferred to select mates for reasons other than being enormous, which is interesting in itself, although I’m not sure what to make of the father of my own children being about 1.5 times my size.

Hanno and his Phoenician crew
Gorillas are first named in an ancient Greek text, which purports to be a translation of a treatise from 500 BC in Phoenician, A Report of the Voyage of Hanno. This Navigator King of the Carthaginians says that he sailed to Africa (Pliny the Elder later claims Hanno went all the way round to Arabia). Hanno reports that he encountered extremely hairy savages, mostly female, whom his interpreters named gorillai.  Hanno’s men abducted three of them, killed them, flayed them, and later dedicated the skins in a temple at Carthage.

'Gorille (femelle) enlevant une négresse’
The 19th-century rediscovery of the gorilla involved a vogue for artworks depicting gorillas abducting human women. In 1859, the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species,  French artist Emmanuel Frémiet outraged the  jury of the Paris Salon. Inspired by the publicity surrounding the first ever whole gorilla bodies (preserved in alcohol) to be seen in Paris, he reconstructed a gorilla in 3-D action in ‘Gorille enlevant une négresse’.

'Gorilla abducting woman' mark 2
Frémiet was sufficiently racist to think that nobody would mind because the victim was ‘just’ an African woman; he thought he had avoided any suggestion of sex by labelling the gorilla femelle. But the work was, in fact, banned as an offence to public morality. Baudelaire said it certainly was sexual and simply ‘sordid’.

The work was destroyed, but the world moved on. In 1887, Frémiet won the Medal of Honour for a new, life-size (male) Gorilla carrying off a (Caucasian) woman. The critics couldn’t decide whether it supported or subverted Darwin’s theory, and worried about the tool-like rock held by the gorilla: was he developing higher intelligence? But the public loved it. Bronze casts and prints proliferated. It became a defining image in French culture of the day. And I bet it lies somewhere behind the invention of King Kong in the 1930s. I could always waste some time next week investigating the links. 


  1. G Brassens Gare au gorille - YouTube

  2. G Brassens Gare au gorille - YouTube

  3. Gorilla revealing itself to be ... wait for it ... Marlene Dietrich! In 'Hot Voodoo' from Blonde Venus, (1932).