Monkey Business – 19th. Century and Now

Monkeys and gorillas in the 19th century were – and continue to be – found throughout tropical and sub-tropical Africa.  When colonial explorers began to encounter them, it was thought they might be somehow related to humans, and it was Huxley who, in 1863, coined the term ‘missing link‘ to account for a type of being that would be intermediary between apes and man.

One of the monkey family that was  encountered both by David Livingston and Henry Stanley during their explorations of central Africa was large, and was thought by Stanley to possibly be the ‘missing link‘*.

Manuema Hunters killing 'Sokos' - the term used by the Manuema for the small apes of central Africa, which appear to have been a branch of the monkey family called bonobos

*Oxford English Dictionary: ‘Missing Link’:  1862 Caledonian Mercury 11 Jan. 7/6 Until the existence of some animal was discovered which should supply the missing link between man and the gorilla, there was a great gap even in Mr Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. 1864 T. H. HUXLEY Further Remarks Human Remains Neanderthal in Nat. Hist. Rev. (Electronic ed.),”

Livingstone gives this description of what he calls ‘sokos’ – which, I propose, were bonobo,  of the great ape family (see chart towards the end of the blog):

24th August, 1870.—Four gorillas or ‘sokos’ were killed yesterday: an extensive grass-burning forced them out of their usual haunt, and coming on the plain they were speared. They often go erect, but place the hand on the head, as if to steady the body. When seen thus, the soko is an ungainly beast. The most sentimental young lady would not call him a “dear,” but a bandy-legged, pot-bellied, low-looking villain, without a particle of the gentleman in him.

Other animals, especially the antelopes, are graceful, and it is pleasant to see them, either at rest or in motion: the natives also are well made, lithe and comely to behold, but the soko, if large, would do well to stand for a picture of the Devil.

He takes away my appetite by his disgusting bestiality of appearance. His light-yellow face shows off his ugly whiskers, and faint apology for a beard; the forehead villainously low, with high ears, is well in the back-ground of the great dog-mouth; the teeth are slightly human, but the canines show the beast by their large development. The hands, or rather the fingers, are like those of the natives. The flesh of the feet is yellow, and the eagerness with which the Manyuema devour it leaves the impression that eating sokos was the first stage by which they arrived at being cannibals; they say the flesh is delicious.

The soko is represented by some to be extremely knowing, successfully stalking men and women while at their work, kidnapping children, and running up trees with them—he seems to be amused by the sight of the young native in his arms, but comes down when tempted by a bunch of bananas, and as he lifts that, drops the child: the young soko in such a case would cling closely to the armpit of the elder. One man was cutting out honey from a tree, and naked, when a soko suddenly appeared and caught him, then let him go: another man was hunting, and missed in his attempt to stab a soko: it seized the spear and broke it, then grappled with the man, who called to his companions, “Soko has caught me,” the soko bit off the ends of his fingers and escaped unharmed. Both men are now alive at Bambarré.

The soko is so cunning, and has such sharp eyes, that no one can stalk him in front without being seen, hence, when shot, it is always in the back; when surrounded by men and nets, he is generally speared in the back too, otherwise he is not a very formidable beast: he is nothing, as compared in power of damaging his assailant, to a leopard or lion, but is more like a man unarmed, for it does not occur to him to use his canine teeth, which are long and formidable.

Numbers of them come down in the forest, within a hundred yards of our camp, and would be unknown but for giving tongue like fox-hounds: this is their nearest approach to speech. A man hoeing was stalked by a soko, and seized; he roared out, but the soko giggled and grinned, and left him as if he had done it in play. A child caught up by a soko is often abused by being pinched and scratched, and let fall.

The soko kills the leopard occasionally, by seizing both paws, and biting them so as to disable them, he then goes up a tree, groans over his wounds, and sometimes recovers, while the leopard dies: at other times, both soko and leopard die. The lion kills him at once, and sometimes tears his limbs off, but does not eat him.

The soko eats no flesh—small bananas are his dainties, but not maize. His food consists of wild fruits, which abound: one, Staféné, or Manyuema Mamwa, is like large sweet sop but indifferent in taste and flesh. The soko brings forth at times twins. A very large soko was seen by Mohamad’s hunters sitting picking his nails; they tried to stalk him, but he vanished. Some Manyuema think that their buried dead rise as sokos, and one was killed with holes in his ears, as if he had been a man. He is very strong and fears guns but not spears: he never catches women.

A male and female Bonobo

Sokos collect together, and make a drumming noise, some say with hollow trees, then burst forth into loud yells which are well imitated by the natives’ embryotic music. If a man has no spear the soko goes away satisfied, but if wounded he seizes the wrist, lops off the fingers, and spits them out, slaps the cheeks of his victim, and bites without breaking the skin: he draws out a spear (but never uses it), and takes some leaves and stuffs them into his wound to staunch the blood; he does not wish an encounter with an armed man. He sees women do him no harm, and never molests them; a man without a spear is nearly safe from him. They beat hollow trees as drums with hands, and then scream as music to it; when men hear them, they go to the sokos; but sokos never go to men with hostility. Manyuema say, “Soko is a man, and nothing bad in him.”

25th February, 1871.—Katomba presented a young soko or gorillah that had been caught while its mother was killed; she sits eighteen inches high, has fine long black hair all over, which was pretty so long as it was kept in order by her dam. She is the least mischievous of all the monkey tribe I have seen, and seems to know that in me she has a friend, and sits quietly on the mat beside me.

In walking, the first thing observed is that she does not tread on the palms of her hands, but on the backs of the second line of bones of the hands: in doing this the nails do not touch the ground, nor do the knuckles; she uses the arms thus supported crutch fashion, and hitches herself along between them; occasionally one hand is put down before the other, and alternates with the feet, or she walks upright and holds up a hand to any one to carry her. If refused, she turns her face down, and makes grimaces of the most bitter human weeping, wringing her hands, and sometimes adding a fourth hand or foot to make the appeal more touching.

Grass or leaves she draws around her to make a nest, and resents anyone meddling with her property. She is a most friendly little beast, and came up to me at once, making her chirrup of welcome, smelled my clothing, and held out her hand to be shaken. I slapped her palm without offence, though she winced. She began to untie the cord with which she was afterwards bound, with fingers and thumbs, in quite a systematic way, and on being interfered with by a man looked daggers, and screaming tried to beat him with her hands: she was afraid of his stick, and faced him, putting her back to me as a friend.

She holds out her hand for people to lift her up and carry her, quite like a spoiled child; then bursts into a passionate cry, somewhat like that of a kite, wrings her hands quite naturally, as if in despair. She eats everything, covers herself with a mat to sleep, and makes a nest of grass or leaves, and wipes her face with a leaf.

    The young Bonobo that was given to David Livingstone

Portrait of a Young Soko by Livingstone

They live in communities of about ten, each having his own female; an intruder from another camp is beaten off with their fists and loud yells. If one tries to seize the female of another, he is caught on the ground, and all unite in boxing and biting the offender. A male often carries a child, especially if they are passing from one patch of forest to another over a grassy space; he then gives it to the mother.

Susi and Chuma, who took the cadavre of Livingstone  from Africa to England, were shown a stuffedGorilla at the British Museum, but declined to identify them as gorillas.  Horace Waller, editor of ‘Last Journals of David Livingstone’ had this to say:

“…Neither Susi nor Chuma can identify the soko of Manyuema with the gorilla, as we have it stuffed in the British Museum. They think, however, that the soko is quite as large and as strong as the gorilla, judging by the specimens shown to them, although they could have decided with greater certainty, if the natives had not invariably brought in the dead sokos disembowelled; as they point out, and as we imagine from Dr. Livingstone’s description, the carcase would then appear much less bulky. Livingstone gives an animated sketch of a soko hunt.]

Source: The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Last Journals of David Livingstone, in Central Africa, vol II, edited by Horace Waller


Several years after Livingstone died, Henry Morton Stanley continued his own safaris throughout Africa, and in what is now the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo came across skulls and bones that seemed ‘almost human’:

The most singular feature of Kampunzu village were two rows of skulls ten feet apart, running along the entire length of the village, imbedded about two inches deep in the ground, the ” cerebral hemispheres ” uppermost, bleached, and glistening white from weather. The skulls were 186 in number in this one village. To me they appeared to be human, though many had an extraordinary projection of the posterior lobes, others of the parietal bones, and the frontal bones were usually low and retreating; yet the sutures and the general aspect of the greatest number of them were so similar to what I believed to be human, that it was almost with an indifferent air that I asked my chiefs and Arabs what these skulls were.

They replied, ** sokos ** — chimpanzees (?)

” Sokos from the forest ?” ” Certainly,’* they all replied.

” Bring the chief of Kampunzu to me immediately,**

I said, much interested now because of the wonderful reports of them that Livingstone had given me, as also the natives of Manyema……Evidences of cannibalism were numerous in the human and “soko’* skulls that grinned on many poles, and the bones that were freely scattered in the neighbourhood, near the village garbage heaps and the river banks, where one might suppose hungry canoe-men to have enjoyed a cold collation on an ancient matron’s arm.

Source: Henry Morton Stanley-Through the Dark Continent

Stanley took several of the bones back to England, where they were examined by  Thomas Huxley, who proclaimed them to be human – not monkey bones.  I don not know if they were ever re-examined more recently to decide on this, because if they were human it meant that the Manyema had indeed been eating their enemies.

More recently, several bonobos were taken to the States, and some have been born in captivity.  One in particular – Kanzi – has shown remarkable intelligence and interest in learning from humans:

The bonobo Kanzi

“According to Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaug of the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines (Iowa), Kanzi, a 31-year-old bonobo in her care, became fascinated with making fire after watching the film Quest for Fire when he was only a year old.

“The movie was released about a year after Kanzi was born and was about early man struggling to control fire,” says Dr. Savage-Rumbaugh. “Kanzi watched this spellbound over and over hundreds of times.”

The chimp soon began collecting firewood and attempting to ignite it. “His demeanour when he focused on making fire was just like when he watched the movie,” says the doctor, who has clearly not watched enough movies herself to know this couldn’t possibly end well.

Kanzi breaking up wood and building a fire

Collecting wood for a fire

Kanzi roasting a marshmallow

Kanzi eating his toasted marshmallow

In addition to his fire-making skills, Kanzi also understands some 2,000 words through a system of symbols called lexigrams.

Kanzi with Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh senior primate scientist at the Great Ape Trust working the lexigram symbols

For more information on Kanzi see the Great Ape Trust

Pictures Sources (above): The Telegraph

Here in Burundi, we have no bonobos, but we do have chimps and baboons.

Here I am working with the chimp Dragon, who is asking to be picked up. We were moving him to another location, and he was quite anxious, wanting reassurance.

The chimps before relocation - I've just given them some popcorn, a favorite treat.

Here is a family tree of the apes:

source: Frans de Waal

Another program is currently working with Orangutans, and is introducing iPads as part of their training:

Orangutan and an iPad

The nonprofit Orangutan Outreach is collecting donated iPads for its new Apps for Apes program, which is matching primates at Milwaukee County Zoo with the tablet computers. The apes don’t get to hold the iPads themselves—the devices aren’t strong enough to withstand the full strength of an orangutan—but they do get to interact with the computers through glass walls or the mesh of their cages. So far, the animals have been watching videos of themselves and playing with simple games or an app for finger painting. They might one day also be able to connect to animals in other parts of the zoo—or even other zoos—through Skype or programs like it.

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Chimpanzees, European explorers, Explorers & exploration, Stanley and Livingstone, Wildlife and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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