On the Earliest Representations of Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): Were African Apes Traded to Bronze Age Elam?

Abstract

There is no literature referring to the ancient iconographic depiction of apes in the eastern circum-Mediterranean region and the Near East. Written reports such as the Old Testament mention apes, but this may be a reference to monkeys, while Hanno the Carthaginian Navigator referred to chimpanzees in the 5th–6th century BC. Here we describe two marble figures, belonging to a private gallery, allegedly from Middle Bronze Age Elam. They represent a “seated monkey” and a “crouched monkey.” Detailed observation and analysis of the morphological characters of both figures show that they almost certainly represent chimpanzees. If the dates and provenance of this material are correct, they are the earliest known representations of African apes. It would follow that chimpanzees were traded, as living animals, as artifacts or imageries, along an extended distance from the Central African forests to the east coast of Africa towards Elam, by the 2nd millennium BC. Alternatively, the figures may date from the Roman period, in which case the circulation of these apes or ape representations occurred centuries later, possibly from other parts of Africa. As these figures are relevant for the archaeoprimatological record, their archeological contexts require further detailed studies. Nevertheless, whether the figures are of Elamite or Roman origin, they are the earliest known representations of chimpanzees.

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Acknowledgments

Great thanks go to John M. Halley (University of Ioannina), who helped substantially with the editing of a previous draft. We are grateful to the primatologists and archaeologists who agreed to look at the original images from the gallery webpage and for concurring with the existence of the photographs and with our taxonomic identification. They are M. Marlena Antczak, Liliana Cortés-Ortiz, Paul A. Garber, Jim J. Moore, Stephen Nash, Marilyn A. Norconk, Ryne A. Palombit, Alfred L. Rosenberger, and Damián Ruiz-Ramoni. Another archaeologist also agreed with the previous scholars but preferred to remain anonymous. An eleventh colleague, Eckhard W. Heymann, observed the photograph three times at different moments and has another opinion. At a first glance, he identified them as common chimpanzees, but later, based on the line between the forehead and the hairy part of the upper head, he considers that the apes might be young or female orangutans. Thanks particularly go to M. Marlena Antczak, Eckhard W. Heymann, and Jim J. Moore for providing further insights that served to improve an early draft of this manuscript. We appreciate the productive comments and editorial support of Joanna M. Setchell, as well the constructive suggestions of the two anonymous reviewers that strongly enriched this article. B. Urbani also acknowledges the cooperation of the personnel at the libraries of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Harvard University.

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BU found the images online. BU and DY wrote the contextual, archaeoprimatological, and historical components of the article. DY and BU wrote the descriptive (diagnosis) component of the article and prepared the map.

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Correspondence to Bernardo Urbani.

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Handling Editor: Joanna M. Setchell

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Urbani, B., Youlatos, D. On the Earliest Representations of Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes): Were African Apes Traded to Bronze Age Elam?. Int J Primatol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10764-020-00169-0

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Keywords

  • Archaeoprimatology
  • East Africa
  • Near East
  • Pan troglodytes
  • Primate trade
  • Roman