Given my interest in human disease, I’ve become very interested in animals and the role of animals in human history. I’m curious what primates were known to the Romans, and specifically whether they had encountered any true apes. It seems not. From what I have found, the first descriptions of an ape in Europe appear only in the 1640s. The Dutch doctor Nicolaes Tulp not only described a chimpanzee, but drew a picture of it, in the third book of his Observations medicae. He had seen the chimp in Amsterdam, carried back by Dutch traders who gave it as a gift to Prince Frederick Henry. It seems that his Latin text was never translated into English. Because the first European description of a chimp is interesting in its own right, and because someone might go googling for a translation someday, I share the quick translation I made of the key parts of the passage.
Nicolaes Tulp, Observationes medicae (1641)
Even though it lies outside the bounds of medicine proper, I will nevertheless weave into this text an account of the Satyrus Indicus, which was brought to our attention from Angola, and given as a gift to Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Now, this Satyrus was a creature with four legs: but on account of the human-like countenance that it bears is called orang-autang (or “man of the woods”) by Indians or “quoias morrou” by Africans. It is as tall as a three-year-old boy, and as thick as a six-year old.
Its body was neither fat, nor lean, but squarish. It was both very dexterous and very agile. Its limbs were so drawn up, and its muscles so huge, that it had the ability to do whatever it dared. Its front side was bald all over, but its back was hairy, and covered with black fur. The face was human-like, but its nose was flat and turned up, like a wrinkled, toothless old woman.
The ears were shaped no differently than a human’s. Its chest too was human-like, with rounded teats on both sides (it was of feminine sex). The stomach had a deeper navel. The limbs both upper and lower were so exactly like a human’s that they are practically “as similar as one egg to the next.”
The elbow was not missing its requisite joint, nor were the fingers of the hand out of order. Even the thumb was not lacking human shape. The lower legs had calves, and the feet had heels on the bottom. The form of the body was so well and suitably put together she often walked around erect. She was also able easily to lift without trouble and carry around any load, no matter how heavy.
When about to drink, she would grab the pot by the handle with one hand, while holding up the vessel from the bottom with the other. Then she would wipe off any moisture from her lips, no less fittingly and daintily than you might see a courtier do. She showed the same dexterity whenever she would go to bed. She would lay down her head on a pillow, and properly cover her body with a blanket, and wrap herself up no differently than the gentlest man would lay down for bed.
The King of Sambas once told our neighbor Samuel Blommaert that these Satyrs, especially the males, on the island of Borneo, had such a presumptuous spirit, and such a strong muscular frame, that they have more than once attacked armed men, and even the weaker sex of women and girls…
The Satyrs of antiquity were created as a representation of this animal. So Pliny had described it for his readers when he expressly wrote that it was a four-legged animal dwelling in the eastern mountains of India, very fast, with a human visage but the legs of a goat, and hairy over its whole body. It had no human manners, delighting in the darkness of the woods, and fleeing all dealings with humans.
The Satyr as known from the blessed Jerome differs a little from these reports, but it agrees with the creations of the poets. It was, he said, a man with up-turned nose and a rough forehead with horns, and a lower body whose legs turned into those of a goat…
If you would test these ancient descriptions against the measure of truth you will find that they have not completely erred. For this lustful animal is indeed found in the eastern mountains of India, as well as in Africa in Sierra Leone, in the heights of the mountains, which are perhaps those very places that Pliny says (5.5) “by night gleam with fires innumerable lighted up…” Yet, the foot of our creature does not have hooves, nor does its forehead have horns like a goat; nor is its body hairy all over, but only the head, the arms, and the back. The rest is bald. Nor are its ears pointed, as Horace wrongly stated, but rather curved and, in a word, truly human-like. In sum, either there is nothing in nature like the Satyr, or if there is, it will undoubtedly be the animal that we have drawn here in the table.