Historical aspects of primatological collections

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  • Historical Aspects of Primatological CollectionsHANS-KONRAD SCHMUTZ

    Primatology, the exclusive study ofthe taxonomic order including man, isa complex network of natural historyand cultural aspects.1 Historical casestudies may clarify essential theoreti-cal aspects of different research prac-tices both in the past and in thepresent.

    The history of biology is changing:it is deviating from linear history fullof anecdotes to a historical study ofscience, from the pure analysis ofpublished results to a description ofscientific processes.2 This also meansthat the way of looking at things ischanging.

    The historical study of a small tax-onomic group over a sufficiently longperiod exposes the complex reciprocalrelations between taxonomic modelsand the related empirical evidence,

    such as selected morphological mark-ers or favored anatomical structures.Pre-Darwinian primatology is an idealfield of research for such an analysis.


    In natural history, the style of sci-ence changed repeatedly between17001850. In the first decades of the18th century, a traditional natural his-tory like Conrad Gessners Thierbuchstill exerted a great influence on thecollecting policy.3 Traces of medievaltales and Plinian anthropology canstill be found in primatology andphysical anthropology from the Ba-roque right through to the Enlighten-ment.4 Linnes heterogeneous orderPrimates (1756) included varieties ofreal man and also the traditional ape-man (Homo sapiens ferus). In the mid-century cabinets, we find severalpseudoevidences of human-like fabu-lous beings and monstrous races.

    In the third quarter of the century,the scientific discourse on mammalswas dominated by the intense rivalrywithin the scientific community be-tween Linnes and Buffons taxonomicmodels. Both systems were based onrich collections. Partisans from bothsides used their own collections as anarsenal of anatomical evidence in thiscabinet-fight, in order to attain thebest possible taxonomic model. Like-wise, 19th century craniology and Cu-viers hierarchical system of compar-ative morphological markers were

    rooted in the richness of the RoyalCabinet in Paris. For many reasons,pre-Darwinian primatology was mainlya museum affair. With this selectiveempiricism, stuffed primates oftenappeared like three-dimensional fic-tions rather than true-life presenta-tions. For example, gibbons werestuffed and mounted in an upright po-sition like Buffons Jocko, in the tra-ditional medieval manner of an ape-man (Figs. 1, 2).5 Such cases providegood examples of this museologicalmaterialization of traditional myths.

    A comparison of the various collect-ing strategies over this particular pe-riod also reveals an evolution from thetraditional 17th century cabinet of cu-riosities to the natural history collec-tion of the middle of the 18th century.6

    In Valentinis Museology, monkeys andapes were shown as rare curiosities,

    Hans-Konrad Schmutz, Lecturer in His-tory of Physical Anthropology at ZurichUniversity and Director of the Natural His-tory Museum at NaturwissenschaftlicheSammlungen Museum Strasse 52, CH-8400 Winterthur, Switzerland. E-mail:hanskonrad.schmutz@win.ch

    Key words: Blumenbach; Buffon; collecting strat-egy; Enlightenment; Linne; Pongidae; pre-Dar-winian primatology; selective empiricism; Tarsi-iformes; thought-style

    Evolutionary Anthropology, Suppl 1:1619 (2002)DOI 10.1002/evan.10044Published online in Wiley InterScience(www.interscience.wiley.com). 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

    The purpose of this historical case study is to reveal the essential parameters inpre-Darwinian primatology (e.g., taxonomic models, selective empiricism includingrelevant morphological characteristics, and collecting strategies including selec-tion and presentation of objects). Further studies of Darwinian and non-Darwinianprimatology will demonstrate both the general importance of the factors describedhere and their relevance to the study of the history of science.

    Figure 1. Le Jocko (1765; Buffon G.L.L.)(1765; Histoire naturelle, generale et par-ticulie`re, avec la description du Cabinet duRoi. Volume XIV. Paris: Imprimerie du Roi.Table I, p. 82).

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  • although admittedly they were pri-marily of pharmaceutical interest tohim. In 1714 Valentini wrote: Dasbeste aber / was man in den Natu-ralien-Kammern von den Affen hat /ist der Affen-Stein oder Lap. BEZOARSIMIARUM. Welcher meistens ausden grossen Affen / so Pavianen oderBavianen heissen/ genommen werden/ (. . .) Ihr Nutz und Gebrauch ist ebenderjenige / welcher dem Orientali-schen Bezoar zugeschrieben wird. Siestarcken das Hertz / und dienen gegendie Hertzens-Angst von Gifft oder sau-ren Schleim im Magen / und treibenden Schweiss / in Ansehen ihrerfluchtigen und volatilischen Theilger /die sie in sich haben.7

    Forty years later, the style of sciencechanged radically. In 1753, Dauben-ton criticized Valentini: La combila-tion de Valentini, qui est le recueil leplus etendu que nous ayons dans cegenre, pourroit deja fournir de grandresultats & des faits importants pourleconomie animale, si les descriptionsqu elle renferme etoient toutes con-formes a` une methode generale; maisheureusement ce defaut de methodeest reparable en quelque facon, car ilest possible de reduire une partie dechacune de ces descriptions a` un planuniforme.8

    Buffons collaborator Daubenton

    was one of the first to describe pri-mates mainly on the basis of carefullyselected anatomical characteristics:Jaurois voulu examiner toutes les es-pe`ces danimaux, sil etoit possible deles rencontrer, & mon dessein a ete deles observer, tant a` linterieur qua`lexterieur, pour decrire les propor-tions des parties principales de leurcorps, parce que cette description desparties exterieures suffit pour fairedistinguer chaque animal, & celle desparties interieures pourra donner uneidee des principaux organes qui ser-vent aux animaux & des modificationsde chacun de ces organes dans les dif-ferentes espe`ces. Une telle expositiondu corps des animaux peut fournir,par la comparaison que lon fera desuns aux autres, des resultats impor-tants pour leconomie animal, qui estle principal objet de lHistoire Na-turelle.9

    At all times, objects interpreted in asemiotic fashion or as physico-theo-logical metaphors depend first on theprevailing thought-style and second-arily on craftsmanship and prepara-tory or artistic skills.10 For example,Campers famous facial angle wascreated mainly for portraitists andcameo-makers and not for anthropol-ogists or cabinet-keepers.11 Quantita-tive morphology is, in fact, partlybased on cameralistic statistics (aGerman variety of mercantilism;propagated as Policeiwissenschaft

    at Universities like Halle or Frankfurt/Oder after 1727; they offered lessonsfor young aristocratic landowners orcivil servants in public finance, natu-ral history, agriculture, statistics, andrelated fields).

    The definitions of good morpholog-ical characteristics depend on therichness of the cabinet, but are limitedby the available anatomical and museo-logical techniques such as preserva-tion or presentation.



    Pre-Darwinian research on Tarsiusis an excellent example to demon-strate the postulated relation betweenthe different cultural parameters in18th century primatology.12 In addi-tion, Tarsius was discovered twicewithin one century.

    Towards the end of the 17th cen-tury, a Jesuit brother and Bohemianpharmacist in Manila, Georg JosefCamel (16611706), informed JamesPetiver in London about a curious lit-tle, timid, long-tailed animal (Fig. 3).This quadruped may be a frugivore,suggested Camel. Interestingly, themother was reported to fasten heryoung around her belly with a certainliana, which was the same one thatnatives used as a remedy.13

    For three reasons, Camels incom-

    Figure 2. Hylobates sp. (about 1900; AdolphH. Schultz, Collection of the AnthropologicalInstitute and Museum of Zurich).

    Figure 3. Cercopithecus luzonis (about 1700; Petiver J. 1702. Gazophylacii naturae et artisdecas prima. London: Bateman. Table XIII, Fig. 11).

    Primatology and Anthropology 17

  • plete message was accepted by theLondon scientific community. Thehabit corresponded with the popularimage of the long-tailed animals,which were described by ConradGessner (15161565), according toantic resources, as Cercopithecii. Ac-cordingly, Petiver named the un-known quadruped Cercopithecus luzo-nis. With its enormous eyes, itssecretive way of life, and the mysteri-ous fastening of the young animal,Cercopithecus luzonis exactly met theexpectation of this Baroque collector.Nobody had any doubt about thisstory. Everyone knew the liana, whichcould be identified taxonomically andalso had a practical pharmaceuticaleffect. This, and the personal reputa-tion of Petiver, contributed enor-mously to its credibility. Therefore,the result had to be scientific.

    Petiver and other cabinet-keepersmentioned the Cercopithecus luzonisbecause it was rare and curious. Forthe same reason, collectors likeThomas Pennant (17261798) or Jo-hann Christian Daniel Schreber(17391810) rejected it 50 years later.The thought-style and therefore allcategories of collecting had changedradically.

    In midcentury, the second inde-

    pendent description was establishedagainst this new theoretical back-ground. In 1765, Georges-Louis Leclerc,Comte de Buffon (17071788), andLouis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (17161800) described a small unknownmammal with remarkable hind legs asle tarsier. The study was based on abadly kept cadaver of unknown ori-gin. This meant that information onthe origin, living conditions, and hab-itat as well as climate, all of whichwere very important to Buffonsmethod of categorization, were totallymissing. Buffon and Daubenton ob-tained information indirectly by com-paring the specimen with speciesof similar habit and known origin,which they took from illustrations byGeorges Edwards (16931773).14 Buf-fon commented on the hind legs asbeing jerboa-like. Within limits, hesaid, Quon devroit presumer quilssont despe`ces produites par le me`meciel et la meme terre; cependant en lecomparant par dautre partie, lon doitnon-seulement douter, mais memepresumer le contraire. But Edwardsjerboa was tetradactylous, and Buffonconcluded, Cette difference est tropgrande pour quon puisse regarder cesanimaux comme despe`ce voisines, etil ne seroit pas impossible quil fussentaussi tre`s-eloignes par le climat; car letarsier avec sa petite taille, ses quatremains, ses longs doit, ses petitsongles, sa grande queue, ses longspieds, semble se raprocher beaucoupde la Marmose, du Cayopollin et dunautre petit animal de lAmerique me-ridionale. . .15

    Tarsius, with its remarkable firstpedal digit, enormous eyes, and hair-less tail resembling a whip, alsolooked rather like an opossum (Didel-phis).

    Buffons comments and Dauben-tons analyses of the new species werecautious and uncertain. In Buffons il-lustration, however, we do not see adisheveled preparation, but rather alively tarsier jumping on a tree againsta tropical decor (Fig. 4). Based on thisincorrect picture, many cabinet-keep-ers suddenly discovered tarsiers intheir old collections. During the firsthalf of the century, only three collec-tors (Petiver, Valentini, and Linne)had participated in the discussion.Within one decade after Buffons pub-

    lication, 10 cabinet-keepers publishedtheir own opinions, mostly accordingto their own research.

    After 1765, the first descriptions byCamel-Petiver and Buffon-Daubentonhad two totally different fates. With-out any morphological characteris-tics, Cercopithecus luzonis could notbe included in any of the acceptedtaxonomical systems. It gradually lostits credibility and soon it was only anobscure species.16

    Buffons Tarsier was fundamentallydifferent, because le tarsier was suf-ficiently documented by the rules ofBuffons methode generale, a well-accepted style of thinking in contem-porary primatology, and the descrip-tion was placed in a widely availablescientific best-seller. As a result, Tar-sius, according to Daubentons cata-logue of morphological markers,could have its place in Linnes or Buf-fons taxonomical system. In otherwords, Buffon had established a rid-dle that could be solved by the me-thodical rules of both Linnes and Buf-fons schools.

    For Thomas Pennant and JohannReinhold Forster (17291798), for ex-ample, Tarsius could not be a primate,because they never accepted Linnesorder of Primates. They also negatedLinnes catalogue of characteristics,which paid more attention to markerssuch as the dentition than to habit.For them, Tarsius, with its prominenthind legs, could only be a jerboa. Inmany studies of the tarsier during thatperiod, the basic discussions betweenfollowers of Linne and Buffon weremirrored.

    In a speech in December 1775, Jo-hann Friedrich Blumenbach (17521840) referred to Tarsius as a Didel-phis-like primate.17 Two years later,his teacher Johann Christian PolycarpErxleben (17441777) promoted Blu-menbachs suggestion and justified iton the basis of the similarities be-tween the dentition of Tarsius andthat of lemurs. Some scientists or cab-inet-keepers could not make up theirminds whether to follow Erxleben orPennant. For example, Peter BenediktGraumann (17521803) described Buf-fons tarsier twice in the same work:once as Lemur tarsier, and once asDidelphys macrotarsus. Erxleben diedearly, and Blumenbach never men-

    Figure 4. Le Tarsier (1765; Buffon G.L.L.1765. Histoire naturelle, generale et particu-lie`re, avec la description du Cabinet du Roi.Volume XIII. Paris: Imprimerie du Roi. TableIX, p. 90).

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  • tioned the tarsier question again. Nev-ertheless, his opinion won recognitionin the 1780s, in the same way asLinnes mammal systematics did afterBuffons death in 1788.


    The purpose of this historical casestudy is to reveal the essential param-eters in pre-Darwinian primatology(e.g., taxonomic models, selective em-piricism including relevant morpho-logical characteristics, and collectionstrategies including selection and pre-sentation of objects). Further studiesof Darwinian and non-Darwinian pri-matology will demonstrate both thegeneral importance of the factors de-scribed here and their relevance to thestudy of the history of science.


    1. Haraway D. 1989. Primate visions. Londonand New York: Routledge/Chapman & Hall.

    2. Wehner R. 1999. Archaologie des WissensGeschichte der modernen Biologie. NeueZurcher Zeitung 118:79.

    3. Gessner C. 15511587. Historiae animalium.Zurich: Froschauer.

    4. Corbey R, Theunissen B. 1995. Ape, man, ape-man: changing views since 1600. Leiden: Depart-ment of Prehistory.

    5. Schmutz H-K, editor. 1997. Phantome undPhantasmen in der neuzeitlichen Naturge-schichte. Marburg: Basiliskenpresse.

    6. Schmutz H-K. 1994. Zwischen schoner Occu-pation und dem Versuch der Natur ihre Kun-stgriffe abzulernen: Schweizer Sammler im An-cien Regime. In: Grote A, editor. Macrocosmos inMicrocosmodie Welt in der Stube. Zur Ge-schichte des Sammelns, 1450 bis 1800. Opladen:Leske & Budrich. p 747762.

    7. Valentini MB. 1714. Musei museorum oderder vollstandigen Schau Buhne frembder Natu-ralien zweyter Theil / Worinnen die rareste Na-tur-Schatze aus allen biss daher gedrucktenKunst Kammern / Reiss-Beschreibungen undandern Curiosen Buchern enthalten / undbenebenst einer Neuaffgerichteten Zeug- undRust-Kammer der Natur / auch vielen CuriosenKupffer-Stucken vorgestellet sind. Frankurt amMain: Verlag der Junerischen Erben und JohannAdam Jungen. p 148149.

    8. Daubenton LJM. 1753. De la description desanimaux. In: Buffon GLL, editor. Histoire na-turelle, generale et particulie`re avec la descrip-tion du Cabinet du Roi. Volume IV. Paris: Im-

    primerie du Roi. p 113141 (cit Buffon 1753),p 134135.9. Buffon GLL. 1753. Histoire naturelle, generaleet particulie`re avec la description du Cabinet duRoi . Volume IV. Paris: Imprimerie du Roi. p 135.10. Pomian K. 1987. Collectionneurs, amateurset curieux, Paris-Venise, XVIeXVIIIe sie`cle. Paris:Gallimard.11. Kemp M. 1999. Slanted evidencethe tortu-ous path from skull measurement to theories ofracial superiority. Nature 402:727.12. Schmutz H-K. 2000. Die TarsiiformesihreEntdeckung und Entschleierung zwischen 1700und 1850. Marburg/Lahn: Basilisken-Presse.13. Petiver J. 1708. De Quadrupedibus Philip-pensibus Tractatus a Reverendo Georg. Jos.Camel transmissus Jacobo Petiver, Pharmacop.& Societ. Regiae Soc. Londoni. Philos TransLond 25:21972204.14. Edwards G. 1758. Gleanings of natural his-tory, exhibiting figures of quadrupeds, birds, in-sects, plants etc. most of which have not, till now,been either figured or described. London: RoyalCollege of Physicians.15. Buffon GL. 1765. Histoire naturelle, generaleet particulie`re, avec la description du Cabinet duRoi. Volume XIII. Paris: Imprimerie du Roi.p 135.16. Pennant T. 1771. Synopsis of quadrupeds.Chester: Monk.17. Blumenbach JF. 1775. Murray. In: Got-tingische Anzeigen von gelehrten Sachen 147.Stuck p 1258.

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