He that had never seen a river, imagined the first he met with to be the sea; and the greatest things that have fallen within our knowledge, we conclude the extremes that nature makes of the kind.
—Michel de Montaigne
Essays, I. 26
Ape-human hybrids have been a viral topic on the internet. And many people think a cross between a human and a great ape might be feasible. But few are aware that there is at least one case of hybridization between a human being and an ape already on record. It happened in France on the 6th of January 1897.
That morning at 7 a.m., a 16-year-old girl in the public maternity hospital in Vichy, produced an alleged ape-human hybrid, an infant of indefinite sex that died a few moments after birth. Its spinal canal lay open as far down as the lumbar vertebrae and no brain was present. The latter condition gave the strange birth its name, “L’anencéphale de Vichy.” Anencephaly is the absence of major portions of the brain, skull and scalp.
Together with Louis Bounoure, a professor of biology at the University of Strasbourg, Dr. Amie Therre, the head physician of the hospital, wrote an account this birth, L’Anencéphale à type simiesque de la Maternité de l'hôpital civil de Vichy. But in view of potential legal and professional repercussions, he waited to publish until he was an old man. His booklet first appeared in 1943. There he states that
The secret of the monster’s origin is in the presumed coupling of a strong and healthy sixteen-year-old girl of French nationality, with a young African anthropoid.
When questioned by the midwife and by ourselves alone and at length, she would say nothing about any sexual relations she may have had with this ape. She did, however, admit having lived in familiar association with him.
Also discreet inquiries in the vicinity of the place where the father—an individual who traveled from town to town—had parked his wagon confirmed that the father, daughter and ape all lived together in the wagon and that no other person consorted with them. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy]
The description of the animal as a young African anthropoid indicates, almost certainly, that a male chimpanzee was in question. The only other African anthropoids are the bonobo, which at that time had not as yet been discovered, and the gorilla, which in 1897 was still quite rare in captivity and, in any case, would have made an implausibly large and dangerous travelling companion.
Beyond the circumstances just described, Bounoure and Therre thought this birth was a chimpanzee-human hybrid because it had many ape-like traits, which will be detailed below (and which can be seen in the pictures on this page). These facts led them to conclude that “It seems beyond doubt that an explanation in terms of simian parentage should be invoked” (Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original French: “il ne nous semble pas douteux que la fécondation simiesque puisse être invoquée.”).
The infant, which was 44 centimeters (17 inches) long, was anomalous not only with respect to its brain and spinal canal, but also its eyes, which were huge, its nose, which was flat like an ape’s, its ears, which were very large, as well as its thorax and extremities, which were proportioned like those of an ape. The organs of generation were hermaphroditic (a condition often seen in hybrids).
“And beyond these many malformations,” Therre wrote, “that which is most striking on initial view of this infant is its frankly simian aspect, above all in the proportions of its long limbs.” (Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original French: “En dehors de ces malformations, ce qui frappe à première vue c’est son aspect franchement simiesque surtout par ses membres démesurément longs.”). These proportions are especially apparent in the uppermost of the three photos on this page.
Therre states that the specimen was placed in a collection, but it is unclear exactly where, or if the specimen still exists today. Obviously, if it is in fact an F₁ chimpanzee-human hybrid and it is still available for study, modern genetic techniques will easily establish its parentage.
The fact that this particular hybrid was inviable may suggest to some that all other hybrids from this cross would also be inviable. However, in my experience looking at thousands of different types of hybrid crosses, it has been commonplace for one and the same cross to produce both viable and inviable individuals. Similar lesions involving non-development of the brain, or even its development outside the body (“exencephaly”), occur in many pheasant-chicken hybrids (Phasianus colchicus × Gallus gallus), for example. And yet, many other such hybrids are perfectly viable and develop normally.
So there is really no reason, with a sample size of one, to reach any general conclusion. Each different type of cross must be evaluated separately. And in the case of this particular cross, the size of the sample is so very small that the risk of reaching an incorrect conclusion through a lack of experience is still large. It’s just the sort of situation that Montaigne described in the epigraph at the top of this page.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
Human Origins: Are we hybrids?
On the Origins of New Forms of Life
Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?
Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology