The only animal which possesses the least shadow of a possibility of ever being able to impregnate the female of our own species besides her own appropriate lord, would seem to be the ourang-outang of Borneo and the East.
—Thomas W. Blatchford M. D.
Observations on Equivocal Generation, 1844
Aelianus writes of the Indians, that they will not admit into their Cities any of the red apes, because they are oft-times mad in lust toward women. And if at any time they find such Apes, they hunt and destroy them as being adulterous beasts.
—Giambattista della Porta
Natural Magic, 1658
Although there have been many allegations of orangutan-human hybrids over the years, Jacobus Bontius (1592-1631) appears to be the earliest author to refer to such an animal. Bontius, also known as Jacob de Bondt, was a Dutch physician and naturalist. He was trained at Leiden University and is now remembered as a pioneer of tropical medicine and eastern zoology. In addition, he was the first Dutch scientist to make a systematic study of the fauna and flora of Java.
He first arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), in 1627, and for the brief remainder of his life, “by the side of his official activities he worked indefatigably on Java’s medical and natural curiosities” (Heniger 1986, p. 12).
His zoological and botanical manuscripts, “which their author, cut off by death in the East Indies, left in confusion” (“quos auctor, morte in Indiis praventus, indigestos reliquit”), remained unpublished until 1658. Then, the just-quoted Willem Piso published them as a part of his own De Indiae utrusque res naturales et medicae. Both Piso and Bontius wrote in Latin, the scholarly language of the time.
Bontius’ writings within Piso’s book were entitled Historia Naturalis & Medicas Indiæ Orientalis, (A Natural and Medical History of the East Indies). They comprised six books, the fifth and sixth of which, respectively, dealt with the animals and plants of the Java. In the former, he describes and pictures (see his illustration at the top of this page) what seem to be orangutan-human hybrids.
The section on animals is not long, only 36 pages, but seems substantial given that the author completed the work as a sideline, and inasmuch as he died after just four years on Java. He describes each animal in a separate article, accompanied by an illustration. The woodcuts are for the most part of fairly good quality, as can be judged from comparing them with the actual appearance of well-known creatures, for example, his figure of a cassowary is shown at right.
Bontius is most often cited as having given the first European account of the orangutan. And he does seem at least to be the first European to have used that word in print. To be precise, he used the name ovrang ovtang (substituting v for u in Latin), not orangutan). But the creature he described in his article cannot be mistaken for the animal that bears that name today. It was something different. This is obvious from his picture, where this creature, though very hairy, is shown with a human face, and with limbs, hands and feet all in the human proportion. There is also his claim that he witnessed one crying and shedding tears, things that orangutans never do. So either it was something else, or Bontius fabricated the entire article, though in speaking of these creatures he claimed to have seen them himself (he says, “vidi ego” = “I myself saw”) .
Bontius led off his article with an epigram:
Which, roughly, translates to, “Only boys believe in goat-footed satyrs, sphinxes and lusty fauns. And yet, look upon this amazing monster with a human face, and who is also human in her manner, sighing and watering her cheeks with tears.”
He then writes,
Of satyrs, Pliny, that genius of nature, writes (book 7, chapter 2): “Satyrs do exist in eastern lands and mountains, a dangerous animal, not only a quadruped, but also one that walks upright and with a human form. They are so swift that they are caught only when old or sick.”
But what is more wondrous is that I saw some myself, both male and female, walking erect. In particular there was the female satyr shown here, who out of modesty concealed herself from strangers, hid her face in her hands (for it is accurate to use the word hands) and copiously wept, sighing all the while. She also performed other actions of a human being, so that nothing human was lacking except speech. Indeed, the Javans say they can speak, but do not, for fear they will be put to work. (What nonsense!) The name they give these creatures is Ourang Outang, meaning man of the woods. And these, they insist, are born out off the wantonous of the native women who, with detestable lasciviousness, mix themselves with apes and monkeys. [Translated by E.M. McCarthy. Original Latin.]
So here, Bontius seems to be alleging that he saw orangutan-human hybrids — either that or some type of anthropoid now unknown and, perhaps, extinct. Obviously, if women in that part of the world were going to “mix themselves with apes,” the only available partner would have been an orangutan. But were these creatures really orangutan-human hybrids? And did he even see such creatures? At this distance in time, it's impossible to say.
Whether orangutan-human hybrids can actually be produced or not, the notion of human beings mating with orangutans, at least, is not far-fetched. In fact, it is known to occur. Captive female orangutans have been used as prostitutes in Indonesia. And male orangutans occasionally rape women, as evidenced in the following quotation from the online magazine Salon’s review of Carole Jahme’s “Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution.”
The rape just mentioned took place when a wild-born male orangutan named Gundul, who frequented one of Galdikas’s research camps, attacked a Dayak woman who worked there as a cook. In her book Reflections of Eden, (1995, 294) Galdikas says “I had never seen Gundul threaten or assault a woman, although he often charged male assistants. The cook was screaming hysterically. I thought, ‘He's trying to kill her.’” Galdikas relates how she beat Gundul and tried to pull him away, but then she says, “I began to realize that Gundul did not intend to harm the cook, but had something else in mind. The cook stopped struggling. ‘It’s all right,’ she murmured. She lay back in my arms, with Gundul on top of her. Gundul was very calm and deliberate. He raped the cook. As he moved rhythmically back and forth, his eyes rolled upward to the heavens. I was in shock.…Gundal let the cook go, stood up, and, soundlessly, moved off the feeding platform into the trees. It was over just like that.”
“Gundul was behaving like a normal subadult orangutan male,” she concludes. “Nonetheless, his behavior was worrisome.”
Obviously, in times gone by, when orangutans were far more common (orangutan populations declined by 97% in the twentieth century) and many people lived out in the jungles of Indonesia, such encounters must have been more frequent. Perhaps orangutan-human hybrids were, too.
Indeed, orangutans were once much more widespread than today. Whereas today they are limited the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, the San Diego Zoo website states that prehistorical distribution of the orangutan “spanned across mainland Asia from northern India, to southern China, Viet Nam, the Malay peninsula, and Java.”
Nevertheless, despite the assertions of Dr. Blatchford in the epigraph at the top of this page, the evidence for the actual occurrence of this cross is far scantier than in the case of certain other types of human crosses.
Ivanov. During the 1920s Russian biologist Il’ya Ivanov traveled to Africa and attempted to produce ape-human hybrids there by injecting chimpanzees with human semen (Rossianov 2002). However, he managed to carry out only three such inseminations, so his failure to produce hybrids is not surprising. Hybrid crosses typically require more, in some cases many more, inseminations to produce a pregnancy than do ordinary matings between two animals of the same kind. He was working with a limited number of chimpanzees, all of which he had had to capture himself, and they all soon died after his initial attempts to impregnate them. These difficulties led him to think it would be easier to inseminate women with ape semen.
Returning to Russia, he asked for volunteers to be impregnated by apes. By 1928, he had found at least one (Rossianov 2002). In a letter, this venturesome woman, known only as "G___", wrote, “Dear Professor, … With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence … But when I think that I could do a service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me … I ask you to accept me for the experiment.” Ivanov was about to make a first attempt to impregnate his volunteer using orangutan sperm, but the orangutan died and the experiment had to be postponed. Indeed, Ivanov never did succeed in his plan to produce orangutan-human hybrids, for not long thereafter, he fell victim to one of Stalin’s purges. He was arrested and exiled to the Kazakh Republic where he himself died in 1932.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
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On the Origins of New Forms of Life
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Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology