One of the first illustrated zoological textbooks was Icones Animalium, by Konrad Gesner, published in 1553. It collects pictures and reports from lots of authors and travellers, and is written in Latin and German. I saw a copy at the ZSL library last week (the second edition, 1560), and it’s filled with amazing woodcuts – dogs, cats, hooved animals, weird fish, unicorns and antelopes.
Once I’d got over the awe at being allowed to look through the oldest book I’ve ever seen, I thought I’d share some of the pictures from the primate pages, which are some of the strangest in the book. Some pictures are very accurate and clearly drawn from life, but others were made up from myths, or accounts from far-away places like America. Even when the picture is dodgy, if you know the animals involved you can often recognise them from the surrounding descriptions.
Disclaimers: You’re about to see some poorly-translated Latin – I’ve never studied it, and Google’s Latin seems a little hit-and-miss. If anyone wishes to correct me I’d be genuinely delighted (and have it all typed out for anyone who wants it). Also, some of our photos were poor quality or we failed to take one, in which case I’ve substituted open-source pictures from others. Click to enlarge pictures.
A “sagoin”, or monkey from the Americas – almost certainly some kind of marmoset. The writing describes it as small, agile and timid. At some point I think he says they are like the offspring of a small monkey and a weasel, and he then names them Galeopithecum (in Greek “weasel-monkey”). Galeopithecus is now considered a synonym for the unrelated colugos (“flying lemurs”) of Asia.
“Arctopithecus” (literally “bear-ape”)
Also from the Americas, this smiling animal is described as the size of a guenon monkey from Africa, with grey fur like a shaggy bear, a tail three inches long and a head and face like a child. It has only three nails on each foot, but they are four inches long, and it creeps through the trees higher than any other animal.
He can only be describing the three-toed sloth (Bradypus spp., which was once also called Arctopithecus). Gesner confidently classified sloths with the primates, though they’re actually related to anteaters.
In the text is a rather sad story told to Gesner by Andreas Theuetus, a French naturalist. His companions saw two sloths in the high trees tops while walking in the forest. They shot them with muskets, killing one of them. The other was kept in captivity, and Gesner writes that although it refused all food and water it remained in the same state for twenty-six days. On the twenty-sixth day it was killed by dogs.
The text goes on to say that the sloth likes to climb up to a man’s shoulders, which the natives (being naked) cannot bear due to the claws, which are “longer than a lion or any of the wild beasts known to us.”
Next are two baboon woodcuts that are pretty accurate – they have the stiff-legged plantigrade stance, mane, long muzzle and ischial callosities (buttock pads). The names Papio and Cynocephalus (dog-head) are still used for baboons today. The description “corpore homine deformem, facie canem referre” seems to translate as “the deformed body of a man and face of a dog”, which I reckon is not a bad description of a baboon if you’re trying to describe one to a 16th century audience.
The short tail suggests to me that this depicts a drill or mandrill (Mandrillus spp), closely related to baboons but no longer classified as actual baboons.
The description says the baboon is fierce and cannot be tamed, and contains the phrase “uultum a supercilis & oculis praesertim austerum often dens“, which Google translates as “eyebrows, eyes, face and particularly harsh demon tooth”. I’m not sure this translation is right, but I’ve worked with baboons and would agree that they have harsh demon teeth.
Another baboon (this one with a longer tail) is shown below, on the same page as other monkeys.
The lower monkey must be drawn from life, complete with harness and lead. Though the English word given is marmoset, it’s clearly not what we call a marmoset today. The Latin name is Cercopithecus, and the subfamily Cercopithecinae today contains macaques, baboons and vervet monkeys. The text contains descriptions from writers about Ethiopian and Indian monkeys, and says that in India the long-tailed monkeys are abundant and travel together.
To me this looks a lot like a rhesus or possibly bonnet macaque (Macaca mulatta or radiata), both endemic to India.
Barbary macaques (sometimes called apes, though they’re not) are the only macaque found outside Asia (in Gibraltar and North Africa) and have only a vestigial tail.
This image seems to have become a bit of a meme in the 1500s – here’s an embroidery from 1570 by Mary Queen of Scots showing a very similar monkey. I’ve put it next to an actual Barbary macaque so you can see how the illustrator captured the sitting pose of the macaque really nicely.
Now we’re into the weird and totally fictitious world of satyrs… When reporting anecdotes about apes and “wild men”, Gesner classified these creatures as a type of monkey.
The top woodcut is entitled “monkey or satyr race”, and is supposedly from the Holy Land (the Middle East). It is “a rare monkey, proportional in size and shape to a man, but with a face overgrown with hair”. The Latin seems to say that if you capture one and it breaks free, it will openly try to have sex with boys and women. I’m happy to have my translation corrected on this one…
The lower drawing is “a monster Satyr” reportedly captured in the year 1531 in the forests near Salzburg. There’s no real explanation as to why it has chicken feet.
Icones Animalium is a great insight into early European zoology – before the Linnaean taxonomy system. It was a popular science book of its time, and showed people animals that most would never have a chance to see themselves. To a 16th century audience, a satyr really was no stranger or less believable than a sloth.
- Gessner’s Hyena and the Telephone Game – a paper by Manda Clair Jost. Generations of scholars thought Gesner’s baboon picture was a hyena, despite it being labelled Papio and looking pretty much exactly like a baboon.
- Further Information on Neotropical Monkeys in the XVI Century: Part 3, B. Urbani, Neotropical Primates