Dear Straight Dope:
Who or what type of critter was Tarzan raised by? I recall from the books that he disliked gorillas and from the descriptions, chimps are too small. Did old Edgar just make up a whole class of apes?
First answer: yes, it’s fiction, and Edgar Rice Burroughs made up the whole thing. He wasn’t a naturalist, zoologist or anthropologist, and his jungle animals behaved as he wanted them to, to tell a good story. Reality definitely took a second place. Hell, about a 102nd place. Burroughs did distinguish his great apes from gorillas, but did not identify them further than that.
Now, second answer: The identification of the tribe of apes who raised Tarzan is a matter of serious debate (yes, serious debate) among Tarzan aficionados, much as discussions of the location of Watson’s wound are among Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. The game is the same: Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote accounts of a real person, Tarzan, just as John Watson wrote accounts about a real detective, Sherlock Holmes. The problem is that Burroughs (like Watson, or like his editor Arthur Conan Doyle) tried to conceal the true identities of many of the people and incidents; hence, the accounts are full of distortions and seeming inconsistencies. True aficionados try to pry behind the camouflage, to determine the true events, dates, people, places, etc., and to reconcile the inconsistencies.
(ASIDE: In fact, the Burroughs enthusiasts and the Holmes enthusiasts sometimes find points in common–after all, Tarzan’s father John Clayton would have been around the same age as Sherlock Holmes, living contemporarily in London.)
OK, so that’s the game: assume the stories are true, and try to explain the inconsistencies.
The first Tarzan book, Tarzan of the Apes, was published in 1912. The first chapters describe how, in 1888, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, was commissioned to make a “peculiarly delicate investigation” of conditions in an unnamed British colony on the west coast of Africa. He was accompanied by his young wife, Lady Alice. (ASIDE: The exact peerage is somewhat confused, as his wife is sometimes called Lady Alice and sometimes Lady Greystoke. She wouldn’t normally be addressed as both. Since Edgar Rice Burroughs says he heard this tale from someone else, it is likely that ERB, an American, was unfamiliar with British peerage and titles. However, this spurs on much debate in the Burroughs Bulletin and among fans, trying to identify who the Greystokes really were, etc.)
There was a mutiny on their ship, and they were abandoned somewhere on the West African coast; they built a hut, foraged for food, kept the dangerous beasts away with guns and fire . . . and then their son was born. One year later, Alice died in her sleep. The next night, the hut was attacked by apes who killed Clayton. One of the female apes, named Kala, had recently lost her child; she grabbed the infant in the crib, nursed him and adopted him to replace her dead baby. The child was raised by the apes and learned the ways of the jungle. The combination of jungle cunning and his superb British brain not only helped Tarzan survive, they made him leader of the ape tribe, self-styled King of the Apes.
He later discovered the hut, including children’s books that the Claytons had brought with them. He learned his origin, that he was not a mutant born of Kala, but a son of the tarmangani (white folks.) He taught himself how to read English, and finally met English-speakers. He learned his true identity as the offspring of a British lord, and became the Tarzan we all know and love, whose exploits are told in 24 books by Burroughs, and in countless movies, radio programs, and TV series.
So, to your question: who or what were these “apes” that raised a human baby? Burroughs described them first as “great man-like figures," dimly seen through the foliage. Then one attacks Alice, and we have the description: “The ape was a great bull, weighing probably three hundred pounds. His nasty, close-set eyes gleamed hatred from beneath his shaggy brows, while his great canine fangs were bared in a horrid snarl as he paused a moment before his prey.”
Clayton described it in his diary as an “anthropoid ape," but Clayton (like Burroughs) had not studied either anthropology or zoology. In fact, they are clearly not gorillas, as will be discussed in a moment.
The tribe of great apes call themselves mangani and they appear to be far more humanoid than gorilloid. They have a spoken language and social structure. They are often described in the first two Tarzan books as “gorilla-like apes.” But Burroughs had, at that time, no information to the contrary. Once he had taken that approach, of course, he was stuck–even though he later learned more about the mangani, he could not contradict his earlier versions. Consequently, the erroneous description of the mangani as apes was in stone. But Burroughs didn’t care; Philip Jose Farmer says, in Tarzan Alive, that Burroughs “was writing novels, and the facts did not always have to be adhered to. Indeed . . . he sometimes went out of his way to make sure that the reader thought that his Tarzan books were entirely fictional.”
So, what are the clues?
In The Jungle Tales of Tarzan, Burroughs mentions “these great manlike apes which the natives of the Gobi speak of in whispers" who “unlike the chimpanzee and the gorilla . . . walk without the aid of their hands quite as readily as with.” The ability to walk entirely upright for long periods of time requires that the pelvises and legs of the mangani must have been more human than ape.
We also know, from several stories, that the mangani were well-developed meat eaters. They also ate insects, birds, eggs, fruit, and nuts; this again suggests an evolution that is more human than gorilla (gorillas are vegetarians). Presumably, Tarzan’s adopted mother pre-chewed his food for him; otherwise, his comparatively fragile teeth would not have proved adequate.
The mangani have a spoken language of some complexity. Again, this puts them closer to humans on the evolutionary scale than to any other creature.
And so, although they are called “great apes," the conclusion drawn by most people who study the Tarzan stories is that they are subhumans rather than super-apes, perhaps some rare hominid, such as language-using pithecanthropoids. Philip Farmer speculates that the mangani may be a smaller African variety of the Himalayan yeti or the giant sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest. He offers that they may have been a giant variety of Australopithecus robustus, a hominid supposed to be extinct. They may have been the agogwe of native African legend.
We also know that male mangani were subject to maniacal fits of rage. Farmer speculates that this may be a “nonsurvival trait that had tended to reduce the population of the genus, which had been very low for thousands of years. This instability may have helped them lose out in the race for the kingship of Earth in the dawn of sentience. The gorilla, their closest relative after man, had also lost the race. . . . The huge vegetarian gorillas, though not nearly as intelligent as the mangani, and not numerous, still outnumbered the mangani by a hundred to one. It is doubtful that there were over two hundred [mangani] left in equatorial Africa in 1889.”
Presumably, they are extinct today.
As a final aside, there are only two passing reference in the entire 24 books to chimpanzees. “Cheetah” is an invention of the movie people, and thus not canonical.
Tarzan Alive, by Philip Jose Farmer, Popular Library, New York, 1972.
www.tarzan.com, the official website
And, of course, Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan, the first two books of the series.
If you’d like more, don’t overlook the Burroughs Bulletin, the official journal that has published the speculation, analysis, and praise of fans.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
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