About 14 million years ago, an African ape with a penchant for solitude strolled eastwards. Her descendents became the "red apes" of Borneo and Sumatra - the orang utan. Unlike their African cousins, orang utans don't regularly form troops or "gangs". As isolated forest wanderers, they are immensely difficult to study, especially compared to mountain gorillas or chimpanzees. Their isolation has led to more myths than facts about them - until Carel Van Schaik began reporting his findings. This book summarises his work in a stunning presentation of narrative and images. More importantly, it overturns many false ideas of how orang utans fit in the primate lineage. Our lineage.
Spending seven years in a swampy jungle brought van Schaik into intimate contact with orang utans. He discovered novel behaviour and unexpected talents. Among the most surprising revelations was the use of tools. Orang utans are at least as adept as gorillas with tools. There is clear planning in the selection and application of tools. Twigs as tools are made "oversize" before actual use, trimmed to the proper dimension before applying them. There are several fruits requiring special tools for seed retrieval, and photographs show a variety of shapes and lengths. Unlike chimps, however, orang utan tools are manipulated ["lipulated?"] with the mouth more than the hands. Van Schaik and his photographer, Perry van Duijnhoven, depict the tools and their owners with superb images.
With fewer predators to cope with [outside of humans, of course], the Red Ape has followed a different path from its African cousin. Gorillas, too, live on fruits and leaves, but remain ground dwellers. Chimpanzees run in organised troops, while the orang utan's social structure is more flexible. Orang utan young remain with the parents for years, providing many opportunities for parental training. The culture of orang utans must be learned anew with each generation, van Schaik stresses. The intelligence is there to absorb the education, and the habits aren't ingrained. Nest making is symptomatic, with the young building their construction skills over time. Early nests are ramshackle, and during inclement weather, a young ape may shift from his own nest to her mother's for better shelter. Nor is all this behaviour universal. Van Schaik notes the variations among populations he observed.
"Culture", of course, is a term humans wish to retain for their sole use. Van Schaik devotes a chapter to demolishing that restrictive view. He also expands the role of "symbolism", another shibboleth of cultural anthropology. We've restricted the application of "symbolism" to exclude other primates. The structure of orang utan society, he says, demonstrates how symbols are used for identification and communication. This isn't limited to physical artefacts, but may be found in vocalisations and other manifestations of individuality. He explains how training the young imparts cultural and social norms, something humans have limited to their own realm. The five great ape species exhibit vast differences in many aspects, but, van Schaik argues, that only demonstrates that ape intelligence has been utilised appropriately for each species. The intelligence was already there. It was adapted to provide the necessary behaviour for its environment. Ours was adapted most extensively. One aspect of that adaptation is that our species is threatening the existence of the other four. In particular, the Red Apes of Indonesia are being subjected to severe threat.