Monkeys Trained as Harvesters

Instances of a Practice Extending from Remote Times to the Present

FRUIT GATHERING IN EGYPT: Picture, reproduced from a tomb at Beni Hassan belonging to the Twelfth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, bears witness to the fact that monkeys were used by the Egyptians as fig-gatherers. Judging from the propinquity of fruit and mouth in the case of two of the apes, it is permissible to infer that in addition to assisting their masters, these animals occasionally helped themselves.
Reproduction from the cut on p. 199 of Life in Ancient Egypt, described by Adolph Erman, and translated by H. M. Tirard

In the issue of Science for February 7, 1919, I published a note entitled “On Monkeys Trained to Pick Coconuts,” the opening paragraph of which read as follows: “Readers of the Sunday editions of some of our metropolitan papers may recall that in the fall, the season of cotton-picking in the South, waggish space writers sometimes make the suggestion that monkeys be trained to do this work and that thereby the shortage of labor be relieved.” This statement was followed by quotations from the books of Miss Isabella Bird and of Mr. R. W. C. Shelford to show that in the East Indies monkeys are employed to pick coconuts for their masters.

Some quiet fun was made of me for having been “taken in” by these accounts, but the laugh passed to my side when Mr. Carl D. La Rue, writing front Kisaran, Asahan, Sumatra, published in the issue of Science for August 22, 1919, a note entitled “Monkeys as Coconut Pickers.” In this he said:

Picture is similar in character to the one above, but differs somewhat in details. It, too, is taken from a tomb at Beni Hassan and dates from the same dynasty. Both of these records are, therefore, several thousands of years old—by the lowest estimate about forty-four centuries; yet the practice therein depicted persists in certain parts of the world even today.

From Vol. I, page 382, of The Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians by Sir Gardner Wilkinson, revised and corrected by Samuel Birch

“E. W. Gudger has recently called attention in Science to the use of monkeys as coconut pickers. The Malays and Bataks of Sumatra very commonly use monkevs in this way. The current English name for the monkey, Macacus nemestrinus, is ’coconut-monkey.’ The work of picking the nuts is performed in a way essentially the same as that described by Shelford and quoted by Gudger.

“These monkeys not only work, but have a considerable commercial value as laborers. The price of a trained coconut monkey ranges from about $8.00 to $20.00; a price far above that put upon other common sorts of monkeys which are kept only as pets.

“Coconut monkeys grow to a considerable size, and are very strong.”

My friend, the late Dr. A. G. Mayor, became interested in my note in Science and told me that on one of his trips to the Pacific, he had met Dr. P. J. S. Cramer, director of the experiment station at Buitzenzorg, Java, who had shown him photographs of the monkeys at work. A letter to Doctor Cramer brought the following courteous reply:

“I have the pleasure to enclose three photographs of a monkey picking coconuts. On the first you see him climbing up the stem, on the second sitting on a leaf, on the third stretching his hand out over a coconut. What you cannot see on the photographs is that the animal is attached to a thin cord, by means of which the owner governs his movements.”

Since I wrote my note in Science, there has come to my attention, as the result of considerable reading, a number of similar accounts reaching hack into remotest antiquity, and it has seemed worth while to bring all of these together, arranged in reverse chronological order, so that readers of Natural History may have available the record of this ancient but little-known example of coöperation between man and his fellow Primates.

First comes Shelford’s account, dated 1916, and worded as follows:

Macacus nemestrinus, the pig-tailed Macaque, or Brok of the Malays, is a highly intelligent animal, and Malays train them to pick coconuts. The modus operandi is as follows:—A cord is fastened round the monkey’s waist, and it is led to a coconut palm which it rapidly climbs, it then lays hold of a nut, and if the owner judges the nut to be ripe for plucking he shouts to the monkey, which then twists the nut round and round till the stalk is broken and lets it fall to the ground; if the monkey catches hold of an unripe nut, the owner tugs the cord and the monkey tries another. I have seen a Brok act as a very efficient fruit-picker, although the use of the cord was dispensed with altogether, the monkey being guided by the tones and inflections of his master’s voice.” (Shelford, Robert W. C., A Naturalist in Borneo, London, 1916, p. 8)

MONKEY GATHERING COCONUTS IN JAVA: These agile animals are trained to climb the coconut trees and detach the fruit. From below the owner of the monkey guides its actions by means of a long cord (not visible in the picture) that is attached to the creature before it is sent on its errand.
Photo by Dr. P. J. S. Cramer

One of the most important of scientific voyages of recent times is that of the “Siboga,” sent out by the Dutch government to explore the waters of the East Indies in the years 1899-1900. Its leader was the distinguished naturalist, Dr. Max Weber. His wife accompanied him, and in her book descriptive of the voyage we find this paragraph relative to our subject.

“In 1888, we lived there [at Manindjau in Sumatra] for a month in a Kampong house. Opposite us was a Malayan family which owned two Lampong, or Lapond, apes (Macacus nemestrinus), big, impudent beasts, which had been taught to pick coconuts. For this purpose, a band, to which a long rope was attached, was tied around the body of the ape, and then the animal was chased up into the tree. Arrived there, the ape seated himself on a branch and began to twist with his hands and feet one of the coconuts that hung under the branch, until the stem broke and the fruit fell down. If he dallied too long over his work, the strap around his body was jerked unsympathetically. How the ape knew which nuts he was to pick remained a puzzle to me, but a fruit never dropped that was not fully ripened.” (Weber-Van Bosse, Mrs. A. Ein Jahr an Bord I. M. S. Siboga, 1899–1900. Leipzig, 2nd edition, 1905, p. 229)

In 1904, Odoardo Beccari, the Italian explorer of Borneo, published the story of his journeyings in that great island during the years 1865-68. Of Macacus nemestrinus he writes that it is trained by the natives and taught to gather coconuts. (Beccari, Odoardo. Wanderings in the Great Forest of Borneo: Travels and Researches of a Naturalist in Sarawak [1865–68]. London, 1904, p. 30)

Miss Isabella Bird, the well-known woman traveler, writes as follows:

“A follower had brought a ‘baboon,’ an ape or monkey trained to gather coconuts, a hideous beast on very long legs when on all fours, but capable of walking erect. They called him a ’dog-faced baboon,’ but I think they were wrong. He has a short, curved tail, sable-colored fur darkening down his back, and a most repulsive, treacherous, and ferocious countenance. He is fierce, but likes or at all events obeys his owner, who held him with a rope fifty feet long. At present he is only half tame, and would go back to the jungle if he were liberated. He was sent up a coconut tree which was heavily loaded with nuts in various stages of ripeness and unripeness, going up in surly fashion, looking round at intervals and shaking his chain angrily.  When he got to the top he shook the fronds and stalks, but no nuts fell, and he chose a ripe one, and twisted it round and round till its tenacious fibers gave way, and then threw it down and began to descend, thinking he had done enough, but on being spoken to he went to work again with great vigor, picked out all the ripe nuts on the tree, twisted them all off, and then came down in a thoroughly bad, sulky temper. He was walking erect, and it seemed discourteous not to go and thank him for all his hard toil.” (Bird, Isabella. The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither, New York, 1883, p. 425)

About eighty years ago Robert Fortune began his career as a botanical collector in China. From 1843–48 he collected for the Horticultural Society of London, while from 1848-56 he was a collector in the service of the Honorable East India Company. During the latter engagement, his collections of tea plants and tea-making tools played a large part in establishing the tea industry in northern India. The testimony of such a man regarding the general subject under consideration cannot be disregarded. In books published in 1852 and in 1853 he writes thus:

“I have even heard it asserted (I forget whether by the Chinese or by others) that monkeys are employed for the same purpose [i.e. gathering tea leaves] and in the following manner:—These animals, it seems, do not like to work, and would not gather the leaves willingly; but when they are seen up amongst the rocks where the tea bushes are growing, the Chinese throw stones at them; the monkeys get very angry, and commence breaking off the branches of the tea-shrubs, which they throw down at their assailants! . . . I should not like to assert that no tea is gathered in these hills [of Woo-e-shan in the neighborhood of Tsong-gan-hien] by the agency of monkeys, . . . but I think it may be safely affirmed that the quantity procured in such ways is exceedingly small.” (Fortune, Robert. A Journey to the Tea Districts of China, etc. London, 1852, p. 237, and Two Visits to the Tea Countries of China, etc. 2 vols. London, 1853, Vol. II, pp. 199–200)

In Egypt monkeys apparently at times shared with men the tasks of harvesting. In the picture—the original of which appears as a painting on the tomb of Hui—one man and four monkeys are engaged in the common labor of picking the fruit of the dôm palm.

From Vol. IV, p. 341, of A History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria, by G. Maspero

For our next reference we must go back nearly one hundred years, in fact to 1757, when Pehr Osbeck’s Voyage to China was published.

Among the curious and interesting things that he notes was the keeping of monkeys as pets by the Javanese, and in this connection he introduces the following statement apparently as an afterthought: “It is said that the monkies in China gather rhubarb and pound rice.” (Osbeck, Pehr. Ostindisk Resa til Suratte, China, etc. [1750-52]. Stockholm, 1757. English translation by John Reinhold Forster, A Voyage to China and the East Indies. London 1771, Vol. I, p. 152)

Edward Tyson closes his Philosophical Essay concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients, published in 1694 (London, pp. 101-02), with a reference to the activities of certain trained monkeys as recounted by three authors antedating him. Instead of giving this citation, the authors concerned will be quoted directly. It is perhaps needless to caution the reader that they wrote at a time when nature-faking was not condemned as it is today.

In 1670, Olfert Dapper published his book on Africa, and in his description of “Sierra-Liona” is found the statement appended below. There is no evidence that Dapper ever visited Sierra Leone, nor is there any to show from whom he got his information though he may have known of the citation immediately following this one. His words are:

“Three kinds of monkeys are found here; and there is one, of a certain species they call Baris, which they catch when little; raise, and train so well, that these monkeys can give almost as much service as slaves. Ordinarily they walk quite erect like them. They can grind millet in the mortar, and go to draw water in a pitcher. When they fall down, they show their pain by cries. They know how to turn the spit, and to do a thousand clever little tricks which greatly amuse their masters.” (Dapper, Olfert. Umbständliche und eigentliche Beschreibung von Africa, etc. Amsterdam, 1670. A French version is entitled Description de l’Afrique, etc. Amsterdam, 1686, p. 249)

Going back still farther, in Petri Gassendi’s life of the French scholar, Peiresc, published in 1641, is found the following interesting statement which agrees with the foregoing, in so far as the author’s very unclassical Latin can be made out.

Peiresc was informed by a certain physician named Natalis, that in Guinea a particular kind of monkey called Baris was of so gentle a disposition that it could be readily trained, taught to wear clothes, play on a pipe, husk grain in a mortar, assist in keeping the house swept and in order and in performing various other menial services. (Gassendi, Petri. Viri illustri Nicolai Claudii Fabricii de Peiresc Vita. Parisii, 1641)

Nearly seventy years earlier than Gassendi, José de Acosta, a Jesuit monk, one of the early explorers of the natural history realm of the new world, published in the natural history section of his work the following account. It will be noted that he claims to have been an eyewitness of the incident mentioned. Perhaps, however, it is just as well that he did not print the account in that part of the work dealing with morals, for there greater sobriety of statement would seem to be required. He writes thus:

“I sawe one [monkey] in Carthagene [Cartagena] in the Governour’s house, so taught, as the things he did seemed incredible: they sent him to the Taverne for wine, putting the pot in one hand, and the money in the other; and they could not possibly gette the money out of his hand, before he had his pot full of wine. If any children mette him in the streete, and threw any stones at him, he would set his pot downe on the one side and cast stones against the children till he had assured his way, then would he returne to carry home his pot. And which is more, although hee were a good bibber of wine (as I have oftentimes seene him drinke, when his maister has given it him) yet would he never touch it vntill leave was given him.” (Acosta, José de. Historia natural y moral de las Indias, etc. Sevilla, 1500. English version by Edward Grimston, Natural and morall historie of the East and West Indies. London, 1604, p. 315 [Reprinted 1880 by the Hakluyt Society, as its Volume LX])

For our next citation we must delve into the past about 1400 years to Philostratus called “the Athenian” to distinguish him from others of the name. Philostratus, who was born circa 170 A.D. and died in 245, was a disciple of the Greek Pythagorean philosopher, Apollonius of Tyana, who was born a few years before the Christian era. Apollonius traveled extensively and among the countries he visited was India. He died at the age of about one hundred years at Ephesus where he had established a school.

The narratives of the travels of Apollonius were collected and written out in full by Philostratus. In the English version of these we read that near the river Hyphasis, which traverses India, the parts of the mountains which stretch down to the Red Sea are overgrown with aromatic shrubs, as well as many other species of plants, including pepper trees, which he states “are cultivated by the apes.”

“It [the pepper tree] grows in steep ravines where it cannot be got at by men, and where a community of apes is said to live in the recesses of the mountain, and in any of its glens; and these apes are held in great esteem by the Indians, because they harvest the pepper for them. . . . For this is the way they [the apes] go to work in collecting the pepper; the Indians go up to the lower trees and pluck off the fruit, and they make little round shallow pits around the trees, into which they collect the pepper, carelessly tossing it in, as if it had no value and was of no serious use to mankind. The monkeys mark their actions from above out of their fastnesses, and when the night comes on they imitate the actions of the Indians, and twisting off the twigs of the trees, they bring and throw them into the pits in question; then the Indians at daybreak carry away the heaps of spice which they have thus got without any trouble, and indeed during the repose of slumber.” (Philostratus [“the Athenian”]. The Life of Apollonius of Tyana. English translation by F. C. Conybeare. 2 vols. London and New York. [Reprinted 1917.] Vol. I, p. 239)

Our next excursions in ancient history take us to the valley of the Nile and here we find in paintings on the tombs three illustrations of monkeys serving man. To one of these I am unable to assign any date whatever, but for the other two fairly definite times can be set.

In Maspero’s History of Egypt, there is a reproduction of a picture from the tomb of Hui which this distinguished Egyptologist says “represents men and monkeys gathering the fruit of a group of dôm palms.” (Maspero, G. A History of Egypt, Chaldea, Syria, Babylonia and Assyria. Edited by A. H. Sayce. Translated by M. L. McClure. London, n. d. Grolier Society edition, Vol. IV, p. 341)

Another representation of this use of the monkey is found in the accompanying figure from Adolf Erman’s Aegypten. With reference to this figure Erman notes that fig trees have gnarled trunks, that they rarely attain more than sixteen feet in height, and that they have limbs too weak to sustain the weight of the gardeners. Hence people “send tame monkeys into the branches to gather the fruit for them.” (Erman, Adolf. Aegypten und aegyptisches Leben im Altertum, Tübingen. 1885, p. 279. English version by H. M. Tirard, Life in Ancient Egypt. London, 1894, p. 199)

This figure is credited to Lepsius’ great work (Lepsius, R. Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, Vol. IV, Section 2, p. 127), from which we learn that it is reproduced from a tomb at Beni Hassan belonging to the Twelfth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. According to accepted Egyptian chronology the Twelfth Dynasty dates from 2800-2500 B.C. or according to Petrie (1906) its time was 3450 years before the Christian era. And in this remote antiquity monkeys had been trained to perform menial services for man.

Yet another figure and reference remain. Sir Gardner Wilkinson in his great work on the ancient Egyptians, has this to say on the subject. “Monkeys appear to have been trained to assist in gathering the fruit, and the Egyptians represent them in the sculptures handing down figs from the sycamore-trees to the gardeners below; but, as might be expected, these animals amply repaid themselves for the trouble imposed upon them, and the artist has not failed to show how much more they consulted their own wishes than those of their employers.

“Many animals were tamed in Egypt for various purposes . . . and in the Jimma country, which lies to the south of Abyssinia, monkeys are still taught several useful accomplishments. Among them is that of officiating as torch-bearers at a supper party; and seated in a row, on a raised bench, they hold the lights until the departure of the guests, and patiently await their own repast as a reward for their services. Sometimes a refractory subject fails in his accustomed duty, and the harmony of the party is for a moment disturbed, particularly if an unruly monkey throws his lighted torch into the midst of the unsuspecting guests; but the stick and privation of food is the punishment of the offender; and it is by these persuasive arguments alone that they are prevailed upon to perform their duty in so delicate an office.” (Wilkinson, Sir Gardner. Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. 3 vols. New edition, revised and corrected by Samuel Birch. New York, 1879, Vol. I, pp. 381–82)

From Wilkinson is reproduced the accompanying picture showing monkeys gathering fruit. This figure, also from the tombs of Beni Hassan, is very similar to that reproduced from Erman but is different in details. It likewise dates from the Twelfth Dynasty.

Here then we have accounts and illustrations showing monkeys gathering coconuts in Java in the present year of grace, and at the other end of the time scale we have Egyptian rock paintings and carvings showing how monkeys assisted in gathering figs and dôm palm fruits not later than 2500 b.c. and possibly as early as 3450 years before the birth of Christ—at the lowest figure a range of more than 4400 years, at the largest a range of 5370 years.

Verily there is nothing new under the sun.

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