Monday, August 1, 2011

Blurring the Lines: Ethnoprimatology in Anthropology

I want to do it all. That is one of the most common phrases I hear in conversation with other anthropologists. The diversity and breadth of research that falls within the disciplinary boundaries is one of the most exciting and simultaneously frustrating aspects about anthropology; it is both liberating and overwhelming. When I completed my undergraduate degree, I wanted to pursue research in four topical areas: primatology, the environment, conservation, and culture. Like so many budding anthropologists I’ve known, I desperately wanted to incorporate all of my interests into one area of research. Although I initially struggled to find a perspective that could encompass my diverse, budding research agenda, eventually I stumbled upon ethnoprimatology.

Ethnoprimatology is a relatively young perspective in comparison to both anthropology and primatology. Although the term ethnoprimatology has only been in use for around fifteen years (Sponsel, 1997), studies under its umbrella have received enormous attention in academic and public discussions, research, publications, and policies. Rejecting a dualistic separation of humans and nature, ethnoprimatology integrates theoretical and applied aspects of primatology through an examination of the diverse connections among humans and nonhuman primates populations as well as possible courses for effective conservation. Through this framework, interactions between humans and nonhuman primates are viewed as interconnected biologically, ecologically, and culturally (for example, see Jones-Engel et al. 2005; Riley 2007; Fuentes, 2010). To explore these intricacies, ethnoprimatologists must blur the lines between subfields by combining methodology and theory from all four areas within anthropology.

Ethnoprimatologists use archaeology to provide a context of time depth to human and nonhuman primate interactions. Evidence shows that humans and nonhuman primates have co-existed sympatrically for hundreds of thousands of years. Archaeological evidence at a Homo erectus hand axe site in Kenya, dating between 400kya to 700kya, indicates the systematic butchering of giant gelada baboons (Theropithecus oswaldi) (Shipman et al., 1981). In Madagascar, intentional cut marks were observed on the long bones of an extinct giant lemur (Paleopropithecus ingens), dated around 2,300 BP, and were found in association with pottery, indicating human occupation (Perez et al., 2005). While most of the archaeological evidence typifies a predator-prey relationship, Goudsmit and Brandon-Jones (2000) describe an Egyptian Baboon Catacomb dated to approximately 400 B.C. At this site, the remains of mummified baboons and macaques were uncovered along with written “monkey obituaries” (115), including one that denotes a monkey oracle. Archaeology can provide evidence of not only sympatry and subsistence, but also of more culturally meaningful relationships between humans and nonhuman primates.

Biological anthropology provides ethnoprimatology with insight on what unites and differentiates the primate order in terms of genetics, diet, behavior, and ecology. In addition to morphological similarities, humans and nonhuman primates share a close genetic makeup. Due to this genetic similarity, humans and nonhuman primates can bi-directionally transmit viruses like Ebola, bacteria like tuberculosis, and protozoans like giardia (Chapman et al. 2005). Opportunities for disease transmission increase when people and primates come in contact due to tourism, hunting, pet ownership, deforestation, and agricultural expansion. Humans and nonhuman primates frequently overlap ecologically in terms of both resource use and competition for space. In some cases, ecological overlap causes conflict between user groups, particularly when nonhuman primates engage in crop raiding (Priston 2005). However, overlap can provide mutual benefit to user groups, as is the case when nonhuman primates disperse the seeds of plants that are economically and culturally important to humans (Lambert 1998).

Research in ethnoprimatology that utilizes cultural and linguistic anthropology demonstrates that nonhuman primates are undeniably important to humans, as evidenced by the special role primates have in folklore, religion, and economic systems. In addition to seed dispersal, some nonhuman primates are actively engaged in economic systems. In Thailand, macaques that are trained to harvest coconuts work more efficiently and safely than their human counterparts (Sponsel et al., 2002). Ethnoprimatological research has revealed complex cosmological beliefs connecting humans and nonhuman primates. For example, the Guajá people of Brazil view howler monkeys (Alouatta belzebul) as both a part of their kinship system but also an important source of dietary nutrition. The Guajá believe that howlers were created from people and a literal translation of the Guajá word for howling monkey means “formerly human.” The monkeys are commonly kept as pets, cared for just like human infants, and are even breastfed by women, which enhances images of female fertility. Although they do not eat pet howlers, the Guajá hunt and consume free-ranging howlers as an act of symbolic endocannibalism, a system in which life forms eat kin-related forms in order to progress to another stage of existence (Cormier, 2003).

By incorporating cultural values of nonhuman primates to people, through an understanding of myth, religion, and worldviews, can contribute to the development of conservation policy (Wolfe and Fuentes, 2007). In Madagascar, for instance, the origin myths of one Malagasy group reveal close relationships between people and two kinds of primates: ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Verreaux’s sifaka (Propithecus verreauxi). According to folklore, both species were at one time human and, therefore, it is taboo to harm the primates and would bring bad luck to the hunter (Loudon et al., 2002). Informal institutions driven by taboos or religious tolerance can be effective conservation mechanisms and should be understood and incorporated by policy makers.

Although some traditional attitudes promote tolerance towards nonhuman primates, changing economic, political, and ecological conditions may not preserve these attitudes in the future. Through the use of diverse methodologies, drawing from all four subfields in anthropology and beyond, ethnoprimatology can provide an understanding of how local beliefs and actions are influenced by specific social, political, ecological, and economic contexts. Based on a strong, interdisciplinary foundation, the knowledge gained from this research can aid in developing conservation policy that attends to the needs of both people and primates. Is this charge daunting? Yes, but any anthropologist who has ever wanted to do it all could not ask for a more exhilarating and intriguing challenge.

Amanda L. Ellwanger
Ph.D. Student in Ecological Anthropology
University of Texas at San Antonio


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