Danielle Clode reviews 'Wild Man From Borneo: A cultural history of the Orangutan' by Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen

Danielle Clode reviews 'Wild Man From Borneo: A cultural history of the Orangutan' by Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen

Wild Man From Borneo: A cultural history of the Orangutan

by Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen

University of Hawai‘i Press, US$28 pb, 330 pp, 9780824872830

What does it mean to be human – nearly human, not-quite-human, or even inhuman? Such questions have preoccupied writers and researchers for centuries, from Charles Darwin and Mary Shelley to the uncanny valley of robotics, AI, and a trans-human future. In Wild Man from Borneo, Robert Cribb, Helen Gilbert, and Helen Tiffen explore this question through the prism of our relationship with one of our closest relatives, the orangutan.

Our similarity to apes and monkeys is both their most disturbing and most appealing feature. When I worked as a zookeeper, I disliked the primate round, mainly because the female baboons seemed to regard me as a rival for the dominant male’s affections. So I was surprised, when I left, that it was the primates I felt the need to farewell, particularly the young hand-reared orangutan Indah. The personable status of orangutans is evidenced by our ready recollection of Mollie at Melbourne Zoo or George at Adelaide Zoo, and the grief recently expressed over the unexpected death of Karta in childbirth.

The title neatly encapsulates the focus of this book. ‘Orangutan’ is Malay for ‘man of the forest’, and yet locally this term did not apply to the red ape but to human forest dwellers. Its misapplication seems to have been a Western error. The confusion continued with early accounts describing such bizarre creatures that it is not at all clear whether they were humans (‘wild’ or otherwise), orangutans, chimpanzees, or even gorillas.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Danielle Clode

Danielle Clode

Danielle Clode is the author of nine books of environmental history, including Voyages to the South Seas which won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Non-fiction in 2007. In 2014 she was the ABR Dahl Trust Fellow and her article ‘Seeing the Wood for the Trees’ appeared in the November 2014 issue of ABR.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.