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Wild Man from Borneo offers the first comprehensive history of the human-orangutan encounter. Arguably the most humanlike of all the great apes, particularly in intelligence and behavior, the orangutan has been cherished, used, and abused ever since it was first brought to the attention of Europeans in the seventeenth century. The red ape has engaged the interest of scientists, philosophers, artists, and the public at large in a bewildering array of guises that have by no means been exclusively zoological or ecological. One reason for such a long-term engagement with a being found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is that, like its fellow great apes, the orangutan stands on that most uncomfortable dividing line between human and animal, existing, for us, on what has been called "the dangerous edge of the garden of nature."
Beginning with the scientific discovery of the red ape more than three hundred years ago, Wild Man from Borneo goes on to examine the ways in which its human attributes have been both recognized and denied in science, philosophy, travel literature, popular science, literature, theatre, museums, and film. The authors offer a provocative analysis of the origin of the name "orangutan," trace how the ape has been recruited to arguments on topics as diverse as slavery and rape, and outline the history of attempts to save the animal from extinction. Today, while human populations increase exponentially, that of the orangutan is in dangerous decline. The remaining "wild men of Borneo" are under increasing threat from mining interests, logging, human population expansion, and the widespread destruction of forests. The authors hope that this history will, by adding to our knowledge of this fascinating being, assist in some small way in their preservation.
Robert Cribb is professor of Asian history at the Australian National University. Helen Gilbert is professor of theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. Helen Tiffin is a leading scholar in postcolonial theory and literary studies. She was professor of English at the University of Tasmania and the University of Queensland in Australia.
"Tracing a story from early-modern dissections, through philosophical treatises, nineteenth-century novels, zoo tea-parties, Las Vegas performances, post-apocalyptic films, and much more, the book chronicles the presence of the red ape in our lives and consciousness over the last four centuries. The authors offer a history, an indictment, an elegy, and ultimately a path to a deeper understanding of our relationship with an enigmatic other."
– Nigel Rothfels, author of Savages and Beasts: The Birth of the Modern Zoo
"The orangutan has tickled Western imaginations for centuries. First because we knew so little, later because we knew so much. This expertly researched and lively history of discovery details the blurring of the human-animal line represented by this fascinating ape."
– Frans de Waal, author of The Bonobo and the Atheist
"In this rich story of one of our world's truly intriguing and elusive living beings, the authors have drawn on a sometimes surprising array of scientific and cultural figures – from Linnaeus to Charles Darwin, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Queen Victoria, from Edgar Allen Poe to Tim Burton – who have all, one way or another, responded with fascination to the great red ape. The wealth of new knowledge offered here can only inspire the reader, not only to protect these remarkable animals and their habitat, but also to learn from them how to inhabit our shared world in less destructive ways."
– Philip Armstrong, author of What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity