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Tyson's Study of the Structural Relationships between Man and the Anthropoid Ape


In 1699 English Physician and comparative anatomist Edward Tyson published in London Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris; or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape and a Man, including 8 folding plates engraved by Michael Vandergucht after drawings by the artist and anatomist, William Cowper.

Tyson's anatomy of the "orang-outang" (in Tyson's case a chimpanzee rather than an orangutan) was the first work to demonstrate the structural relationships between the anatomy of man and the anthropoid ape. For Tyson the term Orang-Outang meant "man of the woods."

In 1641 the Dutch surgeon and anatomist Nicholas (or Nicolaes) Tulp had used the same words to describe a chimpanzee, which he illustrated in his Observationum medicarumThis book included the first, limited description by a scientist of an African anthropoid ape. Regarding Tulp's description Tyson said that "I confess that I do mistrust the whole representation."

The ape which Tulp described seems to have come from Angola, and Tulp had the opportunity to observe it in the private menagerie of the Prince of Orange. Tulp seems to have learned the name orang-outang from Samuel Blomartio, a friend who had lived in Borneo and was familiar with the Javanese word for "man of the woods." Tulp seems to have been under the impression that orangutans were widely distributed throughout the tropics rather than limited to Asia, and thus confused the two species. The classification of the orangutan in the the Ponginae (Pongo) subfamily of the family hominidae, outside of the subfamily homininae from which humans descend, and to which the chimpanzee belongs, had not yet occurred.

Perhaps with some humor, but also to confirm the anatomical similarities, Tyson had Cowper draw the standing dissected figures of chimpanzees in the style of the famous Vesalian musclemen. A believer in the "Great Chain of Being" or scala naturae, Tyson identified the chimpanzee as the link directly below mankind, stating in his "Epistle Dedicatory" that it "seems the Nexus of the Animal and Rational."

Tyson's anatomical study— the first conducted of a great ape— had a powerful influence on all subsequent thought on man's place in nature. Thomas Huxley referred to it extensively in his 1863 book with that title. Tyson's last section of Orang-Outang is devoted to "A Philological Essay Concerning the Pygmies of the Ancients," an early contribution to the study of primate-oriented folklore.

Cole, History of Comparative anatomy, 198-221. Montague, Edward Tyson (1943) ch. 8. Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 2120.  Spencer, Ecce Homo. An Annotated Bbiliographic History of Physical Anthropology (1986) no. 1.92.

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