Gorilla Discovery Timeline

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on August 14th, 2006

In Loren’s post, A Montana Monster, Cryptomundo reader fighter commented, The report says the creature was described as “rising on its haunches and walking on its hind legs after the manner of a gorilla.” Wasn’t the gorilla first discovered 17 October 1902?

When were gorillas discovered? Was it in 1902? If that’s the case, how did 19th century accounts of wild men sightings in North America get described as gorillas? I will discuss that in detail here on Cryptomundo in the next few days…

Anyway, back to fighter’s question. That was the discovery of the mountain gorilla in 1902. Following is a timeline of the discoveries of the gorillas.

Nearly 2,500 years ago an expedition from the Phoenician merchant city of Carthage to western coasts of Africa accidentally discovered a group of wild gorillas. Upon first encountering gorillas, African locals shared their name for the great ape with him – the rough translation of which meant "hairy person".

Many ancient explorers and African tribes have described gorillas as primitive hairy people. They have also been referred to as anthropoid or "man-like" apes.

During the sixteenth century an English sailor by the name of Andrew Battel was captured by the Portuguese in West Africa. He spoke of two man-like apes (today easily recognized as chimpanzees & gorillas) that would visit the campfire when it was unattended.

During the 1600s very little was known about apes and scientific literature often confused the greater apes with pygmy tribesmen.

In 1860 an explorer named Du Chaillu described the gorilla as a bloodthirsty forest monster that is willing to attack any human beings. Author Alfred Brehm discounted Du Chaillu’s claim in the 1876 book, Thierleben (Animal Life).

The mountain gorilla was first discovered by a German officer, named Captain Robert von Beringe in 1902. Prior to this time, only lowland gorillas were known to exist. The mountain gorilla subspecies name is derived from Captain Robert von Beringe’s last name (Gorilla beringei beringei).

Source: Seaworld.org

Gorilla gorilla gorilla – Western Lowland Gorilla

Troglodytes gorilla Savage, 1847. Thomas Savage described the first gorilla on the basis of a specimen (skull and skeleton) that is now in the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Harvard.

It was collected in "Mpongwe, Gaboon estuary" or "Empongwe, near the river Gaboon". Mpongwe is not a town, but the name of a people living close to the southern bank of the Gabon river (about 0° 4′ N, 9° 39′ E).

Source: Gorilla Journal 30, June 2005

Following is an article that was published in New Scientist magazine in the October 2005 issue that details Thomas Savage’s discovery of the Western Lowland Gorilla.

Histories: Gorillas, I presume
New Scientist Magazine
01 October 2005
Paul Collins

Before 1847, the gorilla was unnamed and only known by rumour. The Reverend Thomas Savage described it to an incredulous scientific world

THE trip was not going well. In April 1847 the Reverend Thomas Savage had been travelling from his missionary posting in present-day Liberia in West Africa when illness forced him to stop off in what is now Gabon. He convalesced at the house of the Reverend J. L. Wilson, the senior American missionary official in West Africa.

"Soon after my arrival," Savage wrote later that year in the Boston Journal of Natural History, "Mr Wilson showed me a skull, represented by the natives to be that of a monkey-like animal, remarkable for its size, ferocity, and habits." An incredulous Savage immediately saw that the skull did not correspond to any known ape. It must belong to a whole new primate species, one larger and more powerful than humans.

The mysterious skull could not have found a man better prepared to appreciate it in all of Africa. After graduating from Yale Medical School in 1833, Savage decided his vocation was to be a missionary and asked to be sent to Cape Palmas in West Africa, where a settlement of freed North American slaves was being established, and where Savage’s medical skills would come in handy. It was as an amateur naturalist in Africa, though, that Savage gained fame. He was an inveterate collector, and by 1834 had already written a paper on chimpanzees with Jeffries Wyman, a rising young star at Harvard Medical School.

Savage immediately sent word of his latest find to Wyman, as well as to England, to Samuel Stutchbery of the Bristol Philosophical Society and to Richard Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Savage and his host Wilson then collected accounts from the local Mpongwe people of the shy yet fearsome creature they called the Enge-ena. A fuller picture soon emerged: it lived in hilly inland countryside, slept in trees and was rarely seen. The skull had been procured by a slave, a great hunter captured from another tribe. His feat "was considered almost superhuman" – so remarkable, in fact, that the Mpongwe had immediately granted the man his freedom. The Enge-ena he killed was said to possess "an indescribably ferocious aspect", Savage noted. "The killing of an Enge-ena is considered an act of great skill and courage, and brings to the victor signal honor."

But Savage wanted more. Above all, he wanted both male and female skulls, so that he and Wyman could write a paper describing this new species. He quickly ran into a problem, however: Stutchbery. The impatient naturalist had decided he couldn’t wait for Savage to finish his research. Instead he hired a certain Captain Wagstaff to go to Gabon and seek out gorilla skulls, plunging the captain and the reverend into a bidding war for gorilla bones. This, Savage wrote wearily to Wyman, "occasioned me great trouble in procuring the specimen". Thanks in part to his friendship with the Mpongwe chieftain, and probably in larger part to the hefty £25 bounty he offered, Savage came away with the prize: two male and two female skulls, and a male and female pelvis, and assorted ribs, vertebrae and limbs.

Examining the bones back in Boston, Savage’s partner Wyman also had an advantage over his British rivals: he had a chimpanzee skull from his previous collaboration with Savage. Owen at the Royal College of Surgeons – inheritors of the vast collection of specimens built up by the great 18th-century surgeon John Hunter – had just about everything else, but no chimp. Wyman’s material advantage made it easy to establish that the gorilla was something more than an overgrown chimp.

Wyman and Savage’s paper, published in the Boston Journal of Natural History in December 1847, was the first full description of the creature that Wyman, mindful of Hanno’s account, named Troglodytes gorilla. Savage provided anecdotes about the gorilla’s behaviour and habitat, while Wyman wrote sections that carefully demonstrated the substantial differences between the gorilla and other great apes. But it was a close-run thing. The
American pair narrowly squeaked into print two months before Stutchbery and Owen, who had named the new species Troglodytes savagei. When Owen heard that the Americans had beaten him to it, he conceded defeat. And so Wyman’s name stuck until a later taxonomic reclassification of the Western Lowland Gorilla resulted in the wonderfully emphatic Gorilla gorilla gorilla.

Wyman went on to achieve some measure of fame for his careful work as a naturalist and as a teacher to US philosopher William James. Reverend Savage lived rather more quietly, working for most of the rest of his life as a rector in Mississippi. At first, the impact of their discovery was largely limited to the scientific world, and it was another decade before whole gorilla specimens began appearing in any numbers in Europe. Shot by such adventurers as the French-American writer Paul Du Chaillu, they were preserved for the long sea-voyage with whatever happened to be on hand at African seaports, typically by sealing them into a cask of spirits. After a long sea journey, the pickled apes gave off an unbelievable stench, but they were such rare finds that nobody much cared.

Displays of stuffed gorillas and gorilla skeletons became the hot tickets of the day, with newspapers reporting that fashionable young women were suddenly befriending stuffy museum trustees in the hope of seeing "those dear, dear gorillas". A "gorilla ballet" took to London stages – though without any actual gorillas. Cartoons in Punch proclaimed the ape "The Lion of the Season" and the Gorilla Quadrille For Piano flew off the shelves of sheet-music stores.

So what about bringing a live gorilla back from Africa? After Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the public clamoured to see these mysterious primates. But gorillas proved fragile in human hands, and appeared particularly vulnerable to pulmonary ailments. The few that reached Europe almost invariably died shortly after their arrival. America, with its even longer sea voyage, failed to get hold of a live gorilla until 1897, and that one died four days after landfall. The misery of captured gorillas was so apparent, and their mortality rate so appalling, that in 1908 the London Zoo finally refused to buy them; a decision that would stand until 1932.

Victorian showmen had fewer scruples. They knew that a gorilla meant money, whether it was genuine or not, and so they happily showed off any ape they could get their hands on as a "gorilla". But in one of the great odd twists of ape history, it seems one live gorilla had already toured England without anyone realising it.

In 1855, a strange sort of chimpanzee was kept by George W. Wombwell’s famous travelling menagerie. "Jenny" survived a few months before dying of pneumonia in Scarborough in March 1856. The dead creature was promptly sold to Charles Waterton, an eccentric naturalist-cum-taxidermist. Waterton was fond of creating fanciful "nondescripts" from assemblages of animal parts, and so Jenny’s skin was altered and stuffed to form a hideous horned simian sculpture titled – for Waterton was an ardent Catholic – Martin Luther After His Fall.

But what the menagerie had been touring with was not a chimpanzee at all. Later examination revealed that Jenny was a juvenile gorilla. The remains of the first gorilla to live outside Africa now survive only as a bizarre taxidermic joke in the Waterton Collection at the Wakefield Museum in Yorkshire. It would be decades before any other gorilla survived in Britain for as long as Jenny had. And so it was that squalling babies, runny-nosed urchins and exasperated mothers unwittingly witnessed the world’s rarest captive animal, and for a few pence on English village greens were granted a sight denied to the most respected men of science.

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

7 Responses to “Gorilla Discovery Timeline”

  1. crypto_randz responds:

    Good Information on this theory. It proves that gorillas are amazing animals with a sense of skill and smarts. If a scientists can ever capture an a living bigfoot it would be amzing study.

  2. One Eyed Cat responds:

    I think i missed something how did the word ‘gorilla’ come about?

  3. Craig Woolheater responds:

    One Eyed Cat said:

    I think i missed something how did the word ‘gorilla’ come about?

    Reread the first 3 paragraphs of the post above. It explains where the mention of gorilla came about.

  4. jjames1 responds:

    Craig, I think One Eyed Cat may be asking how they chose the word “gorilla” for the animal, not “why are we discussing gorillas here.”

  5. Craig Woolheater responds:


    I don’t know how they chose the word gorilla. I’m guessing they chose it just like any other Bigfoot eyewitness that uses the term to describe what they saw.

    The word gorilla comes from “the name derived from the Gorillai, a “tribe of hairy women”, described by Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian navigator and possible visitor (circa 480 BCE) to the area that later became Sierra Leone.”

    Source: Wikipedia

    I will show in an upcoming post that the term gorilla was used in the 19th century print media to describe these creatures.

  6. shumway10973 responds:

    Well, I do remember reading some historical accounts in the Bible about the kingdom of Solomon, and someone brought him a gorilla or ape from africa. Our translation of what exactly the author was talking about only gets as exacting as gorilla or ape, but in anycase, large primates have been known about since the beginning of man’s existance here. It might have taken the european scientists a little time to accept that there might me such a creature, as they almost always do, but anyone willing to venture out knew they were there. Besides, right about the late 1700’s into early 1800’s plenty of people were going into africa to hunt. plenty of the “strange” animals of africa was known.

  7. twblack responds:

    This is some good reading here on this story. Keep this stuff coming.

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