June 24, 2013

Is Curious George a Monkey or an Ape?

Curious George
(credit: PBS)
"CURIOUS GEORGE IS AN APE NOT A MONKEY!!!!" my friend Cara fiercely proclaimed in a Facebook status update last week, setting off a discussion in the comments section about the connotations and denotations of "monkey" and "ape" in a variety of languages.

My four-year-old has watched a couple of the Curious George cartoons on PBS (which are far lamer than the books and than the 1980s cartoon series), so this question had been nagging at the back of my mind too.  The simple way I teach the semantic difference in my Intro to Biological Anthropology course is: Monkeys almost always have tails.  Apes never have tails.  Additionally, apes are only found in the Old World, whereas monkeys can be either Old World or New World in origin.  Seems pretty simple and straightforward -- save the Barbary macaque, which I believe is the only monkey to lack a tail -- but the taxonomic history of the term "monkey" is a little more complicated.

Barbary macaque father and infant.
(Credit: wikimedia commons)
Let's start with the vocabulary we use now.  Current scientific nomenclature separates the order Primates into prosimians (those monkey-like primates such as lemurs and lorises) and anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humans).  Within the anthropoids, there are New World monkeys (Ceboidea), Old World monkeys (Cercopithecidae), and apes and humans (Hominoidea).  Living New World monkeys all have tails.  Old World monkeys, except the Barbary macaque, also have tails.  Apes (gibbons, siamangs, gorillas, chimps, and orangutans) lack tails, as do humans.  This is an important distinction because, as depicted, Curious George has no tail, suggesting he is an ape or possibly a Barbary macaque.

Original cover from the 1941 book.
(Credit: wikipedia)
So, back to our hero.  Curious George was born in 1939, as a secondary character named Fifi, in the story Cecily G. and the Nine Monkeys by Margret and H.A. Rey.  The book originally came out in French as Rafi et les Neuf Singes, even though the Reys were German and had just moved to Paris from Brazil.  (The Reys' story is a particularly fascinating one, as they were both German-born Jews but Brazilian citizens, which helped them escape the Nazis in the 1940s -- they bicycled out of Paris as German planes flew overhead, taking only the clothes on their backs and five children's book manuscripts with them.) Cecily the giraffe and the monkeys live in a jungle and are trying to escape poachers. Presumably, this story takes place in the jungles of Brazil, which the Reys were most familiar with; they had even adopted two marmosets as pets.  (The marmosets, unfortunately, died during their transatlantic voyage to Paris.)  In 1941, the Reys were encouraged to create a book with Fifi as the protagonist.  The primate was renamed Curious George, who lives in a jungle in Africa.  He is caught when a man puts down his big yellow hat and George comes down from a tree to look at it.  The Man with the Yellow Hat (supposedly modeled on Adlai Stevenson) takes George on a ship and drops him off at a zoo.  In later books, George escapes from the zoo and eventually lives with the Man with the Yellow Hat, having all kinds of adventures.

Page from Linnaeus' Systema Naturae (c. 1750) showing
the genera Homo and Simia under the order Primates.
(credit: wikimedia commons)
At the time Curious George was created, the term "monkey" was common in general use to describe any number of primates.  (Arguably, it still is today.)  The original scientific classification system, created by Carl Linnaeus, includes four genera under the order Primates: Homo (humans), Simia (monkeys and apes), Lemur (lemurs and colugos), and Vespertilio (bats).  In the middle of the 18th century, then, there was no scientific distinction at the superfamily level between apes and monkeys as there is today.  (And, uh, clearly bats are not primates. Way to go, Linnaeus.)  It wasn't until 1929 that the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature recommended no longer using the taxon Simia because it is "paraphyletic" (meaning: a confusing, catch-all term).  The genus Simia is still in use, though, most notably for the Barbary macaque.  When the Reys wrote Rafi et les Neuf Singes in 1939, then, the French term singes still likely meant "monkey and/or ape," even to relatively educated people.

Unfortunately, this detour into taxonomic history doesn't really tell us whether Curious George is a monkey or an ape.  To be sure, we'd have to pose this rather anachronistic question to the Reys, both now deceased. In order to reconcile George as a monkey in today's scientific parlance, he would have to be a Barbary macaque.  However, this species does not look particularly like the way George is illustrated, and it also tends to live in mountainous regions of northern Africa, not jungles.  Given the details of the original Curious George book -- his living in trees in Africa, his lack of a tail, his coloring and depiction, his opposable big toes, and his inquisitive nature -- I like to think of him as a juvenile chimpanzee.  So I hold that Curious George is an ape, but I'll give the Reys a pass on using the catch-all term "monkey" because it would have been easily understood in the time and place they originally wrote the story of this adorable but troublemaking primate.

Jane Goodall and an infant chimpanzee
(credit: National Geographic)

June 19, 2013

Whence the Earliest Berliners? (Part 1)

This week, I'm hanging out in Chapel Hill at the Isotope Geochemistry Lab on UNC's campus.  I'm here to process human dental enamel from Medieval Germans for strontium, to test the hypothesis that the earliest residents of modern Berlin migrated east from Cologne.

A bit of background for this project: In the early 13th century AD, two towns were built on opposite sides of the Spree River.  Called Berlin (or, sometimes, Altberlin) and Cölln, they eventually became one city in the 18th century (modern Berlin).  Although there are early historical records mentioning each 13th century city (specifically, a document from 1237 signed by one Symeon, the priest of Cölln), the information is sparse.

Here's where archaeology comes in.  From about 2007 to 2010, archaeologists Claudia Melisch and Jamie Sewell excavated a cemetery associated with Cölln called Petriplatz (St. Peter's Square).  From the 13th-18th centuries, they found over 3,700 burials, meaning this is currently the most significant osteological find in Medieval Germany.  These skeletons, particularly the ones from the earliest phases, have the potential to reveal information about who the earliest Berliners were and where they came from.

Skeletons from Petriplatz excavations.
Photo, Fig. 9, Melisch & Sewell 2011.
Historians think that Medieval Berlin may have been settled by people from the west.  The general eastward movement in Medieval Germany is known to historians as Ostsiedlung (Higounet 1986), and there is also a suggestion that the similarity in name between Köln (Cologne) and Cölln means early Berlin was founded by people from Cologne.  Helpfully, the geology of Cologne and Berlin is generally pretty different; sure, there's overlap, but it is likely that people who grew up in Cologne will have a different strontium isotope signature than the people who grew up in Berlin.

So that's where I come in.  It has been extremely difficult for Claudia to get large-scale funding for this project, as funding for research is down in Europe as in the US.  I figured that I could get a bit of internal funding from UWF, though, to run a couple dozen samples for strontium isotopes.  If this pilot study reveals something interesting, perhaps we can parlay that into a bigger grant in the future.  I'd like to be doing oxygen isotope analysis in conjunction with the strontium, but I don't have the money, time, or mass spec to run light isotopes at the moment.  But since I have plenty of enamel, I hope that this analysis can be done in the near future.

I should have results pretty soon, although interpretation will take a bit longer since I'll have to do some super-fun (really!) geological research on what the expected strontium range should be.  Until then, here's a picture from the lab this week...

17 Medieval Berliners, all in a row!
(Eluting strontium using teeny tiny columns into teeny tiny beakers)

C. Higounet. 1986. Die deutsche Ostsiedlung im Mittelalter. Berlin: Siedler.

C.M. Melisch, & J.P. Sewell (2011). Historische Chance – eine umfangreiche, mittelalterliche bis neuzeitliche Skelettserie vom ehemaligen St. Petri-Kirchhof in Berlin-Mitte. Mitteilungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte, 32, 107-120. [PDF]

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