(Just) A Primate Person

Author:  Rebecca HendershottPhD Candidate in Biological Anthropology at ANU.  When people ask her what this means, Rebecca says she chases monkeys through the forest.

I study primates – both because they are interesting in their own right, and because they offer insight into our own species.  Each and every primate individual I’ve met has felt like meeting a long-distant family member that I didn’t know I had, but in whom I can immediately identify familial traits.  Thus, I was particularly excited for my first conference where I would have a chance to present on the same-sex sexual behaviour among macaques I studied in China for my Masters degree.  It was a regional anthropology conference, and I was overwhelmed with all the exciting research going on around me.

It was while I was chatting to a fellow graduate student in front of his monkey poster that we heard it: “Ugh. They’ll let anyone in here. They’re primate-people – why are they at an anthropology conference?”  We laughed it off, but the moment has stuck with me.  I’m now getting my PhD in Biological Anthropology, and I realise that this division between human-anthropologists and primatologists is not an isolated issue.  I have met a number of anthropologists (note: not all!) who think that I ‘just work with animals’ and that the topic has no relevance to their ever-important study of humans.


What I cannot wrap my mind around is how the contextualisation of humans as another species of primate is not related to human evolution, behaviour, and adaptations (which is the field of Anthropology, in my eyes).  Just as we can learn more about who we are by meeting a cousin we share traits with, so can we learn more about humanity by looking at our primate cousins, with whom we share so much.

I do, of course, acknowledge why people are hesitant to accept a primatologist into their anthropological fold.  The name ‘anthropology’ implies the study of humans.  Yet, as a primatologist, if I were to write a paper about the social role of same-sex mounting in macaques, I would be expected to make comparisons to nonprimates.

If I, as an anthropologist, were to write a paper about same-sex mounting in humans, I would be limited to talking about cross-population comparisons.  Why?  Why are humans exempt from a broader scope of questioning?  What makes anthropologists so deserving of blinders when it comes to recognising the continuum of behaviours between us and nonhumans?  This would be like interviewing someone and refusing to ask about their cousins, uncles, or roommates’ influence on their way of being.

A Scientific Bias

In reality, all I can come up with is that we, as humans, have been told since the moment we’re born that we’re unique, special, and set-apart from ‘the beasts’.  I realise that putting our own behaviours under scrutiny makes us on the same level as ‘just animals’, which is confrontational to those who have been taught that humans are different, superior, and god-given.

Sometimes, even those who know how evolution works still think that it somehow doesn’t apply to humans.  For example, some propose that humans (genus: Homo) should share a genus with chimpanzees and bonobos (genus: Pan), but that this would never be allowed because it would either be 1) denigrating us to ‘their’ level or 2) rising them up to ‘our’ level.

Another example is the standard ‘family tree’ of apes, that typically shows gibbons (the “lesser apes” – again, a phrase riddled with hierarchy) to the left of the diagram, followed by orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees/bonobos, and finally humans at the right of the taxonomic tree.  This phylogenetic tree is correct, but could also be represented with humans in the middle of the tree.

By pushing them to the right, the implication is that humans are the ‘end product’ that all other apes just can’t seem to evolve upwardly towards.  Thus, even evidence-based scientific suggestions are subject to a filtering that increases political correctness and accommodates people’s sense of superiority.  It’s no wonder anthropologists have a problem with ‘just’ primate posters at an anthropology conference with this cultural backdrop!


I recommend cross-disciplinary collaboration for cultural/social anthropologists because I find that, without the willingness to meet our cousins as a window to ourselves, we are selling ourselves short.  I encourage the anthropologists of the world to collaborate with ethologists, zoologists, and primatologists so that they are not limited in scope to cross-cultural comparisons, and they have a better sense of humans as fitting within the spectrum of biological organisms.

My ideal anthropology would never use an adjective like ‘just’ to describe nonhumans, and no new researchers would feel sidelined by their own discipline when presenting at their first conference.

I fully accept that the flip side of this is that primatologists should incorporate aspects of other types of anthropology.  Indeed, these things have all contributed to my knowledge on this subject and I look forward to further collaborations with anthropologists in really getting to the root of who we are, both as a species and as an animal surviving in this world.

                                                                                                         [Image by Rebecca Hendershott]

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