What kind of ape was Tarzan raised by?

I was reading through some random Straight Dope posts and I came across this one: What kind of ape was Tarzan raised by? - The Straight Dope

It claims that this is ‘a matter of serious debate…among Tarzan aficionados’, which I can sorta get.


They are ‘clearly not gorillas’, and the idea of them being chimpanzees is apparently not worth considering. And then they are described as having a totally upright stance, and a spoken language.

Perhaps I am missing something, but isn’t it immediately obvious that they are not apes, but … humans??

Postulating some other kind of hominid seems to violate Occam’s razor maximally.

Depends. Occam’s Razor only applies if you’re playing the game where you pretend the story is true.

If you’re talking in the real world about Tarzan as a work of fantastical fiction, then the answer is that Burroughs made up an unknown species of great ape, the Mangani.

Are you sure you read the attached column? Read it all the way through.

In the world of reality: Burroughs made up what was needed to tell a rousing story. The lions, elephants, and other animals that come into Burroughs’ stories don’t always behave like those of our world, either.

Inside the fiction, however, it can be great fun to play the Game. The Game is that Burroughs was the literary agent, writing true stories told to him by real people (Tarzan as Lord Greystoke, etc), but sometimes disguising facts to protect the privacy of the persons involved. (The same premise is often used by Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, by STAR WARS and STAR TREK fans, etc.) Within that context, we get the great apes (mangani) as more humanoid than gorilla or orangutang. However, they’re not just Neanderthal – they have fangs, climb trees, etc.

Maybe I should have been clearer.

The idea of The Game is, as I see it, to assume that the stories are founded in truth. Then, based on the clues in the text, you deduce what the ‘truth’ is.

You are saying that the ‘true’ species of ape is a fictional one that Burrough’s made up? I don’t see the logic in that.

Wasn’t a RL breed of giant chimpanzees found a few years ago?

Yes, and you still need to be clearer.

Are you, in fact, wishing to start with the premise that the Tarzan stories are essentially true, and then discuss the Mangani? A clear “yes” or “no” on this would allow us to have a less confused thread.

Sorry. I was not sure where you were trying to get to. My comment that the great apes are fictional, invented by Burroughs, is, of course, reality-based. He wasn’t a zoologist and didn’t know a lot about Africa, and jumbled things to suit his story.

Now, if you want to talk the Game, then we start from a completely different point. We have to assume everything Burroughs wrote is true, although when we find irreconcilable difficulties, we can assert that he was deliberately disguising names/places/dates to protect the privacy of those involved. Or that he had misunderstood what Tarzan told him. Within that realm, we conclude that the great apes match no known species, and must be a rare sub-human rather than a super-ape… as described in the Staff Report that you quoted.

PS - Related, see Did Sherlock Holmes really exist? - The Straight Dope … a similar Staff Report that I wrote about Sherlock Holmes.

Or he could read Tarzan Alive!, the origin of this theory, which has the added benefit of being by the great Philip Jose Farmer and thus brilliant.

My entire point is that there is general agreement that Africa did NOT contain a population of ‘rare sub humans’, even 100 years ago. The embellishments (300lb mass, canine fangs) were the bits that stretched the truth in order to disguise it.

In case any of you are still wondering, yes I am playing The Game. There could be no other point to my question.

I think intellectual honesty would require an answer along the lines of "Hmm you may be right. I hadn’t though of that’.

Thank you for the links. I would have hoped that you could have summarized the relevant conclusion from them, but no matter. They are appreciated.

And now I’m confused.

If you’re playing the game, surely you must see that your question was answered upthread: Tarzan was raised by a tribe of mangani, an undiscovered hominid species related humans, gorillas, and chimps; they were somewhat larger than gorillas and more intelligent as well, though not as intelligent as humans. They are now almost certainly extinct.

If you’re NOT playing the game, then your question has been answered as well. Tarzan was raised by gorillas, who, in this fictional universe, were smarter than in the real world and possesse rudimentary language.

And is quoted and cited, often, in the Staff Report. I never pretended that any of that was original research on my part; I only summarized and synthesized the research of others, and cited them appropriately. That’s generally what Staff Reports are all about.

Well, obviously, “general agreement” is pretty well meaningless when you’re talking about a rare species, a very small tribe, not discovered by any European explorers.

I read that about 30 years ago. Also Farmer’s great “biography” of the Man of Bronze: Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.

ETA: Farmer was a great fabulist and pastiche writer; he paved the way for current writers like Kim Morrison and Alan Moore.

Dex, I hope you don’t think I was implying you were plagiarizing Farmer. That wasn’t my intention. I remember your staff report well. I was just commenting on hte book itself, which is hilarious.

ETA: Hilarious in a GOOD way. It’s mean to be funny.

My question was not ‘what is the received wisdom about the identity of the “apes” that raised Tarzan’. That was answered quite well in the original column. In fact, that was the point of it.

I just think that if you start from ‘assume that the story is true’ and then you end up postulating the existence of something that has not been shown to exist, and almost certainly does not exist, then you have falsified your original assumption.

Postulating that he was raised by an unknown (or at least unidentified) tribe of humans does not cause that difficulty.

Is this not a point at least worth considering??

I have had this exact same conversation with kanicbird about Barack Obama, Biblical literacy, the spiritual implications of abortion, and cheese. I am going to be wise just this once in my life and walk away.

I’ll just mark this one down as ‘not at home’.

Well I see your point, but you’re stretching the rules of the Game. If you aren’t going to assume the basic accuracy of the stories as presented, then you might as well claim that Burroughs was taken in by a fraudulent Lord Greystoke and some forged family documents. That, at least, is perfectly consistent with the story as written. Of course, then you might as well ponder the possibility that Burroughs himself invented the story of Lord Greystoke as a cover to make his own fabulist musings more believable. And then, well, there you are.

Ah, thanks for the clarification. Now I see what you’re saying; sorry about the prior confusion, I just didn’t follow you. So, now the question becomes, where does one draw the line about believing impossible things (six before breakfast.) And there’s no consensus answer to that. I’m more familiar with the Sherlock Holmes Game than the Tarzan Game, and different scholars/players draw different lines. There’s a huge amount of research, writing, etc. And the question of how to deal with inconsistency (or deviation from reality) is the essence of the game. Most scholars/players try to come up with resolutions that involve the least amount of tampering, or rejecting the least amount of text.

Thus, in the aforementioned Staff Report on Sherlock Holmes, I took a case of an inconsistency with a date and showed several different ways that different scholars/players tried to resolve the inconsistency. To assume that Watson messed up on a date (confusing Tuesday with Saturday or whatever) does not harm the text. To assume that there is no dog that could fit the description of the Hound of the Baskervilles is to undo the entire plot, and so is too much to swallow. (Of course, we do have scholars writing that Watson was a woman, etc. so I guess the line is wherever you want to draw it.)

With the Tarzan great-apes, I have not read as extensively. My impression is that most writers take the perspective that these were NOT just a human tribe, and certainly not a gorilla tribe. If you would like to follow up with your hypothesis, you should write to the Tarzan news letter (sorry, I don’t have the address handy, but it’s surely easy to find from internet search) and write up a research paper.

I suspect it won’t get very far, because it contradicts too many critical points of the story. It resolves one point – why we don’t know of any great apes that fit the description in the books. But it contradicts many, many other points (like size and fangs) that are important to the story and plot. For instance, from the opening chapters of the origin story in Tarzan of the Apes:

  • Kerchak, the leader of the apes who is about to kill Tarzan’s Greystoke parents, “wanted very, very much to feel his teeth sink into the neck of the queer animal that he had learned to hate and fear.” So, first, Kerchak has significant teeth that are used in killing (non-human trait) and second Kerchak thinks of the humans as a “queer animal.” Surely, even a very primitive human tribe would recognize the Europeans as similar to themselves, not as “queer animals.” (In contrast, when the boy Tarzan later comes into contact with other native tribes, they have no problem recognizing him as human but not of their tribe.)

  • The infant Tarzan is scorned by the other apes, “he will never be a great ape.” Again, this would be a weird thing for one human tribe to say about a human baby of different race. There’s also a comment about how the ape infants develop much faster than does the small human. As he grows up, the great-apes “often marveled at his superior cunning, but in strength and size he was deficient; for at ten, the great anthropoids were fully grown, some of them towering over six feet in height, while little Tarzan was still but a half-grown boy.”

  • Still as a boy, he is embarrassed because he’s hairless compared to his tribe. He sees his reflection in a pool and is appalled at how ugly he looks – “That tiny slit of a mouth and those puny white teeth! How they looked beside the mighty lips and powerful fangs of his … brothers!” Again, the fangs are an important plot element.

  • Tarzan fights male great-apes at least twice, and in both cases, the fangs of the mangani are a significant fighting tool, mentioned over and over.

So, while I certainly think you could explore the possibility that they were just some human tribe, I suspect that the majority of Tarzan-ites will reject your hypothesis as requiring too much revision of the texts. On the other hand, what the heck, write something up and submit it.

You’ll need to go further than just “couldn’t be apes because we haven’t found any such, so must be people.” You’ll need to identify some possibilities amongst the tribes, and resolve some of the textual inconsistencies that your theory raises. That could make for a lengthy and interesting paper.

If, in pretending the Tarzan stories took place in the real world, one rejects every element that would require a species, people, city or phenomenon unknown to modern science, you’d have to throw out half the material. I don’t see the point of it.

Incidentally, to avoid further confusion, maybe we should distinguish between two types of inconsistencies one must deal with in a body of work like the Tarzan books or the Holmes stories.

There are inconsistencies between the fictional stories and the real world (e.g., the Mangani, the Ant People, etc. in Tarzan, or the little-known Japanese wrestling form Baritsu in Doyle’s canon).

Then there are internal inconsistencies, perhaps the most famous example being the elusive nature and location of Watson’s war wound.

Thank you for your carefully reasoned and researched post.

Your position (and it seems that it is the consensus) is that the elements that would have to be discarded to support the ‘human tribe’ theory - namely the large size and big canines - are central to the plot. They cannot be discarded.

With that in mind, here is that research paper you wanted:

"To assume that the story of Tarzan has a factual origin implies the existence of a second homonid species, contemporary with Homo sapiens.

However, no such species can or does exist.

Therefore, the story of Tarzan does not have a factual origin."

Thank you and good night!