International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 39, Issue 5, pp 878–894 | Cite as

Primate Tales: Using Literature to Understand Changes in Human–Primate Relations

  • Sindhu Radhakrishna


Primate species, by and large, are culturally significant icons across their habitat. One of the more prominent expressions of this lies in the revered status of macaques and langurs in South and Southeast Asia, largely because of their religious status in Hinduism. People’s belief in these species’ sanctity often serves to protect them from physical harm or retaliation in conflict situations and thus strongly mediates their conservation. The nature of this interface has changed over the years of mutual interactions between the two groups. Trends in literature are useful markers of sociocultural developments in human life and reflect changes in human views with respect to the world around them. I investigated Tamil language poetical works from southern India to analyze people’s attitudes toward primates and changes in their views of primates over time. My findings suggest that sacredness was not a defining characteristic of human–primate relations in ancient times. The deification of monkeys occurred later and was largely driven by the growing popularity of Ramayana, the Hindu epic. The growing importance of religion in the daily lives of people and increasing urbanization subsequently led to the peripheralization of monkeys in people’s lives and narratives. Monkeys, once considered coinhabitants of a shared landscape, slowly began to be seen as animals with some human-like qualities that represent wild nature. The literary lens is thus a useful tool to map and understand changes in human perceptions of primate species over time and can be a powerful method in ethnoprimatology.


Content analysis Ethnoprimatology Human–primate relations Primate sacredness Southern India Tamil literature 



This article was first presented at an ethnoprimatology symposium held during the 2016 IPS–ASP meeting in Chicago, and I thank all the participants for their helpful comments and suggestions. I also thank Erin Riley for proposing the idea of the symposium, Joanna Setchell for her support in bringing out the special issue, Shaurabh Anand for his help in preparing the map, and the editor and two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions that helped improve an earlier version of this article.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Natural Sciences and EngineeringNational Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Indian Institute of Science CampusBangaloreIndia

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