An early representation of a gorilla from fifteenth-century Central Asia

Abstract

The present work describes the earliest known image of a gorilla (Gorilla sp.) to appear outside Africa. This is found in an Asian miniature painted on silk from the second half of the fifteenth century, called Four captive demons. The inspirational source of this painting is obscure and the artist unknown, but it may have been created in the Timurid—Turkmen region of Central Asia. A commercial network linking the African Great Lakes region—where the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) still occurs—and the Swahili ports could have served to facilitate trade in fauna at that time in history. Countless African animals were sent by Egyptian and Eastern African rulers to their counterparts in Central Asia as diplomatic gifts, and a captive gorilla specimen could have been kept in one of the “gardens” of the Timurid—Turkmen rulers and portrayed by an artist working at their courts. This image is intriguing and worthy of attention because it opens up new scenarios regarding the extent of knowledge of Great Apes prior to the Age of Discovery, giving potentially important new insights into human-anthropoid interaction.

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Marco Masseti who provided important suggestions during the writing of the early draft of the manuscript. I also thank Michelle Klailova for her help in the gorilla identification and Catarina Casanova for her encouragement in the initial stage of this research. I really thank the two anonymous reviewers of the first version of the manuscript for their very helpful comments and suggestions. This research was funded by Portuguese national funds through FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) in the context of the celebration of the program contract foreseen in no. 4,5,6, of art. 23 of D.L. no. 57/2016 and 57/2017.

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Correspondence to Cecilia Veracini.

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Veracini, C. An early representation of a gorilla from fifteenth-century Central Asia. Primates 62, 457–462 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10329-021-00906-w

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Keywords

  • African great apes
  • Iconography
  • Middle Ages
  • Trade
  • Turks