Anthropology trip – The Orangutan in Malaysian Borneo

Anthropology trip – The Orangutan in Malaysian Borneo

The puzzle of Orangutans’ evolutionary origins

Today anthropology is the science studying of the origin and development of human societies and cultures (i.e. the learned behavior of people, including their languages, belief systems, social structures, institutions, and material goods) by observing and describing subjects in their local environment (i.e. ethnography) in an unbiased form (i.e. free of ethnocentrism, the habit of viewing all groups as inferior to another).

The study of history was an important aspect of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, which focused on using reason and inquiry to understand and create just societies. During the 5th century BCE, the Greek Herodotus traveled through present-day Libya, Ukraine, Egypt, and Syria to understand the origins of the conflict between Greeks and Persians.

Anthropologists specialize in cultural or social anthropology, linguistic anthropology (how language influences social life), biological or physical anthropology (the study of the evolution of human beings and their living and fossil relative), and archaeology (the study of the human past using material remains).

Examples of such studies are Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey documentation of the rare and nearly lost traditions of the Micronesian navigators who don’t use maps or instruments (palm), or of the chants and practices of the Satawalese, a tiny cultural group native to a single coral atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia. During my travels, I always puzzled myself with the cultural inheritance in the communities I’ve visited; indeed, much can be considered in the remainings and modern behaviors of present day communities in Yap, Palau, and Tonga.

Another example is Lera Boroditsky’s studies of the forms of communication among the Pormpuraaw, an Aboriginal community in Australia. Boroditsky found that almost all daily activities and conversations were placed within the context of cardinal directions. Indeed, the sacred geographies preserved in Uluru support her views.

Constanza Ceruti, an high-altitude archaeologist specializing in artifacts and features of the Incan Empire. Along with archaeological evidence, Ceruti analyzes historical sources and traditional Andean beliefs. These data help her reconstruct what ancient sites looked like, the symbolic meaning behind each artifact, and how ceremonies took place. A nice example can be found in the ceremonial center of Machu Picchu.

Finally, Biological anthropology places human evolution within the context of human culture and behavior. This means biological anthropologists look at how physical developments, such as changes in our skeletal or genetic makeup, are interconnected with social and cultural behaviors throughout history. For instance, Goodall discovered that chimpanzees use basic tools, such as sticks. #Toolmaking is considered a key juncture in human evolution. Biological anthropologists link the evolution of the human hand, with a longer thumb and stronger gripping muscles, to our ancient ancestors’ focus on toolmaking.

Orangutans’ understanding of their evolutionary origins and successful reconstruction of the habits of their ancestors remain unresolved. Indeed, their postcranial adaptations permit these large-bodied animals to travel through forest canopies, but it not known what selective forces drove orangutans to such arboreal lifestyle. Their semi-solitary nature, large home ranges, and extended life history does not make an easy job in acquiring the vast amounts of data necessary to understand their social organization. Notwithstanding their high intelligence, often thought to reflect social complexity, the fabled “forest person” lives in a relatively simple social system. Finally, and most important, captive orangutans are expert tool users, whereas, with the exception of a few sites in northwestern Sumatra, tool use and manufacture are virtually absent in wild #orangutans.

The caves at Niah in Sarawak and at Madai in Sabah retained extensive evidence of prehistoric hunting in the form of orangutan remains that had been left behind by tribal hunters. Indeed, seven major gatherer-hunter societies have been identified in historical times and, according to the early ethnographers, the favorite prey of all these tribes were “monkeys and apes,” which were hunted with poisoned arrows shot from blowguns, or with dogs and spears.


Herodotus. Retrieved from

Anthropology. Retrieved from

Delgado, Jr. and Van Schaik, C.P. (2000). The behavioral ecology and conservation of the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus): A tale of two islands. Evolutionary Anthropology Issues News and Reviews. Retrieved from

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