01 December 2009

The Mangani Clade

As I've mentioned earlier, the formal nomenclature for apes (including humans) is a huge mess. One person's "hominin" is another's "hominid" and my "hominine" might be your "homininan". And in this situation I honestly think the vernacular terms (adjusted in some cases to include humans) serve us better:
  • apes: gibbons, great apes

  • gibbons (or lesser apes): Hoolock, Hylobates, Nomascus, Symphalangus

  • great apes: African apes, Pongo

  • African apes: Gorilla, Homo, Pan
There, that covers all the major crown groups—with one important exception. There is no vernacular term I know of for the Homo-Pan clade. We are left with having to use unwieldy hyphenates like "the human-chimpanzee clade" or silly portmanteaux like "chuman" or "humanzee" (which refer more to the last common ancestor or theoretical hybrids than to the clade as a whole).

There is one possible vernacular term I've seen for this clade, and it comes from an unexpected source.

Tarzan of the Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan is one of the most popular and enduring fictional creations of the 20th century. Everyone knows he was raised by apes—but what kind of apes? In various films they are depicted as gorilla-like (e.g., Disney's Tarzan) or chimpanzee-like (e.g., Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes). What were they in the novels?

The author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, never attempted to identify them scientifically. In the novels they have a primitive, guttural language, and they call themselves mangani. They are not gorillas, because they have another word for those (bolgani). Chimpanzees are never mentioned in the novels.

Interestingly, the mangani also use the word mangani for humans. For example, black people are gomangani and white people are tarmangani. So, in their own self-taxonomy, there is a group that includes themselves and humans, but excludes gorillas. Sound familiar?

The mangani can't be chimpanzees, because they are much larger (although less massive than gorillas). Like chimpanzees, they are fairly arboreal, but, unlike them, they do not use tools (apart from logs as drums, perhaps), do speak a language, and do not hunt cooperatively. Still, considering that chimpanzee behavior in the wild was virtually unknown when Burroughs was writing, and that chimpanzees were not thought to be closer to humans than to gorillas, perhaps he can be given some leeway here, since his prescience is otherwise impressive. (Especially given the recent discovery of a possible population of giant chimpanzees in the Bili Forest of the Congo.)

I'd love to learn of a good vernacular term for the human-chimpanzee crown clade, but until such a time as I do (or the formal nomenclature becomes actually useable), I like the idea of referring to humans, common chimpanzees, bonobos, Ardipithecus, "Lucy", Australopithecus, Floresian "hobbits", Homo erectus, Neandertals, etc. as "mangani".


  1. Awesome idea.

    It would be so cool if that became a common term...

  2. Thanks -- well, it certainly doesn't have much competition!

  3. I emphatically support the idea. :D

  4. Incidentally, this also means we can discuss whether certain Miocene taxa (Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, Ardipithecus kadabba) are mangani or stem-mangani.