The Zoologist/4th series, vol 1 (1897)/Issue 667/Notes on the Chacma Baboon

Notes on the Chacma Baboon (1897)
by William Lucas Distant
4036591Notes on the Chacma Baboon1897William Lucas Distant


By W.L. Distant.

During a four years' sojourn in the Transvaal I saw many of these animals (Cynocephalus porcarius), heard much about them, had two in my possession as pets for nearly three years, and have still one which I brought home with me.

When travelling up country from the Cape in 1893, a troop of at least fifty crossed the railway track just in front of the train at early morning, evidently returning from some marauding expedition. I was told by an old Africander that Baboons and "other vermin" were becoming more plentiful in the colony, owing to the little shooting now done by the farmers.

I was also informed by a very intelligent Africander whom I frequently met in Pretoria, that Baboons can count up to three, but not higher.[1] As proof of this he related the following experience:—In early days he was once on his brother's farm near where Johannesburg now stands, and where Baboons were committing severe depredations on the mealie crop. As usual, there was one of these animals posted as a sentinel to give warning of the approach of the irate and armed farmer, when the raiders would decamp to a rocky eminence in the vicinity. My informant was accompanied by two friends, making with the farmer four in all. Now, he said, we "will do the Baboons," for they cannot count more than three, and we will leave one of our party behind. They accordingly approached the thieves, who immediately fled, the retiring sentinel still watching them. Three of the men then returned, leaving the armed farmer secreted among the mealies. In a short time the word seemed passed among the Baboons that all was right, as the three human visitors had been seen to retire; the animals once more came forth to steal and feed, and the first thief paid for his limitation in calculating power with his life, as he fell a victim to the farmer's rifle.

Both the specimens I kept were females, one old and the other young, and as time went on our intimacy ripened, and they seemed to become to me more and more like poor relations. The young one I bought from a Boer, who had shot the mother and captured the offspring. It was only after some six months' acquaintance that this animal would be at all friendly, and the explanation I take to be that from wearing a long beard I was not altogether unlike a Boer, and the young Baboon had formed both a distrust and hatred for the murderer of its mother and the capturer of itself. This seemed the more probable, because it always trusted my son, and was friendly with the Kafirs; whilst, though I never punished it in any way, and bribed it continually with sweets and fruits, it still remained a slave to first impressions. This animal used to sleep with a large bull-terrier bitch in its kennel, winding its arms round the body of the dog, which unfortunately died during the Transvaal winter, and the young Baboon contracted a temporary asthma soon after sleeping alone.

I chained this little animal up outside my office window, the length of chain allowing her to sit when she pleased on the window-sill, which she constantly did, only separated from me as I sat at my desk by the glass; but the moment I went outside all good relations were at an end, and she showed terror and dislike if I approached within a distance of three feet. She perfectly understood the separating medium of the glass, which she never attempted to break. Even after six months there was still great distrust, and only the friendship of an armed truce.

Very different was the conduct of the other full-grown matron, who had been long in captivity before I received her as a present. This female, who rejoiced in the name of "Jack," possessed the greatest intelligence I ever met with in any animal not of our own genus. Unlike the younger one, she was friendly to all "whites," but had a perpetual feud with "coloured people," especially Kafirs, who as a rule gave her a wide berth, thus escaping bites, but receiving whenever possible bricks, stones, or other missiles, hurled with no little force and precision. In cold weather—such as winter nights—or when exposed to the full rays of the summer sun, she invariably covered herself with a sack as protection, using it as a white woman does a cloak, or a Kafir woman a blanket. Her staple food was boiled mealies varied with bread, of which she was particularly fond. Add carrots, an occasional cabbage, fruits such as bananas and oranges, and on high days some pine-apple, nuts, a few sweets, or a handful of tobacco, and her tale of food is completed.

Between us there became an established friendship, incapable of being expressed in articulate speech,[2] but more or less communicated by friendly actions, mutual confidence, and a slight recourse to the universal language of gesture. Such a mutual understanding as existed, and between two animals so widely separated in the zoological scale, was a source to me of sincere pleasure, and also a form of compliment. My poor relation, the Baboon, was really anxious for comradeship, was always grateful for favours, and anxious to please. I once asked a clerical friend to study her as an example of original sin. She had, of course, no morals—unnecessary in a Baboon community—and she was cheerfully superior to all shame. She was greedy, passionate, truculent, and revengeful, but as a rule contented, appreciative of good living, highly courageous, and open in expressing her likes and dislikes. Stoical in bad weather, she was epicurean in the sunny fruit season. Decidedly cynical as far as appearances are concerned, she was yet sophistical, when, with cheeks filled with nuts, she returned an innocent glance to my sceptical deportment before providing more.

This animal would have been useful in a cricket field for her quickness and aptitude in catching. With oranges, I tried her all ways,—with pitches under-hand, and swift straight shots,—but she seldom missed any, and often caught with one hand. She once directed my attention to a flock of vultures soaring overhead, and which I had not noticed. An East Indian vender of pastry frequently visited us, when I usually purchased a tart or bun for the young Baboon and herself. Should this man come without my seeing him, I was always notified of the fact by a series of barks, screams, and grunts.

When I first searched for insects in the Transvaal, and in a valley beneath high cliffs, I was intensely surprised to find the stones turned over before my arrival. Being positively certain that no other geodephagous coleopterist was in the neighbourhood, I was somewhat inclined, like the Roman missionaries, who, on their arrival in Thibet, found Catholic ritual among the Buddhists, to ascribe the circumstance to occult influence; but this was before I became acquainted with the insect-searching attributes of my friends the Baboons.

I am not aware of any published records of the menstrual periods of female Baboons. These are not zoologically unimportant, and appear to be somewhat irregular. My observations on one animal during 1894–5 were as follows:—Oct. 15th, Nov. 23rd, Dec. 27th, Jan. 30th, March 8th, April 15th, May 20th, July 4th, Sept. 9th, Oct. 21st.

  1. Mr. Romanes has stated that the Chimpanzee "Sally" was instructed in this art, and that before death her "counting" extended as far as ten. (See 'Darwin and after Darwin,' vol. ii. pp. 31–2, notes.)
  2. Anderson said that his Bushman told him he could understand the Baboon language,—when they are frightened, or hungry, or are to meet together to defend themselves against an enemy, or to meet to play,—and he knew well what they said, and could talk to them. ('Twenty-five Years in a Waggon,' p. 217.)

This work was published before January 1, 1929, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

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