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King Kong in a promotional photo from Universal Studios

Gorilla-related abduction stories in Central Africa date back 150 years or more.

Hollywood blockbuster apes African stories of old

By Lori Janies

December 22, 2005

Pop quiz: What story recounts the tale of a giant gorilla that becomes enamored with a beautiful young woman, abducts her and drags her off to become his mate?

If you answered, "King Kong," you're wrong. Well, okay, not so much "wrong" as "only partially right."

While King Kong is certainly the most famous damsel-abducting great ape around--and recently brought to life for a new generation in Peter Jackson's remake of the 1933 Hollywood classic, King Kong--a University of Minnesota associate professor has uncovered a whole band of gorilla-related abduction stories in Central Africa, some dating back 150 years or more.

"With all the hoopla around the film, I think it's important to remember that Hollywood is not the source of all stories," says Tamara Giles-Vernick, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's history department. "King Kong is an African story."

Giles-Vernick is currently exploring the tradition and meaning of African gorilla stories in an essay called Visions of Apes, Reflections on Change: Telling Tales of Great Apes in Equatorial Africa, which she is co-writing with Stephanie Rupp, an anthropologist at the National University of Singapore, for the journal African Studies Review.

In the essay, the authors cite a report written by late 19th-century explorer Paul du Chaillu in which he mentions "curious stories" that Africans told of gorilla abductions, including one in which an "immense gorilla" carried off an African woman and "forced her to submit to his desires."

The healer told Giles-Vernick the flower was ngwago, used to protect women from gorillas that would carry them off into the forest...

Giles-Vernick says she never set out to study gorilla stories, but the stories seemed to track her inexorably through the dense African jungle as she went about other business. She came face-to-face with her first gorilla story accidentally in the Central African Republic while doing field research for her 2002 book, Cutting the Vines of the Past. The book examines how a group of migrant Africans understood the changes that had occurred in the forest following contact with missionaries, loggers, conservationists, and other outsiders.

"I was following this middle-aged woman named Antoinette into the forest because she was going to gather some fruits and leaves," Giles-Vernick says. "As she entered the forest she reached down to the ground and plucked up this little white flower and tossed it into her basket. I asked her, 'What's that?' but she wouldn't tell me what it was. So, I picked up one of the flowers and brought it back and showed it to an elderly man who was a very important healer in the village."

The healer told Giles-Vernick the flower was ngwago, used to protect women from gorillas that would carry them off into the forest and rape them.

Soon after, Giles-Vernick was struck by how many gorilla stories she encountered on a regular basis. Even the language of the area carries an echo of the theme, she says. The root language of the region is called Wag and derivatives of that word form the word for chimpanzee, wago, as well as the word wagi, which means "to bother or menace."

She encountered so many references and stories that she finally began an official academic review of the written and oral histories of these stories.

So, are the abduction stories real?

"It's a difficult thing to say," Giles-Vernick says. "People believe it and it's certainly a possibility, but it's very difficult to distinguish between what people believe to be real and what actually is real. And as an ethnographic historian, I don't make those distinctions. What I would rather do is ask questions about why it is that people would believe this."

The "why" in this case, she says, may be that the stories provide the storytellers with a "flexible framework" to explore issues such as "conflicts over forest resources and wealth, racial and ethnic relations, what it means to be a human being, and what it means to die."

As to the latest cinematic retelling of the King Kong story, Giles-Vernick says the filmmakers betrayed the legacy of those first tellers of gorilla tales by portraying the natives of Kong's fictional island home in gross racial stereotypes. The film's natives are "hideous, bloodthirsty people who had bones in their faces and who sacrificed blond women to King Kong," she says.

Despite the emphatic "thumbs-down" to the new film, Giles-Vernick predicts gorilla stories will continue to intrigue people from all over the world for many years to come.

"People find gorillas fascinating and compelling because they are animals but they are not animals," she says. "People find the behaviors that gorillas display reminiscent of human beings and simultaneously different."