Thursday, May 8, 2014

Monkey see, monkey do

I.  Monkey see

Meet Dinkinesh.  She lives in the Ethiopian national museum.  In the English world, we call her "Lucy," but who knows what name she actually went by.  It was so long ago, and all we have are these bones.

In truth, the upright skeleton is a best guess!  The actual bones we have are displayed flat on a shelf, and there are not a lot.  When I look at them scattered out like that, I can't believe this is the most famous hominid skeleton ever found.  There are other skulls in this museum far more haunting, showing human-like skulls with really big canine teeth, and the early stone tools they used.

Visiting these fossils and seeing how many different species of monkey-human type things there are, and in how many different places they have been found, I was more confused than ever.  What happened to the Asian homo erectus?  How do we draw any straight family lines through all these potential ancestors, and whose interests do these narratives serve?  There is a lot more digging to do.

II.  Monkey do

Nairobi, Kenya, has a bad reputation in tourist guide books as a dangerous place with not much to see.  I beg to differ.  True, you can be stuck in traffic and surrounded by chaotic crowds for a long time.  But our friend Jeff suggested a nice little refuge in the city. "Let's go the monkey park," he said.  I was expecting a little zoo full of monkeys.  But no:  It is a public park, with a little lawn, and monkeys are crawling all over the grass like squirrels waiting for people to feed them.  So we went and bought peanuts from a cart stationed there. 

"Hold out only one at a time," Jeff said, making a fist shape, "or they will try to snatch all of them."

"Are they going to bite me?" I asked, holding out an outstretched hand, palm up.  I was going to put a nut in the center and bend down to feed the fuzzy little guys.  One of them was a protective mother with her child clutching her tight around the middle.  They looked at me with big eyes, backing away slowly.

"They don't bite," Jeff laughed. 

And so I watched Josh put one nut in his fingertips and hold it out to the monkeys.  Before he had time to bend down, those little mammals had jumped onto his back, climbed onto his shoulder, and grabbed the nut from his hand. 

Others then did the same to me, and I was not even holding any nuts!  I got a bit freaked out at the sudden monkey onslaught.  Those little monkey feet are really grabby, almost ticklish, and I was just a ladder for them.  They made me open my fist and then gave up.

Eventually, one took a liking to Josh and sat on his shoulder for a good while.  Clearly, Josh is a more confident monkey ladder than me.  But the last laugh is mine, because while I still look somewhat respectable, his shirt is now covered with tiny footprints!  It looks like he's been mud wrestling with kindergartners.

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