Bigfoot Encounters

By Dr. Elaine Jean Struthers, Ph.D., Coulston Foundation, Holloman AFB, NM

Any discussion of the great apes must eventually encompass the mysterious Koolakamba. Speculation will then ensue as to its importance and even its existence. Over the past several years, while I have worked at what is currently the Coulston Foundation Holloman AFB site, I have followed this discourse with interest since this facility has been home to a few individuals identified as Koolakamba. If we accept the premise of the existence of the Koolakamba as a distinct entity then we must ask; is it a subspecies of the chimpanzee, a gorilla-chimp hybrid, or perhaps representative of individual variation? If we do not accept the premise of its existence then we must assign it to its place in the traditional folk mythology of the indigenous peoples of West Africa, as well as the more contemporary mythology of the international clan of primatologists.

Several articles and related research projects which have considered the question of the so-called hybrid ape, or Koolakamba, are available. The initial references appear to be from the descriptive work of DuChaillu from 1860, 1861, 1867, and 1899; some of which was republished in 1969 (Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa). There may have been at least one prior reference to the Koolakamba in a French work by Franquet (1852, as cited by Shea, 1984).

DuChaillu refers to the ape as Koolakamba based upon his description of words used by the indigenous peoples (Commi, Goumbi, and Bakalai [sic]) in the region of the Ovengi River of West Central Africa, modernly the areas of Cameroon and Gabon. The people allegedly referred to the ape as "Kooloo" because that is what its unique vocalization, quite unlike the vocalizations of other apes in the region, sounded like to them. "Kamba", according to DuChaillu, is a Commi word meaning to "speak" (DuChaillu, 1899).

DuChaillu differentiates between four ape-types in his work, these are the Gorilla, the common chimpanzee, the nshiego mbouve (Troglodytes calvus), and the Koolakamba (DuChaillu 1861 and 1969). He provides a detailed physiological description of each variant species as well as illustrations of the important morphological features. The physical characteristics described for Koolakamba include a short and broad pelvic structure, large supraorbital ridge, high zygomatic ridges, less prominent "muzzle", dentition in which the upper and lower incisors meet squarely forming a grinding surface, and a larger cranial capacity than that of the common chimpanzee. Much of what DuChaillu records is essentially ethnographic. He includes the indigenous names and lore relevant to the ape, and reveals his own cultural foibles in the writing. His works are classic period pieces with wonderfully descriptive text and presumably accurate illustrations, but limited quantitative (mostly anthropometric) data. DuChaillu's summation employed folk taxonomy in identification of apes in the wild. It has been asserted elsewhere (Shea, 1984) that the system of folk differentiation, unlike the extant European system embedded in DuChaillu's worldview, identified individual variation as a type, rather than subspecies variation as a type. Classification of the Koolakamba as a unique entity, it is suggested (Shea, 1984), may be due to DuChaillu's misinterpretation of folk taxonomy.

Perhaps, then, the Koolakamba really only represents the wide range of individual variation found in the Lower Guinea chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes troglodytes) of Gabon and Cameroon. The most comprehensive chimpanzee taxonomy was undertaken by Osman Hill (Hill, 1967; Hill, 1969). Hill's classic work was apparently based in large part upon qualitative observations made at the Holloman AFB site of what is today the Coulston Foundation. Hill contradicts DuChaillu's description on some points, and in fact there seem to be enough discrepancies between the two descriptions to indicate that the respective writers are not discussing the same entity, as Shea(1984) points out in his excellent and intensive treatment of the Koolakamba debate. One example is ear size. DuChaillu described the ear size of the Koolakamba as large whereas Hill indicates that the ears are small, close set to the head, and similar in appearance to that of the gorilla. Another point of inconsistency between the two authors is the facial structure which Duchaillu described as broad and flat, while Hill depicts it as extremely prognathic. However, Hill agrees with DuChaillu on one very important point, he too classes the Koolakamba as a unique subspecies rather than as an individualistic anomaly. Whether the Koolakamba is a real or mythical entity still seems to be mostly a matter of scholarly debate, an artfully done history of that debate up to 1984 has been written by Brian Shea (Journal of Ethnobiology, v.4 #1, 1984).

A number of researchers have also investigated the possible molecular identity of the Koolakamba as a true subspecies. Contemporary research methodologies can perhaps allow a more definitive explanation of the status of the Koolakamba. Work done by Ferris (et al., 1981a,b) used testing of serum to identify mitochondrial DNA restriction endonuclease polymorphism patterns which indicated distinctions between chimpanzee subspecies. The Koolakamba was not identified as unique in the Ferris research (perhaps due to not having any designated Koolakambas in the sample pool?). This work was later expanded by other research (Davidson, 1986) examining electrophoretic variation in serum esterases. The sample pool in Davidson's work were all derived from the Holloman colony and included two designated Koolakambas. No discernible differences were noted for the Koolakamba subjects. A subsequent research project initiated by Gene McCarthy (then of the University of Georgia) in 1991 proposed to survey genetic markers, both mitochondrial and protein, in chimpanzees. In particular the project sought to settle, once and for all, the question of whether or not the Koolakamba was genetically distinct. Due to sampling difficulty, which arises from identification problems and small numbers of accessible subjects, the project has not yet come to culmination.

It has been suggested that the Koolakamba type represents a hybrid ape, perhaps a cross between gorilla and chimpanzee. The notion of hybridism between apes has been a quintessential topic of debate for numerous years. Evidence indicates that at least some ape hybridization (lesser apes) is indeed possible (Myers & Shafer, 1979; and Wolkin & Myers, 1980). The Atlanta Zoo housed two female Siamangs with a male Gibbon, and in 1975 one of the females gave birth to a hybrid offspring (Wolkin & Myers, 1980). This "Siabon" was later transferred to Georgia State University. A second hybrid was later born (in 1976) to the same pair, but it did not survive past the neonatal period. That great apes can produce hybrid offspring, then, is probable. That the Koolakamba represents a form of hybridized ape is at least plausible. Though we may not be able to confirm the existence of any such hybrids at present, it may be reasonable to reserve a category for such a hybrid and label that category "Koolakamba".

For many years, the Coulston Foundation Holloman AFB site has been alleged to have Koolakambas among its chimpanzee population. These references have been based on acquisition records, Hill's inventory (1967), and records of the geographical origin of wild caught subjects. Hill published a photo, probably taken around 1964, of what was allegedly a male Koolakamba. Although I have an excellent reproduction of the photo and have worked within the colony for almost 10 years, and while I have conducted thorough anecdotal interviews with the long term staff, no one recognizes the particular individual in the photo. I am quite certain he either died long ago or was moved to some other facility. The animal in the photo is quite distinctive looking, however, and we do possess a female (Jennifer) who was born here in 1970 who looks a great deal like him. Jennifer's dam died in 1979 and was one of the very early acquisitions of the AF, but she was not noted to be a Koolakamba or otherwise unusual. The sire is unknown because at that time the chimpanzees were still housed in the open free-ranging consortium facility. We have often speculated that it might be possible that the male pictured in the Hill article could be Jennifer's sire.

An article by Don Cousins (Acta Zoologica v.75, 1980) specifically identifies two Alleged Koolakambas at the Holloman site; Sevim, and Minnie currently 39 years old. Sevim was a female, she died of natural causes in 1983, but left a number of offspring. Minnie is something of a local celebrity, and has resided here since 1957. She currently is employed as a foster mother after several years as a prominent member of the breeding contract colony. She assists us in raising the infants that for various reasons have had to be reared in the nursery during early infancy. Currently she is raising her own natural offspring, Lil' Minnie, who may represent a Koolakamba type as she looks exactly like her illustrious mother. Minnie certainly fits the description of the Koolakamba both pysically and behaviorally that DuChaillu offers in his works. Minnie frequently likes to walk bipedally, she is extremely gregarious and smart preferring toys that require manual dexterity and finesse to manipulate (e.g. baby activity boards, feeding puzzles, etc.). Minnie also has a well-defined aggressive streak and she traditionally holds an Alpha position in whatever social configuration she is placed.

There have been other chimpanzees among our colony that morphologically and behaviorally (re: DuChaillu) we hazarded might be of the Koolakamba type, but we could not really confirm them as such. It is often difficult to identify the geographical place of origin (based on accession records) for the few remaining wild-caught members of the Holloman founder population. Often such records were intentionally misleading due to irregularities in customs laws prior to the CITES law governing transport of chimpanzees from their native countries. Records sometimes indicate which country the animals were shipped from but that is not necessarily synonymous with the country in which they were actually caught. This further obscures our ability to guess if individuals might be members of the Koolakamba tribe. When an acquisition record indicates place of origin as Gabon or Cameroon, it is worth examining the subject in question to assess morphological features, but the designation of "Koolakamba" remains subjective.

Another organization that may be helpful in maintaining records for individuals identified as Koolakamba is ISIS. Rick Lukens, research associate at ISIS and formerly network analyst at the Holloman AFB site, is aware of the Koolakamba issue and is careful to note any references to the subspecies in records he handles. We at the Coulston Foundation are keenly interested in the Koolakamba debate and will be pleased to field any inquiries regarding this unique variation of Pan.
© Dr. Elaine Jean Struthers, Ph.D., Coulston Foundation


# Cousins, D., 1980: On the Koolakamba - a Legendary Ape. Acta Zoologica et Pathologica Antverpiensia, 75: 79-93.

# DuChaillu, P.B., 1860: Descriptions of Five New Species of Mammals Discovered in Western Equatorial Africa. Proceedings Boston Society Natural History, 7:296-304, 358-367.

# Davidson, William S., 1986: Variations in the Serum Esterases of Chimpanzees. Comp. Biochem. Physiol., Vol. 83B, 3:697-699.

# DuChaillu, P.B., 1861, and 1969: Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. Murray, London; reprinted in 1969 by Negro Universities Press, New York.

# DuChaillu, P.B., 1867: A Journey to Ashango-Land and Further Penetration into Equatorial Africa. Murray, London.

# DuChaillu, P.B., 1899: Stories of Gorilla Country. Harper and Brothers Publishers, N.Y. and London.

# Ferris, S.D., Brown, W.M., Davidson, W.S., and Wilson, A.C., 1981: Extensive Polymorphism in the Mitochondrial DNA of Apes. Proceedings National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A., 78:6319-6323.

# Hill, W.C. Osman, 1967: The Taxonomy of the Genus Pan.Neu Ergebnisse der Primatologie, eds. D. Starck, R. Schneider, and H.J. Kuhn, pp.47-54. Stuttgart:Fischer.

# Hill, W.C. Osman, 1969: The Nomenclature, Taxonomy, and Distribution of Chimpanzees; in The Chimpanzee, 1:22-49. Karger, Basel and N.Y.

# Myers, Richard H., and Shafer, David A., 1979: Hybrid Ape Offspring of a Mating of Gibbon and Siamang. Science, 205:308-310.

# Shea, B.T., 1984: Between the Gorilla and the Chimpanzee: a History of Debate Concerning the Existence of the Kooloo-kamba or Gorilla-like Chimpanzee. Journal of Ethnobiology, 4:1-13.

# Tuttle, R.H., 1986: Apes of the World. Noyes Publications, Park Ridge, N.J.

# Wolkin, Joan R., and Myers, Richard H., 1980: Characteristics of a Gibbon-Siamang Hybrid Ape. International Journal of Primatology 1: 203-221.


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