strange behaviors

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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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A Very Colorful Nondescript

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 15, 2010

Collector Charles Waterton was adept at taxidermy, but notorious for his quirky mountings.  His masterpiece was the “Nondescript.”  What was it?

1.  A lion concealed for ambush.

2.  A human being of bland countenance.

3.  The head of a monkey.

4.  A polar bear.

And the answer is:

The head of a monkey.

The “Nondescript,” was a distinctly human bust mounted on a wooden stand, frowning, with large brown eyes, anxious upraised brow, and dark skin fringed with reddish hair.  Waterton displayed it on the grand staircase at his home, Walton Hall, and also published it as the frontispiece for Wanderings in South America. The rumor went round that he had “shot a native human being” and set it up as an ordinary natural history specimen.

In fact, the “Nondescript” was a howler monkey skillfully manipulated to give “the brute a human formation of face, and to this face an expression of intellectuality.”  Waterton was doing something that, in the 1820s, would have been more disturbing than either shooting natives or making a mockery of natural science.  “Are you not aware,” he told an inquisitive friend, “that it is the present fashionable theory that monkeys are shortly to step into our shoes?  I have merely foreshadowed future ages or signalised the coming event …”

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