Was the first orangutan a cretin?


When Western observers first encountered a red ape from Indonesia in the 17th century, they named it 'orangutan', from Malay words meaning 'person of the forest'. Yet Malays never used this term. For them 'orangutan' were human forest-dwellers. It seems that a Dutch physician took the expressive word from a report written in the colonial port of Batavia (now Jakarta) describing a group of human cretins, sufferers from acute iodine deficiency. They came from the remote jungle, and the report called them ‘orangutan’. ‘Person of the forest’ summed up the ape’s human appearance so well the name stuck ever after.

Robert Cribb

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