Translator Disclaimer
1 December 2011 Further Information on Neotropical Monkeys in the XVI Century: Part 3
Author Affiliations +

Here, I report on further descriptions and mentions of Neotropical monkeys when Europe first began its colonization of the New World. In 1498, Christopher Columbus (hereafter referred to as C. Colón) landed on the island of Trinidad, four days before stepping foot on continental America in Paria, Venezuela. Hernando Colón (1488– 1539), son of the admiral of Genoa, wrote a chronicle about the travels of his father, including the day he first visited Trinidad. H. Colón indicated in his posthumous work (1571) that “in the point named Galea [currently known as Galeota Point, southeastern Trinidad]… They found many animal footprints that looked like goats, and also bones from one, but, since the head did not have horns, they believed it was a gato paúl, or monkey, later they knew that it was, since they saw many gatos paúles in Paria. That same day, August first [1498], sailing between Cape Galea and Cape Playa, to starboard, to the South, we saw Tierra Firme…” (H. Colón 1932: 132). As in the report of C Colón about primates in Paria (Colón 1996, Urbani 1999), this mention not only refers to the first observation of remains alleged to be a monkey on the island of Trinidad (probably Cebus albifrons trinitatis or Alouatta macconelli), but also remarks on monkeys on the continent (A. arctoidea or C. olivaceus) seen by C. Colón a few days later in northeastern Venezuela.

Regarding the first report about monkeys on terra firma written by C. Colón in 1498 (Colón 1996, Urbani 1999), Pedro Martir de Anglería (1457–1526) added further information in 1500 indicating that “Another very singular thing the Admiral [C. Colón] has told me, and which is confirmed by his companions (all worthy of credence and whom I carefully questioned concerning the details of the voyage), is that he sailed twenty-six leagues, that is to say, one hundred and forty-eight miles, in fresh water; and the farther he advanced to the west, the fresher the water became. Finally, he saw a very lofty mountain, of which the eastern part was inhabited only by a multitude of monkeys with very long tails. All this side of the mountain is very steep, which explains why no people live there… It was learned by signs that that country was called Paria, that it was very extensive...” (Anglería 1912: 75). P. M. de Anglería also indicated that in the regions of Curiana and Cauchieta, in today's Venezuela where the Peninsula of Paria is located, “The Spaniards brought away some very pretty monkeys and a number of parrots of varied colors, from that country” (Anglería 1912: 85). This seems to be the first report of primate trafficking from the Neotropics. The monkeys were probably wedge-capped capuchins (C. olivaceus) or howler monkeys (A. arctoidea).

In 1504, Angelo Trevisan, assistant to the Venetian ambassador to the Spanish Crown, provided information on the primates encountered in continental America (Vannini de Gerulewicz 1989). He narrated part of the story of Pedro Alonso-Niño (1569–1502), who in 1499 directed an expedition to the region of Paria. Trevisan (1989: 151) wrote that “Entering the island [refers to terra firme = Paria], they saw forests with the tallest dense trees, from where voices of animals filled the country with strange howls. But they saw that there were no dangerous animals, because the local inhabitants of those forests walked quietly, without fear, with their bows and spears.” Considering the particular tendency of reporting primates in the earliest XV century chronicles (Urbani 1999, this study), it is quite probable that the above mentioned animals with their particular vocalization were almost certainly howler monkeys (A. arctoidea).

Few illustrations have been found that show primates from Brazil during the XVIth century. In 1557, the German traveler Hans Staden (1525–1579) provided an illustration of a primate together with Amerindians and a European (Fig. 1). In 1558, the French traveler and cleric André de Thevet (1502–1590) published his Les singularitez de la France Antarctique. This book has illustrations of three primates with humans (Fig. 2). Thevet visited the region of Rio de Janeiro, and it seems he was recording how Tupi Amerindians interacted with monkeys (see also Urbani 1999). In 1585, Jean de Léry's Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Bresil,… published not only descriptions of primates from the Brazilian coast but also an illustration. De Léry (1536–1613), a French explorer, visited the land of the Tupi in eastern Brazil. In this book, he presented an illustration of Tupinamba Amerindians with a monkey (Fig. 3). In 1592, the publisher Theodore de Bry (1527–1598) printed a scene in the Brazilian coast of an indigenous community with Europeans and mythological entities, where a monkey was included (Fig. 3). These primates seem to be similar in term of the style with those illustrated Old World primates represented in the incunable books produced during the first century of printing (B. Urbani, unpublished).

By 1558, the renowned Swiss naturalist Konrad Gessner (1516–1565) already published his Historæ animalium.

Figure 1.

The monkey of Hans Staden (1557, left), and the “sagoin” of C. Gessner (1558, right).


Figure 2.

The monkeys of André de Thevet's Les singularitez de la France Antarctique.


Figure 3.

The monkey of the Tupinamba in Jean de Léry (1585)'s chronicle (left), and Theodore de Bry (1592, right).


This work included a review of the primates known in Europe by the first half of the XVIth century. In 1560, Gessner published his Icones animalium where the pre-Linnean zoologist published what seems to be the first scientific representation of a Neotropical monkey. The author showed different Old World monkeys such as a baboon and a macaque, primates from the Medieval imaginary, as well as the sagoin as an illustrated primate from the Americas (Fig. 1). A brief profile of this monkey, a marmoset (Callithrix sp.), is also presented. He noticed morpho-behavioral characteristics such as its small size, and its agile and elusive nature. Gessner used the term Galeopithecum for referring to this primate.


Thanks to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and its personnel for their great support while visiting it on numerous occasions as well as the Library of Congress. The author would appreciate any comments and references for future updates.



P. M. de. Anglería 1912. De Orbo Novo the eight decades of Peter Martyr D'Anghera. Vol. 1. Putnam, New York. (Translated from the Latin with notes and introduction by Francis Augustus MacNutt). Google Scholar


T. de. Bry 1592. America tertia pars. Memorabile provinciæ Brasiliæ Historiam. Officina Theodori de Bry, Frankfurt. Google Scholar


C. Colón 1996. Los cuatro viajes. Testamente. Alianza Editorial, Madrid. Google Scholar


H. Colón 1932. Historia del almirante don Cristóbal Colón por su hijo don Hernando. Tomo Primero. Librería General de Victoriano Suárez, Madrid. Google Scholar


C. Gessner 1560. Icones animalium quadrupedum viviparorum et oviparorum, quae in historiae animalium Conradi Gesneri libro I et II. Describuntur, cum nomenclaturis singulorum latinis, graecis, italicis, gallicis, et germanicus plerunque, et aliarum quoque linguarum, certis ordinibus digestae. Excudebat C. Froschoverus, Tiguri. Léry, J. de 1585. Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique. Antoine Chuppin, Geneva. Google Scholar


H. Staden 1557. Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner landtschafft der Wilnen Nacketen Grimmigen Menschfresser Leuthen in der Newenwelt America. Andre% Kolben, Marburg. Google Scholar


A de Thevet 1558. Les singularitez de la France Antarctique. Imprimerie de Christophe Plantin, Antwerp. Google Scholar


A. Trevisan 1989. Libretto de tutta la nauigationes de Re de Spagna de le isole et terreni nuouamente trouati. In: M. Vannini de Gerulewicz (ed.), El Mar de los Descubridores. Fundación de Promoción Cultural de Venezuela. Colección Viajes y Descripciones, Caracas, pp. 111–158. Google Scholar


B. Urbani 1999. Nuevo mundo, nuevos monos: sobre primates neotropicales en los siglos XV y XVI. Neotrop. Primates 7(4): 121–125. Google Scholar
Bernardo Urbani "Further Information on Neotropical Monkeys in the XVI Century: Part 3," Neotropical Primates 18(2), 62-64, (1 December 2011).
Published: 1 December 2011

Back to Top