How much like a monkey is a person? Did our ancestors really swing from trees? Are we descended from apes? By the 1870s, questions like these were on the tip of everyone’s tongue, even though Darwin himself never posed the problem of human evolution in quite these terms. Nevertheless, his Descent of Man (1871) dealt directly with human origins, and it opened the floodgates in Victorian society for all kinds of speculation—from the scientific to the outrageous—into the nature of human evolution. In particular, evolutionary oddities—what might have been called “freaks of nature” at the time—generated a great deal of interest and supposition. And Darwin, with his wide and varied network of correspondents, was well placed to receive accounts of these cases in his postbox.
One such account came in a letter from a Venezualan-born American named Benjamin Renshaw. In June of 1872, he wrote to Darwin about a local girl living in a mountain town on the island of Tenerife. Clearly “the offspring of a man & woman,” she “so much resemble[s] a monkey, that she is called ‘La Machanga del Agua Mansa,’” or “the Monkey of Agua Mansa.” Bold enough to write to Darwin despite their lack of acquaintance, Renshaw described the monkey-girl in as much detail as he could, convinced that it would be more than a mere curiosity to Darwin, but of actual scientific interest and use.
“The head of the machanga is small & her body is thickly covered with hair. Her mode of scratching herself with upturned hands, of throwing things over her shoulder; her passion for climbing trees, & her ways & habits generally resemble those of a monkey. Her hands & feet are more like the human hand & foot, only the fingers & toes are unusually long. She is very shy, but is easily allured by the sight & smell of food; she speaks only in inarticulate sounds, & is at times quite savage.”
Unusually hairy people have often been the subject of popular scrutiny. Think of the quintessential side-show—the bearded lady—guaranteed to draw a crowd at any circus, fair, or public show. (Darwin even referred to one of the most famous bearded ladies in history, Juliana Pastrana, in the second volume of Variation, although it was for her unusual dentition rather than her hairiness.) Public exhibition, Renshaw feared, was the likely fate of La Machanga:
“I suppose she will be victimized one of these days by some enterprizing Barnum, & I have no doubt he will make a good thing of it.”
But unusual hairiness was also a legitimate scientific interest by the 1870s. Renshaw also wrote to Dr William Benjamin Carpenter of London Univeristy, a well-known physician and naturalist, who “suggests that some good photographs, on a sufficiently large scale, & giving the profile as well as other views of the head & face, would be especially valuable[.]” Despite the difficulty of getting photographs in the 1870s “in those confines of civilization” that were Tenerife, Renshaw hoped to be able to collect them on his next visit.
If Benjamin Renshaw ever photographed the monkey-girl, those images no longer exist today. Nor is Darwin’s reply to Renshaw known to exist, although it is highly likely that reply he did: he nearly always replied to his correspondents, and Darwin was indeed interested in patterns and degrees of hairiness as markers of human descent and evolution from the “lower animals.” The presence of “woolly hair or lanugo on the human fœtus, and of rudimentary hairs scattered over the body during maturity,” Darwin wrote, indicated “that man is descended from some animal which was born hairy and remained so during life.” (Descent, 2, 375)
Perhaps Renshaw’s account shaded uncomfortably close to the sensational for Darwin’s own careful practice and methods. For Renshaw, however, despite his lack of training in natural history (“being no naturalist, I did not know what were the chief points to enquire into”), corresponding with a scientific man of Darwin’s stature would undoubtedly have been a thrill, and provided him the opportunity, through the exchange of only one or two letters, to engage in the production of the scientific knowledge of his day.
Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
George Stocking, Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Thanks to Ned Friedman for the image from La Petite Lune.