Chantek, The First Orangutan Person
My foster son, Chantek, is special—he can communicate with signs, make up his own words, and even tell lies! He creates stone tools and beautiful jewelry and paintings, and asks for car rides to get "cheese-meat-breads" (hamburgers!). He is sentient, autonomous, self-aware, emotionally complex, and incredibly smart—the only problem is that he is an orangutan. He and other “enculturated” apes are being declared to be "persons of the nonhuman kind" needing special protection and culture-based sanctuaries where they can show us their natural culture but also bridge the gap to learn ours. Meet Chantek, the first orangutan person.
Dr. Lyn Miles is of Blackfoot and Coast Salish First Nations heritage and has had a lifelong dedication to the Native view that animals are "persons of the nonhuman kind." She was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and was raised bi-coastally in Connecticut and California. She was educated at Yale University and University of Connecticut where she received her doctorate in anthropology, specializing in the origins of culture and communication and the language capacity of great apes. Her dissertation research was on the ability of chimpanzees to engage in sign conversations, showing that chimpanzees could learn the rules of discourse, communicate about things not present, and spontaneously add new information and elaborate on prior communications.
Eager to pioneer a project of her own, she began teaching sign language to an orangutan, Chantek, whom she raised on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She emphasized the role of culture in Chantek's acquisition, usage, and invention of gestural signs she termed Orangutan Sign Language. Chantek learned hundreds of different words and even invented his own gestures for "annoyed," "scatter," "eye-drink" (contact lens solution), and ketsup which he called, "tomato toothpaste."
He demonstrated evidence of symbolic reference, spontaneous non-imitative signing, code switching, meta-communication, deception, imitation, self-awareness, theory of mind, and a host of other cognitive abilities. Chantek became a specialist in learning prehistoric technology of stone tool making, painting, arts and crafts, and using modern tools including screwdrivers, plyers, and wire-cutters. He learned to use money and is the only animal in the world to make jewelry—sitting at the cusp of Homo sapiens’ culture.
Scientists and philosophers are increasingly considering whether dolphins, elephants and especially great apes might be “animal persons” with agency, intelligence, self-awareness, culture, and complex emotions. Dr. Miles has called for Animal Culture Sanctuaries where intelligent beings like Chantek can show us their native culture while they bridge the gap to ours. She seeks to revolutionize how great apes like Chantek live in human settings and are preserved in nature, calling for conditions entirely based on their cultural, social, and emotional abilities. She has challenged institutions that just provide occasional enrichment with few learning opportunities. Such cultural immersion would feature the complexity of Chantek’s skills, his tool-making, arts and crafts, navigation, computer skills, problem-solving, and social cooperation. Imagine children logging in from around the world to "talk" to an orangutan or gorilla!
Professor of Anthropology,
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Director Project Chantek
Dr. Miles is the co-editor of two books on primate intelligence, Anthropomorphism, Anecdotes, and Animals, and The Mentality of Gorillas and Orangutans, and is currently working on Chantek: The First Orangutan Person. She is an editorial associate for Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and Anthropogeny, and is a Fellow of the American Anthropological Association. She has over 200 publications and papers, and her research with Chantek is featured in two exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution, and over 25 international film documentaries on her work, most recently, The Ape Who Went to College in the 2014 PBS series, My Wild Affair. She is an original member of the Great Ape Project to declare great apes to be persons under the law, and works to promote conservation through interspecies communication.