Ethnoprimatology in Sulawesi: Macaques in Farms and Folklore

Ethnoprimatology is a relatively new field that looks into the interaction between humans and nonhuman primates. Les Sponsel (2008) describes the ethnoprimatological approach as emphasizing on the “behavioral and ecological interactions between populations of human and nonhuman primate species inhabiting the same ecosystems. It serves an integrative function at the interface of anthropology and biology on the one hand, and the interface of biological and cultural anthropology on the other.”

Erin Riley and Nancy Priston’s  paper on the Indonesian macaques is a great addition to the growing literature on ethnoprimatology, an approach introduced by Les Sponsel and later on expounded and refined by Agustin Fuentes and other primatologists. The authors investigated the cultural location of the macaques in Indonesian cosmology as well as the human-macaque resource use overlap in Central and South Sulawesi and in the island of Buton using ethnographic and ecological methods.

They ascertained the impact of macaques on cash crops, specifically cacao (an important Indonesian export), by comparing the crop loss data caused by the macaques, squirrels (Prosciurillus sp.), and rats (Taeromys sp.). Semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions were also conducted on elders, farmers, and plantation owners regarding local perceptions and folklore related to macaques.

Their research suggested that “although humans and Sulawesi macaques exhibit considerable overlap in their uses of cultivated resources, the current level of resulting conflict is relatively low.” This is because macaques figure prominently in ecological and religious narratives for many of the ethnic groups in the island. The authors posited that “Tonkean macaques are seen as kin and guardians of adat (traditional law); noted as biologically similar, and hence of human origin; and are recognized as key members of their shared ecological environments.” The consumption of macaques is considered as haram among Muslim residents while Balinese Hindu were more likely to kill monkeys opportunistically. Some farmers in Sulawesi also view monkeys as beneficial because they help harvest without damaging the seeds.

Moreover, Riley and Priston said that  cacao crop damage due to macaques is much lesser than that of the rats. They however cautioned that macaque crop raiding may intensify in the future and will pose conservation management problems. The shift from traditional agriculture to cash crop production will intensify human-macaque conflicts, because “macaques raid cacao regardless of levels of forest fruit availability and that frequency of guarding by farmers had no effect on crop raiding levels.”

Riley and Priston’s research pointed at the importance of using anthropology’s holistic approach in primatological studies and conservation management. Culturally-sensitive studies, such as this, help thwart conservation plans that often do not involve local communities. Conservation agents can learn more by integrating indigenous knowledges into their plans. Ethnographic studies are rife with examples indicating that inscribed in the local culture is an ecological knowledge useful for conservation.


Riley, E., & Priston, N. (2010). Macaques in farms and folklore: exploring the human-nonhuman primate interface in Sulawesi, Indonesia American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20798

Sponsel, Les. 2008. Ethnoprimatology from the Amazon to Thailand and Beyond: Engaging the Inspiration of Kenneth A. R. Kennedy in Pursuing the Four Field Approach. Paper for annual convention of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco, CA, November 19-23, 2008


Special thanks to Raymond Ho of Prancing Papio for generously sending me this paper.


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