Long thought the figment of sailors’ over-active imaginations, recent studies have proven the existence of savvy primates who know how to make fermented brew and throw one hell of a party.
Giles Humbert III quizzes Dr. Roger Curlman, the award-winning British anthropologist who spent six months living with the drunken and savage beasts.
Modern Drunkard Magazine: Monkeys that make their own beer! Inconceivable!
Richard Curlman: Not beer, actually. That’s a long-standing misconception. It’s more of a crude sort of wine.
MDM: A particularly nasty brand of Cabernet, I should imagine.
RC: Nothing that sophisticated.
MDM: How long have they been at it?
RC: Hard to say. The first known observation by a westerner was made in 1779 by the doctor of the HMS Dorchester. He wrote at some length in his journal about drunken apes cavorting about on the beach, drunk beyond doubt.
MDM: How do they do it?
RC: It’s really quite ingenious in its simplicity. They gather up various fruits and herbs, then dump them into a group of small pot holes the rain has carved into a bed of lava rocks. They mash the fruit with sticks then let nature do the rest. The bark of the Halidonte tree growing above the holes releases a naturally occurring yeast, which mixes with the fruit mash. Six weeks and a little rainfall later and you’ve a quite potent fruit wine.
MDM: Which I imagine they bottle up in some sort of crudely fashioned rock bottles so as to let it properly age.
RC: I’m afraid the monkeys are neither that advanced nor patient. They merely squat down and sip the fermented mash directly from the pot holes.
MDM: Straight from the well, eh?
RC: It’s quite a ritualized process, actually. The adult males and some of the more powerful females march to the pot holes in single file, there is an almost religious solemnness to their procession. Once they arrive the alpha male will goad one of the younger males into having a taste.
MDM: That’s why he’s the alpha male.
RC: Right. The young male has a sip and the rest watch him closely. If he doesn’t keel over, the alpha male takes a drink then decides whether it’s ready or not. If it is—
MDM: They have an “ape jape,” so to speak.
RC: So to speak. The monkeys haven’t a firm grasp of the concept of drinking in moderation. They squat and sip until they go wild, crazy, mad with it, chasing each other around, cavorting, screaming, fornicating—
MDM: Very nearly human behavior then.
RC: I guess that depends very much on which pubs you frequent.
MDM: I should say. Tell me doctor, did you drink with the monkeys?
RC: I did. But realize it took many months of bonding and gift-giving before they let me near the pot holes. They guard it jealously.
MDM: From whom?
RC: Orangutans, rival monkey tribes. When an intruder enters their territory, they abandon their sleeping area and race to the pot holes to make a ferocious stand.
MDM: Fall back to the wine cellar, eh? How extraordinarily civilized they seem! Next you’ll tell me they have a separate fork for salad.
RC: Let me provide you with an example. One evening I tried to sneak up to the pot holes to test the potency of their brew—
MDM: Ran out of medicinal alcohol, did we, doctor?
RC: My intentions were entirely professional. Anyway, though I was stealthy as a leopard, my clandestine effort was detected and a great hue and cry went up. The entire tribe chased me through the jungle for five kilometers. I holed up in a cave and kept them at bay with a sharp stick and my Zippo for three days before they let me out.
MDM: Could one adopt one of the little brutes? Or perhaps an entire family? I could find some good work for them in my backyard. What a splendid enterprise it would be! I’d bring home rotten fruit and they’d, like a industrious hive of busy bees, transform it into delectable nectar!
RC: There are laws against primate labor. Besides, as this scar will attest, they are really quite vicious. Especially after a pot hole session.
MDM: (examining a rather nasty scar) Good God! The raffish louts! I hope you gave them what for.
RC: Any display of violence on my part and I assure you the entire tribe would have descended on me with drunken glee.
MDM: But surely you realize that we, as human beings and gentlemen, must keep the little savages in their place, lest they start launching organized attacks on our liquor stocks. Imagine if the beasts got a taste of some decent Sauvignon Blanc. They wouldn’t be satisfied with that blasted pot-hole port anymore, I can promise you that. They’d run amok! There wouldn’t be an uncontested wine cellar in the land!
RC: There are stories of bands of drunken monkeys raiding the liquor supplies of the early colonies in Borneo.
MDM: Good God! Imagine it! One is sitting at the local, perhaps enjoying a polite snifter of brandy, when suddenly a gang of vicious and drunken monkeys storm in, leaping about and screeching savagely, clubbing patrons and carrying off bottles of good scotch. There’d be no reasoning with them!
RC: The monkeys have been on the receiving end as well. There’s a long standing legend among the locals about a group of their headhunter ancestors who raided the pot holes and took the wine back to their respective huts.
MDM: Good show! That’ll teach the evil brutes.
RC: Later that evening, however, after the headhunters had succumbed to alcohol, the monkeys attacked the village, clawing out the eyes of anyone who smelled of wine.
MDM: Hah! Why that sounds like a perfectly patent serving of neoprohibitionist propaganda. Drink wine and the monkeys will claw your eyeballs out. I’m starting to suspect you a long-standing member of the Anti-Saloon League.
RC: The who?
MDM: Dreadful organization. Best to steer clear of the topic.
RC: Right. According to the natives, the wine is supposed to have powerful aphrodisiac properties. At the same time, it is a powerful taboo to steal the wine.
MDM: A little eyeball clawing will have that effect. So, doctor, did you eventually get to tip a few with beasts?
RC: Yes. After five months of familiarization and bringing them gifts, I was allowed to march up with the gang and—
MDM: Squat and sip.
MDM: So, how was it?
RC: Positively dreadful.
MDM: Superior to Thunderbird, I’d imagine.
MDM: Rather ribald Yank wine of the fortified variety.
RC: Well, it was pretty awful. And quite potent.
MDM: Have any with you, by chance?
RC: No. Once we started drinking, no one was allowed to leave until all the wine was consumed. Anyone attempting to leave would be beaten and possibly cast out from the tribe.
MDM: Brings to mind some parties I attended at Oxford.
RC: Does, doesn’t it?
MDM: So how are they doing, as monkey tribes go?
RC: Remarkably well. They are probably the dominant tribe in the region, certainly the largest.
MDM: Why would that be so?
RC: A colleague of mine, Dr. Kim McCleary, sponsors the theory that, because alcohol kills weaker sperm, and most of the tribe’s fornicating occurs during pot hole sessions, they have a genetic leg up on their rivals. They also get quite a few recruits from other tribes.
MDM: I’d imagine so. Who’d want to belong to a tribe incapable of producing a simple dinner wine?
RC: Indeed. The tribe has also allowed an orangutan to join their numbers, which is almost unprecedented. The ‘tang, whom I named Churchill, is very fond of the wine and acts as a bouncer of sorts when the pot hole sessions get out of hand.
MDM: Extraordinary! How long do these sessions last?
RC: It depends largely on how much wine they’ve made. They usually start early in the afternoon and finish up well into the morning.
MDM: I’m surprised this behavior has been allowed to continue. Hasn’t there been any attempt by some government or do-gooder group to deprive the monkeys of their fun?
RC: Not that I’m aware. What a strange idea.
MDM: Only a matter of time. I’m certain there is some evil old codger out there, tormented day and night by the idea of wild monkeys getting legless on cheap wine. Which brings to mind a question—do the monkeys experience hangovers?
RC: Indeed they do. When they wake up after a session they all straggle down to the stream to take cold baths and rehydrate. An hour or so later and they’re back to form.
MDM: Remarkable! My uncle has sworn by ice baths as a cure for years! Those incredible monkeys! Savage yet undeniably savvy. Only a matter of time, I fear.
RC: For what?
MDM: For the monkeys to take over, of course. They’ve already discovered alcohol and an effective hangover cure—how long will it be before they’re putting together perfect martinis and neutron bombs?
RC: Not bloody likely.
MDM: Oh, it’s easy for you to poo-poo the possibility. They know you! They’ll probably let you stay on as some sort of turncoat interpreter. The rest of us will be forced to pick fruit or work long ugly shifts in wine factories.
RC: What an extravagant imagination you have.
MDM: They said the same thing about DePalu.
MDM: Carlos DePalu. He invented the notion that rubbing whiskey on your belly makes you more virile.
RC: How strange.
MDM: Not when you think about it. Tell me this, doctor—aren’t you afraid once the general public gets hold of this interview, surly gangs of drunkards will descend on Borneo for no better reason than to offer the monkeys strong liquor?
RC: The idea never occurred to me. I don’t believe anyone would make the—
MDM: Don’t know our readership very well, do you? They’re not just drunks, they’re ambitious drunks. It’ll become an organized pilgrimage of sorts, I imagine. Soon the drunks and the monkeys will be having great shin-digs together. Imagine drinking with a bunch of crazed, uncivilized monkeys! Think of the depths of depravity they’ll sink to! I shudder at the very notion!
RC: I think it very unlikely.
MDM: One never knows, does one? Do you ever plan on going back to see the monkeys?
MDM: Smashing! Perhaps I’ll see you there.
—Interview by Giles Humbert III