Blurred Lines, Part II: The Mad Russian Attempt to Breed Humans With Apes

Part I available here.

Part II

UPON ARRIVING in the African city of Conakry to fulfill his ambition of creating an ape-human hybrid, Professor Illya Ivanovich Ivanov faced an immediate problem: locating apes suitable for his work.

Acquiring apes for captive research has always been difficult. The ape species — gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — live in tropical countries that have historically been difficult to access. Getting into, and maneuvering through, a rainforest is an exercise in sweaty frustration. And that’s even with modern vaccinations and prophylactics. It’s difficult enough camping in the rainforest when you’re protected against malaria, carry de-worming pills, and have enough Pepto-Bismol to constipate a small nation. Prior to these inventions, tropical travel (at least by white-folk) was a calling restricted to maniacally focused, often egotistical, and frequently deranged individuals.[1]

A tropical field workers best friend.

A tropical field worker’s best friend.

Even once explorers had entered a forest, locating apes was no mean task. Dense vegetation and low light limited vision, and the cacophony of rainforest life was overwhelming. Adult apes are too big and too dangerous to capture, so hunters preferred infants. But that meant killing large, angry adults. This is (rightfully) considered barbaric today (as is capturing wild apes for captive research in general), but in the early 20th century it was accepted.

Accepted, but not commonplace. The costs associated with mounting an expedition, capturing apes, and returning them to a laboratory in a cold, unsuitable European climate were enormous. Even if successful, most captives only lived a few years. Sourcing apes was a significant challenge for a scientist, even one with the backing of the Soviet government. Ivanov had already tried acquiring chimpanzees from an anthropoid research station in French Africa and a private ‘collection’ in Cuba. With the help of a Detroit lawyer and the American Society for the Advancement of Atheism, he even tried to raise funds from American philanthropists to buy a chimpanzee. None of these efforts worked. But in Conakry, Ivanov thought he had uncovered a solution.

The Botanical Gardens in Cayemmene. Credit:

The Botanical Gardens in Camayenne. Credit:

On the outskirts of Conakry lies Camayenne.  Now a suburb of Conakry, in 1927 Camayenne was a separate town, well known for its expansive Botanical Gardens. The Botanical Gardens had the facilities, laboratory space, and holding cages necessary for Ivanov to complete his work. At the behest of the governor of French Guinea, Ivanov was granted access to a two-story building in the Botanical Gardens, and given both the permits and the manpower needed to capture chimpanzees.

In short order Ivanov mobilized two hunting expeditions into the Fouta-Djallon, a mountainous highland region in the centre of French Guinea. With the aid of local hunters, he captured 13 captive chimpanzees and brought them back to his base in the Camayenne Botanical Gardens. He was ready to begin his experiments. But there was a problem.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Fouta Djallon region of Guinea.

The Botanical Gardens were staffed by French Guineans. They cleaned the cages, fed and watered the chimpanzees, and maintained the grounds. It was a job — and probably not a bad one. But they were not fond of the idea behind hybridization experiments. In his diaries, Ivanov speculated that this discomfort was because “The Negroes treat the apes and, in particular the chimpanzees, as an inferior human race.” Ivanov argues, within the racist mindframe of the 1920s, that native Africans were uncomfortable with his experiments because it reminded them of how similar they were to apes (read: much more similar than white people).

Personally, I suspect they were uncomfortable because a) they realized it was more than a little weird, and b) they probably weren’t fond of the racist assumption that the ‘savage’ Africans were basically chimpanzees in clothes.

But neither of those possibilities seemed to have occurred to Ivanov.

Ivanov felt he had to hide his activities from the groundskeepers and caretakers. To do so, he engaged in what must be one of the most bizarre acts of scientific subterfuge in history. One morning, when the research lab was unoccupied, he stole into it with vials of sperm in his pocket, intent on inseminating two female chimpanzees, named Babette and Syvette. With the help of his son (great father-son bonding, Ivanov), he managed to inseminate both females and sneak out before the morning caretakers arrived.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov's research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

A female chimpanzee. She would likely be unimpressed with Ivanov’s research. Credit: flickr user paldor.

Who was the donor for these seminal[2] experiments? Ivanov’s notes are quite detailed about the quality of the sperm, but not about the source. It was “not completely fresh, but approximately 40 per cent of spermatozoa were movable.” Whose sperm was Ivanov acquiring so that it was partially fresh at 8 a.m.? His notes indicate that neither he, nor his son, were the donor. So we’re left to wonder. One of the great questions of science, which sadly, goes unanswered.

Ivanov succeeded in surreptitiously inseminating the two apes, but hastily and sloppily, and both attempts failed: Babette and Syvette both had their periods in the next month.

Not to be deterred, Ivanov tried again when the opportunity arose a few months later. This time he was clearer about the sperm donor (perhaps realizing that, if he wanted to publish his research, a reviewer would certainly ask). In this second attempt, the sperm was “freshly collected from a man of thirty years old.” Lest we doubt the virility of the donor, Ivanov writes the man was a bachelor, “but, according to his claims there already have been conceptions from him.”

Again, the attempt failed. In six months in Africa, Ivanov had only two opportunities to inseminate the female chimpanzees, and neither of them was successful. That’s not particularly surprising as the rates of artificial insemination were low — hovering around 30%.  Ivanov needed more chimpanzees, and more time, but neither was available.

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

My own illegible research notes (sadly lacking in insane ideas).

Discouraged but not dissuaded, Ivanov, like a good scientist, rummaged through his research notes and uncovered a new angle of attack. Chimpanzees, he decided, were difficult to acquire, expensive to keep, and finicky to work with. Humans, on the other hand, were pliable, plentiful, and cheaply available. Why focus on having a plethora of female chimpanzees and one human male, when the other way around was cheaper?

Excited by this realization, Ivanov began making preparations for one more attempt at cross-breeding humans and apes: he would inseminate human women with ape sperm.

Part III here.


Rossiianov K. 2002. Beyond Species: Il’ya Ivanov and His Experiments on Cross-Breeding Humans with Anthropoid Apes. Science in Context 15(2): 277-316.

Sorenson, J. 2009. Ape. Reaktion Books.

Yerkes, Robert. 1925. Almost Humans. New York: Century

[1] Also a description of the average university anthropology department.

[2] Sorry.

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