Planet Of The Killer Apes

Nov. 27, 2019

In Apartheid-era South Africa, a scientist uncovered a cracked, proto-human jawbone. That humble fossil would go on to inspire one of the most blood-spattered theories in all of paleontology: the Killer Ape theory. 

According to the Killer Ape theory, humans are killers—unique among the apes for our capacity for bloodthirsty murder and violence. And at a particularly violent moment in U.S. history, the idea stuck! It even made its way into one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Until a female chimp named Passion showed the world that we might not be so special after all.



Erika Milam, professor of history, Princeton University

Agustín Fuentes, professor of anthropology, Notre Dame



Erika Milam’s book Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America, elaborates on the Killer Ape theory.

Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis, published in 1961, tells his account of the Killer Ape theory and his visit with Dr. Raymond Dart.

Dr. Raymond Dart’s own narrative of his theory can be found in The Predatory Transition from Ape to Man. (Warning: bloody, over-the-top language ahead!) [requires log-in]

Read more about Australopithecus africanus.

Jane Goodall shared her chronicles of Gombe’s chimp war, Life and Death at Gombe for National Geographic. [requires log-in]

Watch the 1965 documentary Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees.

Learn more about murderous meerkats.



This episode of Undiscovered was produced by Annie Minoff and Elah Feder. Our senior editor is Christopher Intagliata and our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Our theme music is by I Am Robot And Proud. We had fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Special thanks to Charles Bergquist. The free version of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is by Kevin MacLeod.

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