My love affair with science and science fiction has gone on for my
entire adult life. I studied anatomy, physiology, neuroanatomy and neurology
at Tufts Medical School, but once out in the world I found that the only
thing I craved reading was science fiction (Herbert, Heinlein, Vonnegut,
Le Guin, and Greg Bear). I was a non-convention-going Trekkie, an X-Files
junkie, and am currently addicted to Fringe. Back in the 70s when I moved
to Hollywood to pursue a screenwriting career, aside from broad, bawdy
comedies, I found myself drawn back time and time again to sci-fi. I was
fortunate to partner up with the very “Godfather” of Hollywood science
fiction, Ronald Shusett (Alien, Total Recall, Minority Report) on
scripts and an as-yet unpublished novel. Later I got side-tracked into
writing historical fiction, and fifteen years later have eight books in
that genre under my belt.
Somewhere along the way I acquired a jones for “missing link” creatures,
and the great unexplained leaps in human evolution, even the possibility
that they could be explained by extra-terrestrial intervention—ancient
astronauts. I couldn’t get enough of archeology, ancient cultures, lost
civilizations and the antediluvian world.
From scientist to crackpot—that was me.
But it was not until I decided to reboot the hundred-year-old Tarzan
story in Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan that I found the
vehicle to pull nearly every one of my scientific and sci-fi passions into
play. Edgar Rice Burroughs is considered by many as the grandfather of
science fiction, primarily for his groundbreaking John Carter of Mars
series of novels. But tucked within his twenty-four Tarzan novels were
some sci-fi conundrums that fired my imagination.
At the heart of ERB’s first Tarzan story are the “Mangani,” a tribe
of ape creatures who are both responsible for the deaths of Tarzan’s English
parents and for their son’s rescue and upbringing. Burroughs’ Mangani were
large, powerfully built fur-covered primates that lived in the jungle canopy
and easily brachiated with long fingers and toes through that same canopy.
They lived in groups, bulls dominating the females who tenderly reared
their young. One might have concluded that they were gorillas, but for
one fact: they could talk. Not hoots and grunts and cries and whimpers.
They used spoken words to communicate: proper names, nouns, verbs, and
adjectives were formed into simple sentences. The name given to the human
child rescued by the Mangani was “Tar-zan,” which in their language translate:
Tar (white) zan (skin). Clearly, there was cognitive thinking going on.
This single circumstance placed Tarzan of the Apes squarely
in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, as no primates on earth can
speak. For me, it opened the door to a scientifically-based justification
for the fiction, one I believed would be satisfying to sophisticated modern
I wanted to set the tale in the period in which Burroughs had written
it, the early twentieth century. By then, Darwin’s Origin of Species
had been in print for half a century, and while details were still debated,
his theories were widely embraced by most scientists and lay people. His
of Man postulated “missing links” in human evolution, but paleoanthropology
had yet to be recognized as a legitimate science. Those engaged in trying
to uncover fossil evidence for these creatures were merely “enthusiastic
I needed a believable motivation to get Jane Porter and her father Archie
Porter to Africa so that the famous meeting of Tarzan and Jane could take
place. So I made Archie a professor of human anatomy at Cambridge University’s
medical school, as well as an amateur paleoanthropologist who, year after
year, searches East Africa for missing link fossils. A progressive, forward-thinking
man, he not only insists that his only child, Jane, audit his classes and
dissection labs at Cambridge (which is all women were allowed to do in
1905), but she becomes his trusted assistant in his home laboratory, sorting,
drawing, and documenting the bones he brings home every year from his expeditions.
Archie and Jane are both fervent Darwinists who believe—as the great
man did —that the missing link in human evolution would be found nowhere
else but Africa. Yet after six expeditions, Archie has come up empty-handed.
This was where I was in my story outline when I found the book of my
dreams: The Man Who Found the Missing Link, Eugene Dubois and His Lifelong
Quest to Prove Darwin Right, by Pat Shipman. The subtitle is slightly
misleading, as Dubois sets his sights not on Africa to find his fossil
evidence, but Indonesia. There, in 1893, after extensive excavations along
the Trinil River he found a skull, a femur and a tooth from the Pleiocene
era that indeed proved a “transitional species” between ape and human.
Dubois called it Pithecanthropus erectus (P.e., more commonly known as
of P.e., sculpted by Dubois himself, shows an upright posture, straight-legged
creature (indistinguishable from humans in terms of posture). This is one
of the main distinctions that separates human from ape—the shape of the
pelvis and the leg bone. P.e. also has long fingers and a prehensile big
toe. The face is chimp-like and the skull size somewhat smaller than Neanderthal
Man (discovered in Europe in 1848), but larger than an ape’s. Though Dubois
was hooted and howled out of every university on the planet by, ironically,
the most closed-minded people alive—other scientists—he has been posthumously
I was thrilled both that Dubois made his find late in the nineteenth
century and that one of the universities at which he presented his “bones
of contention” was Cambridge, at the Fourth International Zoological Congress
in 1898. With some date-fudging of only seven years (about which I later
come clean in Jane’s author’s note) I had Archie and Jane attend this lecture.
I was able to engage these characters in a lively debate. Dubois and his
famous teacher, Ernst Haeckel, were believers in the missing link being
found in Asia, while the Porters were Darwin purists that insisted it could
only be Africa. Add a safari guide who claimed he knew where such bones
could be found—though in East Africa—and suddenly I had a scientifically-based
motivation for Jane and Archie to turn up in Tarzan’s jungle. But where
was my big, strapping missing link in Africa? Mary Leakey’s three million
year old “Lucy” (Australopithecine) was a petite creature, not even four
feet tall. Even “Turkana Boy” (Homo Ergaster) at 1.5 million years, was
still a shrimp.
Then came my miracle, just when I needed it most.
In July 2010, National Geographic published a story about a team of
paleoanthropologists, Tim White, Berhane Asfaw, and Giday Wolde Gabriel
who, fifteen years before, had discovered in the Middle Awash area of Ethiopia
a full skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus (“Ardi”). The female, with its
straight legbones giving it a human, upright, “bipedal” stance, also had
opposable “prehensile” big toes perfect for grasping branches and the face
and the skull of a chimp. Calculations projected a full grown male standing
over six feet tall. Ardi was, to my eye, the closest creature to a missing
link that I had ever seen. To my pleasure (and Charles Darwin’s, if he
had been alive), it had been found in Africa. Except for the hairy body,
Ardi looked strikingly like Dubois’ Java Man.
I realized that just across the continent from where Jane and Archie needed
to be, a “transitional species” once lived. If not probable, it was POSSIBLE
that Ardi might have migrated west and survived in isolation (not unlike
Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest).
While Ardi’s discoverers believed the species was too primitive to have
the power of speech (the other characteristic that distinguishes apes from
humans), I borrowed one of ERB’s most important fictional conceits about
the Mangani—that not only could they make meaningful sounds, but that they
had a spoken language. This way, I reasoned, when Jane meets Tarzan, she
discovers that the “tribe” that brought him up—one that he secretly allows
her to observe—is actually a LIVING MISSING LINK SPECIES. So Jane, a budding
paleoanthropologist, gets to make one of the biggest scientific discoveries
Certainly, ERB studied Darwin, but we’ll never know if ERB’s “anthropoid
apes” were, in his own mind (though never specified in his books), living
missing links. I simply made it it a crucial aspect of Jane, and I was
entirely satisfied with this blend of science fact and science fiction.
Robin Maxwell is the bestselling author of eight novels
of historical fiction, including Signora da Vinci and The
Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. She jumps genres with the publication
of Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan, the first Tarzan classic
in a century written by a woman and told through the eyes of the ape-man’s
beloved Jane Porter. It is enthusiastically supported and fully authorized
by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs.