// // // //
Advertise with us:
R10 000 pm VAT excl.

Environment articles

HOME » Wildlife » Environment articles

The Waterberg and Eugène Marais

9 January 2014



Eugène Nielen Marais was a pioneer of animal behaviour and has been described as having advanced it by many decades worldwide. However, he was always plagued by an addiction to morphine which was regarded as a wonder drug without such addictive properties when he was a young man. He often tried to escape the tentacles of morphine by going to live in remote places where he pursued a wide spectrum of research on natural history. Thus he once found peace and a temporary haven in the Waterberg where the varied wildlife fascinated him and where he did some of his most notable research. His Waterberg sojourn, with intermittent periods of absence, allowed him to travel widely and leave footprints everywhere, and he may well at some stage have crossed Shayamanzi or camped near the Tamboties River.

From his childhood in Pretoria, Eugène Marais was attracted to the Waterberg as a place where civilization met the wilderness, with the Nile River as the frontier. Anyone who crossed this river was thought to have crossed beyond the echoes of civilization. He first came to the Waterberg to prospect for minerals, travelling from what is now Modimolle at night in a carriage drawn by four horses in the company of fellow prospector Dolf Erasmus. He was intensely interested by everything that he saw and described this journey as “…. an intensely dark night, and when we drove down to the drifts it seemed as if we were sinking into a gulf of impenetrable darkness”. The Waterberg initially evoked a sense of peace which he had never experienced elsewhere.

In 1907, he settled with the prospector Alec Austin near the tin mines of Doornhoek on the farm of Willem van Staden where he buit a small stone house with a thatched roof with the aid of Damara or Herero builders near the erstwhile Armstrong’s hotel. The house was situated at the head of Bobbejaanskloof (baboon’s ravine) with a tumbling stream meandering through huge rocks and dense vegetation and a high cliff with a ledge that was home to a large troop of baboons. This ravine had to be used to reach the house. There Eugène Marais spent what he described as the three most enjoyable years of his life and became fascinated by the behaviour of the baboons which he later described in his books The Soul of the Ape and My Friends the Baboons.

www.leopard.tvWhen the mine was sold in 1908 he was forced to move to the farm Rietfontein of Gys and Maria van Rooyen where he stayed in a room on the porch. There his research interest became wider as he hunted and travelled extensively in the Waterberg. There he also started to study the social organization of termites which later culminated in his book The Soul of the White Ant. These were particularly abundant during a severe drought in the Waterberg which culminated in 1914. This drought and its effect on the Waterberg was later described in an article in an agricultural journal under the title Notes on some aspects of extreme drought in the Waterberg. It was later reprinted by climatologists of the Smithsonian Institution in the USA. Among others he described in it how fish eagles became vulture-like scavengers of the carcases of other animals because of a lack of water and fish. l In the Waterberg he also acted as a part-time doctor for the mine at Doornkloof and dabbled in cattle production.

Eugène Marais had a keen and questioning mind and the natural phenomena of the Waterberg always captivated him. His interest in primate behaviour started while he was studying law in London at the turn of the nineteenth century when he kept a pet chimpanzee named Sally at his home, adding a marmoset later and comparing the intelligence level of these two types of primate. In the Waterberg, he rapidly habituated the baboons of Bobbejaanskloof to his presence so as to study them better. Among others, he concluded that this troop was governed by a cabinet consisting of 11 adult baboons and he described many aspects which were the first of their kind in primate behaviour.

He also concluded that humans, baboons and other mammals often suffered from what he called hesperian (western) melancholy at sunset, and discovered that baboons also become addicted to drugs such as the opiates and nicotine as do humans. Near Hangklip he found a troop of baboons whose members were addicted to berries with narcotic effects. In contrast he observed that a tame warthog was not prone to such addiction. Once when he was chopping wood in a ravine on The Palala Plateau, he saw two large male baboons attacking a leopard which they killed within a few minutes, but later one baboon also died of his wounds. Eugène Marais then pondered the motivation of the members of a troop of baboons when putting their individual lives at risk to secure the survival of the group. This later become a central theorem in animal behaviour

From his studies of these baboons and through his contact with humans, Eugène Marias concluded that instinct and intelligence sometimes acted in concert. He also became interested in the development of speech and communication in primates and he did research on causal memory and the subconscious mind of humans. Taking his own sad life as an example, his ultimate conclusion was that in humans death was the only perfect way of escaping pain and deep sadness.

www.leopard.tvDuring the great drought that culminated in 1914 in the Waterberg, he continued an intensive study of termites. He learned that the whole colony acted like a single organism, but one that could not move around, and that its members all served a single queen who did all the reproduction. This concept he called a group soul. Uncovering the chamber of the queen he compared with a brain surgeon opening the skull of a person to study the brain. Moreover, he found that the queens of the future sometimes had to wait in a nest for several years before sufficient rain allowed them to emerge and establish new colonies. Although some only moved a few metres away, others did so for several kilometres and yet flight was essential for mating to occur. When the wings of an individual broke off before flight, it died. In the development of a colony he found that each step was essential and could not be skipped, therefore there is no short-circuit to its development. He also compared the differential role of various colony members with that of the red and white blood cells in the blood of an animal. As in other animals, food is taken in from the outside where it is processed by the workers who act like the teeth of an animal to keep the colony alive. The fungal garden in a mound was compared with the stomach and liver of an animal. By marking some of the workers with aniline blue, he found that they never rested and increased their work rate under adverse conditions. Eventually, he extrapolated what he had learned to humans and concluded that humans will defend their country with all their might, and that group pressure and survival in humans explains why some people disappeared as entities in large groups. To him this was a law of nature from which no one could escape.

Eugène Marais also studied numerous other topics and was fascinated by reptiles, but especially by snakes, including the black mambas of the Swaershoek Valley at the foot of the Sandriviersberg in the Waterberg. He spent a lifetime trying to find an effective antidote for snakebite. He also studied the ability of animals to orientate themselves in an almost featureless terrain. He was an expert hypnotist, using this ability in various ways, and he studied the essence of navigation and the evolutionary development of memory transfer in birds. He did little on plants but did discover the Waterberg cycad and he studied the fertilization methods of plants. Once he cynically likened a rich and fashionable girl to a carrion flower (Stapelia) which, although beautiful, attracts a multitude of bluebottle flies with its smell. He finally did the first rudimentary studies in the use of chemicals and light to transfer signals between animals.



Walker, C en J du P Bothma 2005. The Soul of the Waterberg. Houghton: Waterberg Publishers en African Sky Publishing, pp 117 - 152.

article by: Prof J du P Bothma


Click here to buy music, videos and images

Advertise with us:
R10 000 pm VAT excl.