A farmer plucked a watermelon from the vine and cut it into chunks with a machete. We sat in the garden surrounded by forest, munching on the fruit as the juice trickled down and dripped off our elbows into the dirt. I chatted with farmers in between greedy bites of the snack that was grown in the ground upon which I squatted.
“Be careful…” the farmers warned, snickering and sharing a knowing look.
“Why?” I asked.
“Later you’re really going to have to pee!”
“Oh, it’s OK…just one more piece!”
The conversation took a turn.
“Those monkeys, if they die,” said one of the farmers, “You can’t find the carcass, you know? You can’t find it!”
“The body?” I asked, clarifying.
“Yeah. For example, if someone says, ‘I saw a dead monkey there yesterday’ and then you go look for it, you can’t find it! Maybe a friend took it. Because if they die there’s nothing that eats them!” he said.
By ‘friend’ he meant another monkey, a term farmers often used when referring to interactions between different individuals in the same social group. I was taken aback by the change in topic. I had never heard anything about this before, and I didn’t question him about it further.
We finished off the watermelon and it was time for my research assistant and I to leave for the day. I thanked the farmers for sharing a part of their harvest with me, cognizant of the fact that they also unwillingly had shared as much with the crop-foraging monkeys we had just been talking about. I stashed my notebook and pen, put on my helmet, and climbed on the back of the motorcycle. The path home was rocky, bumpy, and downhill for a couple miles until we reached the main road.
Although I was used to the jarring ride by now, it occurred to me that I would never survive the trip home today without peeing first. I suddenly had to go so badly that I panicked. Being this close to the garden, I would have to walk some distance to find a private place. In fact, I had to walk back past the group of all-male farmers on my quest for the perfect pee spot. I passed alone, with a sheepish grin on my face, waving for comic effect. They all knew exactly where I was going and exploded with laughter.
I walked until I could no longer hear them. As soon as I started to empty my bladder, I heard rustling vegetation. Two cows appeared and stared at me until I pulled up my pants. I stood, and they lumbered off in the direction they came. I guess they don’t call it WATERmelon for nothing!
That problem solved, I replayed a single question in my head the whole way home: Why don’t people find the bodies of dead monkeys? I asked my research assistant if he had ever seen one and he said no. Apparently this was already a topic of discussion among the local people because he told me that even a man who has been following monkeys in their forest habitat for over thirty years, has also never seen the body of a dead monkey.
A week later, in the home of another farmer, I received the same question in a voice full of genuine curiosity.
“Dead dogs are eaten by pigs and dead pigs are eaten by dogs, but what happens to dead monkeys? I’ve never seen a body!” he explained.
Another man chimed in. “Maybe they take away the bodies. Maybe they have a place for that like people do, like in a cave or a hole in a tree.”
Like a grave, I thought but didn’t say.
“Maybe they eat the body. Because no other animal would eat a dead monkey.” Someone added, suggesting that other animals, like people, don’t eat monkeys because it is forbidden by Islam.
We talked about how the farmers also never see sick or injured monkeys, which makes a little more logical sense to me. But when they do die, where does the body go? This is really blowing my mind, I wrote in my field journal that night.
I was excited to discuss this question with my primatology friends, the ones who actually spent most of their time following monkeys and observing their behavior. (I, on the other hand, spent a lot of time with people and plants instead, while camera traps recorded the monkey business.) Some of my friends reacted as if I was a little silly for entertaining these ideas and offered perfectly logical explanations for why no one ever finds the carcass of a dead monkey. The body decomposes quickly in the tropical climate. A dying monkey purposefully separates itself from the group. Dogs do eat the bodies…
So, my conversations with the farmers weren’t rigorously scientific. But weren’t they still productive? By considering behaviors outside the realm of our scientific understanding we learn more about the community that shares the forest with the monkeys. We understand a little more intimately the ways in which farmers perceive their primate neighbors. Ultimately, we experiment with other ways of knowing animals. I refuse to believe that is not worth something. It may even make us better scientists.
As for where dead monkeys go? I still don’t know. I can tell you where to go for the world’s best watermelon, but I guess I prefer to keep a little monkey mystery in my life…