The myth of the ‘cut hunter’: a historical approach to human-nonhuman primate relations and zoonotic disease in equatorial Africa

Tamara Giles-Vernick, leader of the Medical Anthropology and Environment Group, Institut Pasteur (Paris), will deliver the lecture “The myth of the ‘cut hunter’: a historical approach to human-nonhuman primate relations and zoonotic disease in equatorial Africa”.

The seminar is open to all, including bachelor and master students. No registration is required. After the seminar, drinks and snacks will be served in our lunchroom.


This presentation is part of a larger study in equatorial Africa exploring changing human-great ape relations and their consequences for emerging diseases. Its aim is to interrogate human-great ape “contact”, to reveal variegated and dynamic nature of engagements between inhabitants of equatorial Africa and nonhuman primates over the past century. Insights developed from this study not only call into question the reductive claims of virologists, evolutionary biologists and conservationists alike; they also have implications for the epidemiological surveillance and control of outbreaks from Ebola, monkey pox, “forest” yellow fever, and other such emergences resulting from human-nonhuman primate engagements.

The early history of HIV – as it has been written by virologists and evolutionary biologists – has a singular place in histories of zoonotic disease emergence: it provides the foundations of a metanarrative of equatorial African disease emergence. All begins with the “cut hunter”, the purported index patient of pandemic HIV-1M and explanation for the first sustained cross-species transmission of a simian immunodeficiency virus from nonhuman primates (NHPs) into a human being. During the early years of colonial rule, this explanation goes, a hunter was cut or injured from hunting or butchering a chimpanzee infected with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), resulting in the first sustained human infection with the virus that would emerge as HIV-1M. 

I argue that the “cut hunter” relies on a misapprehension of the history and ecology of human-chimpanzee (Pan Troglodytes troglodytes) interactions that facilitated pathogenic transmission. This initial host shift cannot explain the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Instead, we must understand the processes by which the virus became transmissible between Sangha basin inhabitants and ultimately reached Kinshasa. An historical analysis of the late 19th and 20th centuries provides a much-needed corrective to the major shortcomings of the cut hunter. I show that HIV emerged from ecological, economic, and socio-political transformations of the late 19th and 20th centuries. The gradual imposition of colonial rule built on and reoriented ecologies and economies, and altered older patterns of mobility and sociality. Certain changes may have contributed to the initial viral host shift, but more importantly, facilitated the adaptation of HIV-1M to human-to-human transmission. Evidence suggests that the most critical changes occurred after 1920. This argument has important implications for global public health policy, underscoring recent work emphasizing alternative pathways for zoonotic spillovers into human beings.



Tamara Giles-Vernick is a Director of Research in the Emerging Diseases Epidemiology Unit at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. She conducts research at the interstices of medical anthropology and history, investigating zoonotic disease transmission, viral hepatitis and global health interventions in Africa.

Published Aug. 19, 2016 12:48 PM - Last modified Oct. 27, 2017 1:08 PM