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The Kuati (nova species) -
an ant eating primate from Brazil

Preliminary remark:

We are talking about two different mammalian species from South America: on the one hand to the well-known South American Coati, Nasua nasua (Linnaeus, 1766), which is briefly referred to below coati, on the other, a previously unknown yet unnamed new species, as here Anteater-ape or Kuati is called.

The surviving texts

© Iwokrama International Centre, Georgetown, Guyana 
Abb. 1: Coati

"The other animal that I also want to speak about, called coati by the savages, is of the height of a big hare, with a short coat, sleek and dappled, and small, erect, pointed ears. Its head is not very large; its muzzle from the eyes down is more than a foot long, round as a stick, and suddenly narrowing, being no bigger high up than it is at the mouth (which is so small that you could scarcely put the tip of your little finger in it). This muzzle resembles the drone or the pipe of the bagpipe, and could hardly be more curious or more monstrouse in shape."

Thus Jean de Léry describes the appearance of an animal he had seen in November 1557 at Fort Coligny on the Ilha de Villegagnon, an island in the bay of Rio de Janeiro. A delegation of the Tupinamba had presented the little animal to their French allies. The Kuati, which immediately attracted the attention of the Europeans, probably came from the wider area of present-day Rio de Janeiro as well as the Tupinamba themselves. With the obvious differences from what we nowadays call coati, we would love to see a picture together with this description. But although Jean de Léry tried repeatedly he could not bring Jean Gardien, portrait painter in their group, to draw this strange animal.

Jean de Léry was just 22 years old when he was sent 1556 to Brazil by the great reformer Jean Calvin, together with 13 other Huguenots to missionary work among the Tupinamba. This French attempt to gain a foothold in Brazil, jointly with Catholics almost on the eve of the Wars of Religion (1562 - 1598), had become possible by the tolerant attitude of Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France. Coligny, who knew to convince Henry II of the benefits of trade in the products of the New World, later became one of the main leaders of the Huguenots - and was murdered in the St. Bartholomew's Day on 24 August 1572.

The name of the animal in the language of Tupinamba transcribes Jean de Léry with  Coati . In today's notation this could read  kuatĩ , a composition of  kua  (for hole, cave, mine or notch) and  tĩ  (for nose), therefore translates as "nose hole"! With a tilde (~) is called for the Guarani, a spoken today Tupi language that nasally spoken version of a sound. It represents an important distinguishing feature: in contrast with  kua  means  kuã  finger or phalanx. Strangely, though, the word in today's Guarani is not spoken nasal, so  kuati  and not  kuatĩ is. This suggests that it is gone, at least through the mouth of others, not Tupi-Guarani speakers and then maybe come back relatively late with the new meaning Coati into Guarani. (1)

Jean de Léry has even more information about the Kuati. About its food, he notes, probably based on reports from the Tupinamba: "you can't make it eat anything except ants, which are what it ordinarily lives on in the woods". Of great interest is also an observation of its behavior: "When this beast is caught, it holds all four feet tight together, and thus is always leaning over to one side or the other, or else it lets itself fall flat; you can't make it stand up ...". Thus it shows, when it can no longer avoid a threat, a play dead reflex!

After the extinction of the Kuati there was still the memory, the myths, the stories and songs of the Tupinamba in which lived on the "hole nose". However, with the extinction of this people also pulled the kulterelle thread that mankind had connected to the Kuati. What remained were scattered pieces, two images from the imperial court and Léry's description, which were each robbed for themselves, all the cultural sense. One reason that the very concrete, vivid description Léry's could provoke a scholarly debate, probably lies in the lack of a pictorial representation. There seems to be such that even for the scientist first an immediate understanding, or a spontaneous emotion must be present before an analysis is ever contemplated.

Another French traveler noted in its report on the "France Antarctique" (as the name at that time for the base in the bay of Rio de Janeiro) a "Coaty". It is André Thevet, Franciscans, later chaplain of Catherine de Medici and cosmography King Charles IX, who for a few weeks was in Fort Coligny shortly before Jean de Léry. The brief description makes clear, however, that here the coati is meant.

On closer reading, it is noticeable, however, that Thevet used in addition to the inappropriately named "Coaty" the words "with a muzzle with the length of a foot" [32.5 cm]. This is incorrect for the coati, but agrees remarkably with Léry's description "its muzzle from the eyes down is more than a foot long". Considering how unusual it is to use the snout length to characterize a mammalian species, it is likely that Thevet has in his description produces a mixture between coati and Kuati. This is all the more easier to imagine when you know that Thevet used writers for the compilation of the extensive material and took on responsibility for the final editing only. (2).

Apart from these reservations, it must be noted that André Thevet provides here a very early description of the coati. The earliest printed image known to me can be found in Gessner (3), but without any description.

The surviving images

The Kuati, an ant eating primate from Brazil
© The J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
fig. 2: Kuati

Probably 1595 or 1596 the Dutch miniaturist Joris Hoefnagel painted this animal in Vienna. With it he decorated a sheet of parchment from the "Constructed Alphabet", which he illuminated for Emperor Rudolph II as well as Georg Bocskay's model book of calligraphy, the famous Mira calligraphiae monumenta. The small head with a long, rod-shaped snout and pointed upstanding ears, the spotted coat - yes, this is without a doubt the Kuati described by Jean de Léry!

Joris Hoefnagel was taken in the imperial court service probably in September 1591 in Prague. At the same time he was released from the compulsory attendance at court, so that he could first live and work in Frankfurt am Main, and from 1594 in Vienna. Little is known about his last years. Of course, van Mander (4) reports about, he frequently had to travel to Prague to inform his imperial employer on the progress of the work.

We know of such a trip to Prague, at least for 1597, because on April 7, his request for a privilege is treated in in the Privy Council. It it's probably about the exemption from customs and other taxes on goods for the trading company of his brother Daniel, which operates under both their names. The business belongs not in this supreme advisory body of the emperor and none of the councils would have dared to put forward it there by itself. This was only the emperor cause himself, who had the Joris Hoefnagel granted the sought and accepted the request.

The effect of one of these trips can be clearly seen in the "the constructed alphabet" at the lowercase letters: the grotesque masks in the center had become wilder and wilder until the letter "t", so back from the letter "u" depicting animals at the center, while the grotesque become less important. For these animal representations Hoefnagel will probably have also brought templates from Prague.

Kuati in the cage
© Hugo Maertens, Brugge
fig. 3: Kuati in the cage

"Coati Brasilianorum. Cercopitheci Brasiliani species, magnitudine Leporis, rostrum habens pedis Longitudine." (Kuati from Brazil. A Brazilian monkey, the size of a hare, has a snout of a foot in length). This brief note from Boëtius de Boodts own hand supplements the information Jean de Léry's: it is at the Kuati to a monkey! The term Cercopithecus in the 16th century stands for a vaguely defined group of medium-sized primates with tails.

Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt was incorporated in March 1588 as court-Medicus into the court Emperor Rudolph II with the privilege to practice at court - in fact without the usual salary. At the same time a privilege for printing engravings is him granted. After the death of the court historiographer Jacobus Typotius in 1602 he took over the publication of the third and final part of the "Symbola Divina et Humana" (5), which appeared in 1603. With this work, he was finally taken to the Emperor in the inner circle of scholars and artists. According to this proposal given the title of imperial body-Medicus was awarded in April 1605, and a grade awarded (with effect from 1 January 1604). His next work, a systematic description of minerals, which was published (6) in 1609, made him famous and is now considered his major work.

The Kuati could have been brought by a Dutch ship to Europe, and de Boodt might have seen and drawn the animal in the Netherlands. The fact that Dutch ships sailed to Brazil and the sailors brought back living animals on their own initiative was not uncommon in the second half of the 16th Jahunderts. For example Gessner (7) tells about a marmoset was (presumably of the genus Saguinus) brought from Brazil shortly before 1563 living in Antwerp and sold for 50 crowns.

With the similarity of the two images shown only small differences exist: At Hoefnagel the ears are higher and further set back, the chest is more arched forward and the tail on which the Kuati seems to sit at de Boodt, is set back. All of these differences seem to favor the assumption, that the image of de Boodt was the template, after which Hoefnagel copied. However, better picture material is required for a final judgment, at least for the image of de Boodt.

Fragments to a biology of the Kuati

The toothless mouth is likely unsuitable to chew the food and only houses a long sticky round tongue, to pick up the ants. They are then swallowed and only crushed by the massive stomach. These adjustments are common all specialized anteaters - anteaters (Fam Myrmecophagidae), aardvark (Orycteropus afer) and pangolins (Fam Manidae) - but there is now a general consensus that this is not an indication of a common origin.

The following features can be seen in the figure: the head fur is clearly separated from the face, the chest is powerful, the waist is very narrow, the tail thin. Whether the nostrils are located on the side of the muzzle, just in front of the eyes, or whether they are located at the tip of the snout, is not to identify with certainty. Taking the muzzle with 32.5 cm as a standard, the following measures can be estimated from the figure (for all reservations): shoulder height 79 cm, head-body length of 154 cm and a tail length of 32 cm.

Seen systematically the Kuati belongs no doubt to its own new genus of primates. Whether this is to be assigned to the Cebidae, or a newly defined family, a discussion with experts must yield.


In the forests of Brazil there once lived an ape, which nourished itself of ants and termites and was called Kuati by the native Tupinamba. It is still unknown to modern science, as this remarkable species became extinct presumably in the 17th Century, and finally was forgotten. The discussion connects the lively description of the Frenchman Jean de Léry with the surviving pictures from the imperial court in Prague and Vienna and hopes to establish the Kuati in our cultural memory again.



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Last updated: 2014-06-09