A Primate's Memoir Summary
A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky is about the author's time living with a baboon troop in East Africa.
The book opens with Sapolsky discussing how his reality of living with the baboon troop differed from the life he expected as a child—he thought he'd "become a mountain gorilla." He was interested primatology as he grew older, and he chose to study the discipline. He also volunteered at medical institutions and at a museum. When the time came to focus, though, he realized that baboons were more suited to his research, and he focused on them instead of on gorillas.
Sapolsky chooses to study stress-related disease and its relationship to behavior. He has been studying how stress can kill specific types of brain cells in his lab work. When he begins to study the troop of baboons he plans to live with, he gives each one an Old Testament name, like Solomon, Leah, or Devorah. He spends more than twenty years with them at various times, coming and going as a part of their society.
Sapolsky's time in Africa is marked by adventure, unrest, and at times his own lack of preparedness. For example, he learns the wrong kind of Swahili before his trip, not realizing that there are different varieties. People aren't able to understand him when he arrives in Nairobi. He's also taken advantage of in some situations because he doesn't understand the language or the locale. He overpays for things, pays fake government taxes charged by a hotel clerk, and gives money to someone with a sympathetic story who he later realizes begs professionally. Nonetheless, he is charmed with the location and with his work.
He heads out into the bush when his permits clear, and he meets the baboon troop. He's also aware of nearby villagers and the Masai warrior tribe that he says is fierce and warlike. As time passes, the professor who is overseeing his work forgets to send money again and again. Sapolsky has to travel a long distance to even call to remind him and can't afford to continue doing so. When he realizes he can't get money from home, he decides to scam thieves who want to take his money. He convinces them that if they do a currency exchange now, he'll meet them with a great deal of money later—and then he doesn't meet them.
Sapolsky mixes memories of his travels with his interactions with the baboon troop. He describes having to tranquillize them to get blood samples; he would have a seventy-pound baboon he had to smuggle to his Jeep without the others in the troop noticing. He returns home to further his studies and then goes back to Africa to do more field research. While there, he makes friends with the Masai tribe and a woman named Rhoda who lives with them. He's also taken captive by a group of men who are led by a man he calls Pius. He escapes from them when Pius becomes ill from drinking and the other men are distracted.
Life goes on for Sapolsky, who travels from the United States, where he studies, to the baboon troop each year. While he's gone, his assistants Richard and Hudson collect data on the baboons for him, and the men become friends. At home, Sapolsky meets a woman named Lisa who later becomes his wife. She meets the rigors of the Serengeti even more readily than Sapolsky did. Her presence there encourages kids from the nearby villages to come to play, and the women Sapolsky has met also come to camp more often to talk to her.
At the end of the book, Sapolsky describes how his baboons and others are made ill through contaminated food. They get tuberculosis from contaminated meat the Masai sold. Though he tries to find ways to stop it from happening, there's nothing he can do. The TB outbreak takes more than a dozen of the baboons from his troop.
Sapolsky explains that he still works with the baboons but chooses not to get attached to them. He is more focused on the academic side of the research than performing great deals of behavioral observation. He and his wife have had two children, and it's on those children—Benjamin and...
(The entire section is 2,566 words.)