The Chimp and the River: How Aids Emerged from an African Rain Forest (Book Review) - Lunchtime Lit with Mel

In all probability, the HIV virus made its way into the human race moving down a highway that looked something like this.
In all probability, the HIV virus made its way into the human race moving down a highway that looked something like this. | Source

While laying in bed trying to recuperate from food poisoning, it's probably not a good idea to read books about mass epidemics that have wiped out millions of people. Books like these do not tend to boost the morale of the person recuperating, and as such are not often prescribed by medical practitioners. But sometimes the old adage "any port in a storm" applies and you have to grab the first book on the shelf before you dash downstairs to pay your penance to the porcelain god.

Such was the situation I found myself in a couple of weeks ago. My wife and I were the recipients of a batch of tainted restaurant fajitas, and this wiped us out for three days. Because I am a voracious reader who cannot just sit around without a book in my hand, the long hours of sitting required during my bout with that gastrointestinal bug required something substantial to read. Luckily, my oldest son is a reading nut just like me, so I pilfered through his book supply and found a title that grabbed my attention immediately.

I have only written one other book review here on Hub Pages, but the book I am discussing at the present, entitled "The Chimp and the River," led me to some conclusions that probably merit sharing with the public at large. The principle idea I took away from David Quammen's captivating narrative of how the HIV virus spread from the chimpanzee population of a Cameroon rainforest to become a devastating destroyer of humanity is that superstitious, unscientific conclusions about killer diseases are ignorant at best, and dangerous at worst. The virus that causes AIDS is not a scourge of God sent to wipe out homosexuals and drug addicts. The HIV virus is a pathogen that jumped from apes to humans in a random, accidental fashion, then reached epidemic proportions via an unexpected pathway that had nothing at all to do with sexual orientation.

There were no real villains in the HIV drama; it was simply an act of human-viral interaction, such as have occurred countless times over the course of human evolution. Along with with every other organism that populates this globe, human beings are truly at the mercy of viruses. There is no way of predicting from what quarter a new toxic microbe will appear and by what method it will make contact with humanity. At this very moment there are deadly viruses incubating slowly in some remote corner of the world, waiting to hop aboard an airplane, hitch a ride down some congested highway or dusty desert trail, or perhaps embark upon a crude fishing boat moving down some steaming jungle river, at the end of which billions of unwitting victims lie in blissful ignorance of the danger ahead.

I will refer to this book review series as "Lunchtime Lit," since the preponderance of my reading is done during my half hour Postal lunch break. Every now and then I would like to share insights from the books I read while parked beneath a shady tree, if I think I have something significant to contribute to the book's discussion. I will admit that I did not read this particular title over any lunch break, because I couldn't have kept any lunch down anyway during its reading; or breakfast or dinner for that matter. But I believe guidelines are meant to be bent, if not broken, and as such I present this review of The Chimp and the River as the first of hopefully more to come.

HIV Virus
HIV Virus | Source

Evolution of a Virus

Approximately the first half of The Chimp and the River consists of a somewhat laborious technical explanation of how the HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) evolved from SIV (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), a pathogen that has been estimated to be present in monkeys and apes for the last 32,000 years. At times in this early part of the book the narrative gets bogged down in slightly dry, complicated explanations about how the various branches of SIV are related to one another. Nonetheless, Quammen is a skillful enough writer to maintain the interest of scientifically challenged readers such as myself, and to coax us to keep the pages turning.

I found the most interesting part of this segment to be the precision with which virologists can pin down the time frame that different strains of SIV and HIV branched off from one another. Scientists can accurately estimate when Sooty Mangabeys were first infected with SIV, as well as when the significantly different forms carried by Rhesus Macaques, chimpanzees, and a broad host of other primates came into being. Because viral mutations occur at a predictable rate, the percentage of genetic difference between these strains are analyzed to determine when these deviations from the main branch occurred. The same analysis is performed for human HIV, which has continuously evolved into several different sub-strains that predominate in different parts of the globe.

The circle marks the cradle of HIV
The circle marks the cradle of HIV | Source

The Cradle of AIDS

Quammen reports that this analysis of viral variations led scientists to conclude that HIV broke away from SIV in approximately 1908. The "spillover" came from a chimpanzee, the ape whose version of SIV most closely resembles HIV. After chimpanzees were identified as the courier by which HIV jumped to humanity, the next mystery to be solved was in which corner of Africa the fatal contact occurred. Because chimpanzees don't willingly line up to give blood samples, it was a tricky endeavor to analyze chimp DNA in various parts of the African continent. A breakthrough was made when a group of scientists developed a method to extract Simian DNA from urine and fecal samples, and in this fashion the calamitous transfer was attributed to the chimpanzees of southeastern wedge of Cameroon; a densely forested area bordered by the Central African Republic on one side and the Congo on the other.

Bushmeat hunters very likely carried HIV from apes to humans
Bushmeat hunters very likely carried HIV from apes to humans | Source

Bushmeat and the Fatal Encounter

Although there is no foolproof method to determine the first human recipient of the virus that became HIV, the most likely suspect seems to be a bushmeat hunter prowling about the Cameroon forests in the early years of the 20th century. The term bushmeat generally refers to the flesh of wild land mammals that are hunted or trapped and then slaughtered to be sold for food, typically at exorbitant prices. Relatively affluent people in many countries and cultures maintain a taste for wild game, even though many of the animals providing bushmeat are protected by law. Forbidden wine is often the sweetest, and for the stone-hearted palate, indifferent to the plight of magnificent rare beasts, forbidden flesh is often the juiciest. , Because large primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas are heavily protected and the risk involved in hunting of these animals increases their black market value exponentially, the flesh of the great apes is especially profitable for bushmeat hunters. In the area of Cameroon where the spillover between man and chimp occurred, a belief by certain tribal groups that the raw physical strength of this ape will be passed along via its consumption has also led to the practice of chimpanzee flesh being consumed in manhood initiation rites, another pathway to infection.

This raw physical power possessed by Gorillas and Chimpanzees causes bushmeat hunters to be cut or scratched in these encounters, enabling the blood to blood contact required for transmission, with the subsequent butchering of the ape creating another possible bridge. All the same, in that remote jungle corner of Cameroon where this contact occurred, low population density meant that the HIV infection initially spread very slowly. The virus required an even greater leap from the jungle to major population centers downriver before it could infect humanity on the pandemic levels that it has now reached.

Could it have been a fisherman on the Sangha River, similar to this one, who carried HIV from the remote, thinly populated Cameroon jungle to concentrated population centers downstream?
Could it have been a fisherman on the Sangha River, similar to this one, who carried HIV from the remote, thinly populated Cameroon jungle to concentrated population centers downstream? | Source

The Voyager and Beyond

The most fascinating segment of the book involves the hypothetical journey of an HIV infected Cameroon river fisherman Quammen refers to as "The Voyager." The Voyager's odyssey downriver into the heart of the Congo river basin is described here as the event that planted the HIV virus in the fertile breeding ground required to begin infecting the estimated 78 million people who have have carried the virus since the initial contact with chimpanzees. Of course the Voyager exists strictly in the imagination of the author, but in that remote corner of Africa clogged by dense jungle vegetation; a place where roads were rare and motor vehicles virtually non existent at the turn of the 20th century, rivers were the easiest, most practical highway of transportation. It is easy to imagine the ambitious fisherman described by Quammen traveling downstream to sell a valuable load of elephant ivory he stumbled upon by accident. One can realistically surmise that only such an extremely valuable commodity as this could have enticed a humble fisherman to embark upon the dangerous trip down the relatively placid Sangha into the raging Congo, the world's deepest river, and second largest by discharge after the Amazon. The mighty Congo is fraught with powerful whirlpools and other deadly navigational obstacles that would make a poor man paddling a simple canoe hesitate, unless the reward waiting downstream made it worthwhile.

In Quammen's scenario the Voyager eventually makes it to Leopoldville, now the modern city of Kinshasa. Rather than risk the perilous journey back upstream he then uses the ivory money to settle down in the area around the city, where he passes his HIV infection to women with whom he has sexual relations. The Voyager eventually dies after his HIV progresses to AIDS, but still the virus remains in insignificant anonymity until the 1960s, when it finds an even more effective pathway that enables it to spread its deadly tendrils in exponential fashion.

This villain is nothing less than the hypodermic needle. However, as we might assume after decades of being informed that sexual activity, blood transfusions, and the sharing of unclean needles are the primary mode of transmission, drug users were not the culprit. The catalyst that sparked the pandemic conflagration that AIDS became was the action of well meaning African health authorities who were faced with a severe shortage of expensive hypodermic needles needed to inoculate the masses against deadly diseases. Needles used in mass vaccination campaigns were reused multiple times without proper sterilization, and in this fashion the deadly flames of HIV were quickly fanned out from Kinshasa into the world beyond.

HIV budding from an infected lymphocyte
HIV budding from an infected lymphocyte | Source

What Did I Learn?

So what did I learn after so many hours spent on my reading "throne," contemplating global infections as I struggled with my own? A very important realization I drew from Quammen's book The Chimp and the River is that AIDS is still out there, and we ignore it at our own peril. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) informs us that in the United States alone there are 50,000 new infections per year, which stand out in disturbing contrast to the four US Ebola cases I could find on the CDC website. Perhaps your information is more current than mine, but I don't think Ebola will be catching up to AIDS anytime soon, at that lethargic rate. It may be true that AIDS does not inspire the same kind of public terror that it once did, but this is only because it is old news, and we humans have an unwise tendency to yawn and change the channel when the old news does not appear to have an immediate effect upon our lives. Yet even as we ignore it, HIV is still a force to be reckoned with, it is still going strong, and it is still meandering its way down new rivers toward untapped population centers, carried along by unwitting "voyagers" from every gender, age group, and sexual orientation.

A perhaps still more significant conclusion I reached from pondering this short but information packed volume is that HIV is indiscriminate about the victims it chooses across the broad spectrum of humanity. Infected Homo sapiens in widely separate regions around the globe are not all that different from one another, we are not even all that different from the apes that we caught this virus from; through no fault of the hunted chimpanzees that were only minding their own business. So what Quammen's book really teaches me is that instead of condemning one another and bringing down the wrath of God upon our neighbors, it is time to get over ourselves and start looking for real ways to help the largely ignored millions infected with the virus, deep in the very heart of Africa where it began, and in other neglected reaches across the globe.

Is the HIV virus that causes AIDS really under control?

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Author David Quammen on "Spillover" Diseases from Animals into Humans

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Comments 26 comments

Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 17 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

Well I learned a great deal about something I was not up to speed on. And as usual your style is entertaining and alluring. Thank you for a great read.

My son and I just hiked around the great Sweetwater Reservoir and found it to be a small pond. Perhaps it is time for you and I and all our friends to stop washing our Bentleys every single day.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 17 months ago from Olympia, WA

Interesting read for sure. Thanks for sharing it with us, Mel. I think I'm going to like this new series of yours. I'm always on the lookout for a good book, so thanks.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Thank you Eric Dierker. I now have my chauffeur take my Bentley to the car wash that uses recycled water, in an effort to be socially responsible. I appreciate you dropping in!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Thanks for dropping by Bill. It's short and sweet, perfect for ADHD guys like me that drift off to sleep with too much science.

Jodah profile image

Jodah 17 months ago from Queensland Australia

An excellent book review Mel, and I think I am going to enjoy this series by you. You explained a lot here that I wasn't aware of about how HIV began spreading to the human population and your writing style is easy to read. I hope you and your wife have fully recovered from the food poisoning by now. P.s. I know I am slow, but I just realised that your pen name is a play on words for your profession "mail carrier".. :) Voted up.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

It only took a couple years for you to catch on, Jodah, but you got it faster than many. I am glad you enjoyed the review. Thanks for reading!

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 17 months ago from Australia

If the likelihood is that AIDS has existed for millions of years then we are left with the question "why do apes thrive in AIDS infested environments but people don't?"

There is every possibility that as humans increased in dangerous numbers in Africa in past millenniums, that their encroachment on animal environments forced them to catch animal diseases to keep their numbers nature's/apes' defense mechanism against "us".

Perhaps this even led to early man's migration out of Africa to escape such animal borne diseases.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Oztinato the SIV virus has been in apes an estimated 32,000 years. Some species have adapted to it, but others, like chimpanzees, have not. In fact, the famous chimps studied by Jane Goodall have been decimated by SIV, but I couldn't mention everything here. It is definitely worth the read. Thanks for dropping by.

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 17 months ago from Australia


there is a long list of such diseases eg ebola, malaria, etc. Maybe chimps are too "human" to cope. They certainly do a lot better than us.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

This same author has another book called Spillover that describes the many different diseases that have jumped from animal to human, Oztinato.

Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 17 months ago from Oklahoma

Very interesting. I had some understanding of the probable evolution of HIV, but you did a wonderful job of laying things out in a precise, succinct manner that was quite engaging, and helped me to better understand the fine points of how this illness likely came to be.

Dana Tate profile image

Dana Tate 17 months ago from LOS ANGELES

I really enjoyed reading this article Mel carriere; I must admit, I'm not to well-informed when it comes to Aids. I have heard so many different stories of how it first originated I came to the conclusion it may continue to be one of life's biggest mysteries. Your article was interesting , easy to read and understand. Being an avid reader myself, I might be interested in purchasing this book. Thanks for sharing I believe this is a must read. Voted up and awesome!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Yeah, thanks Larry Rankin. I really don't think it was the fajitas that were responsible for this mess, I think it was the poke sallet. Should have boiled them like you said. As always, appreciate your dropping in for support.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Thank you Dana Tate. It amazes me how the scientists have narrowed it down to the approximate date and place. Appreciate you dropping in!

sgbrown profile image

sgbrown 17 months ago from Southern Oklahoma

This is very interesting Mel! It is amazing how the scientists can trace the evolution of this horrible disease. I am sorry that you and the wife have had to suffer through food poisoning. I know it is not a fun thing to have! I hope you are feeling better by now!

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

Thank you Sheila for the kind words. The wife and I are back on our feet now. I hope Oklahoma is recovering from all that rain. Stay dry.

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 17 months ago from California

Fascinating. Relieved to find out that the initial virus transfer vis-a-vis human-primate contact was not of an amorous nature. Looking forward to the new installments of these book review series, I'm a sucker for a good book! And great writing, as always.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 17 months ago from San Diego California Author

I got a lol out of your suggestion of amorous activity with primates, Svetlana. So far that is not the predominating theory. Glad you enjoyed it, I always have my nose in a book so hopefully there will be plenty more.

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 16 months ago from Stillwater, OK

This sounds like quite a book. It would be nice to read this and learn the facts, instead of heard the guesses and srumors that have been going on for years. Thanks for the wonderful synopsis.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 16 months ago from San Diego California Author

Thank you Deb I am glad you enjoyed it. It is definitely worth the read if for nothing else than to put all the other scary diseases in perspective beside this beast.

grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 15 months ago from Philippines

Very informative and interesting -- and very timely, too. Just last night my daughter and I were watching Rent. She asked me how Aids started, and why people don't like to take AZT. If I read you article before then, I would have been able to answer her questions with more expertise.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 15 months ago from San Diego California Author

Very nice to hear from you. I'm glad this article was able to inform you a bit, at least in regard to the origin of AIDS, though I don't pretend to know much at all about AZT or its negative effects. I hope you are doing well and that your fascinating novel about the five hearts is taking shape. Thanks for reading!

FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 15 months ago from USA

Great review, although I am sorry you were ill at the time of your reading. There are often terrible and unimaginable consequences for behavior, and the bushmeat practice is one example. So sad.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 15 months ago from San Diego California Author

Luckily I'm back on my feet now Flourish and fattening up again after those tainted fajitas I ate. The bushmeat trade is a sad thing indeed, but the real culprit is the poverty in Africa that forces people to go to those extremes. Another sad fact I have learned since teading this is there are places in Africa where one quarter of the population is infected by HIV, which makes Ebola microscopic by comparison. Thanks for reading!

Oztinato profile image

Oztinato 15 months ago from Australia


sorry to hear about your illness. Food poisoning is a bad trip.

As far as ebola or AIDS we need to analyse how animals survive in the bush without medicine and/if nature is trying to get back a balance between plagues of humans and the natural balance by eliminating many of "us". Just as with animal plagues (pigs, chickens etc) nature starts to eject numbers with timely diseases. Once the balance is thrown out these illneses kick in. In jungle environments this human to nature ratio could be easily reached. In urban areas we are now constantly on the edge of new plagues particularly flus. We are always one step away from a new major plague; constantly thwarting nature's attempts to get rid of one plague ( of humans) with another plague of bugs.

Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 15 months ago from San Diego California Author

Nature does seem to have a way of regulating itself, either through wars or through plagues. Very good points, Oztinato. Thanks for reading.

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