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The Debunker: Did Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan Swing from Vines?

by Ken Jennings

According to the Chinese zodiac, it's been the "Year of the Goat" since last February, and we're getting pretty tired of the nonstop goat-related festivities. Luckily, the lunar new year this month begins the "Year of the Monkey," so the future looks bright. But Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings tells us that a lot of stuff we thought we knew about our mischievous treetop friends is just bananas. All month, he'll be here to put a stop to all the monkey business.

The Debunker: Did Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan Swing from Vines?

"Why didn't Tarzan visit Jane?" asks the old joke. "Because her vine was busy." You can tell this is an old joke because it requires knowledge of two things that haven't existed in decades: busy signals, and Tarzan movies. But if we as a culture retain any pre-Disney knowledge of the greatest pulp character in literary history, it's probably this: sometimes he does that yell and swings on those vines. Just like the apes that raised him, right?

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It's true that some apes, like gibbons and orangutans, practice brachiation, that hand-over-hand swinging that gives playground "monkey bars" their simian name. But the African great apes that raised Tarzan don't get around by swinging from branches, and they certainly don't swing from vines, mostly because that would be impossible. About a quarter of plants in tropical forests are thick, woody vines called lianas, but, like other plants, lianas are rooted at the bottom into the soil. As a moment's thought will reveal, that makes them incredibly hard to swing from.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan's creator, may have known this. In his books, Tarzan's vine habit is never mentioned. Instead, the ape-man is a treetop leaper who "could spring twenty feet at the dizzying heights of the forest top" or even "drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground." Tarzan didn't become a swinger until 1928, when actor Joe Bonomo, who was set to play Tarzan in the silent film serial Tarzan the Mighty, broke his pelvis, and was replaced by a stuntman named Frank Merrill. Merrill wasn't just a bodybuilder who once finished just behind Charles Atlas in an "America's Most Perfectly Developed Man" contest. He was also a two-time national gymnastics champ, and the film leveraged his upper body strength and high-bar abilities to display a new trick: swinging from treetop ropes disguised as vines. When Johnny Weissmuller took over the role in 1932, the vine trick continued—but now performed by a stunt double, circus aerialist Alfred Codona. Weissmuller, after all, was a swimmer, not a gymnast.

Quick Quiz: In 2012, what company bought the Internet video sharing service Vine for $30 million?

Ken Jennings is the author of six books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.