Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog

Loading...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...

PLEASE COME IN, I'VE BEEN EXPECTING YOU...
WELCOME TO SHUKERNATURE - ENJOY YOUR VISIT - BEWARE OF THE RAPTOR!

Monday, 27 June 2016

REMEMBERING PEDRO – THE MISSING MINI-MUMMY OF WYOMING


Two views of Pedro plus one of his x-rays from 1950 (Wikipedia/public domain)

In a two-part ShukerNature article (click here and here) from 2009, I documented a wide range of accounts concerning mysterious dwarf-like or pygmy-like humanoid entities that have been reported across the length and breadth of North America, and are often colloquially – and collectively – referred to as littlefeet. One of the most interesting of these was Pedro, the so-called mini-mummy or mountain mummy of Wyoming, because this was an actual specimen (not just an eyewitness report or a tale from traditional folklore). Also, it had been discovered in a most unexpected location, and subsequently featured in a very intriguing chain of events. Back in 2009, my article's documentation of Pedro was fairly brief, but since then I have investigated this mystifying entity in further detail, enabling me to flesh out or highlight various aspects of its story that had previously been somewhat obscure, contradictory, or totally confused in other accounts accessed by me. Consequently, I am now presenting here a much-expanded, updated version of my original ShukerNature coverage of Pedro.

Pedro's extraordinary modern-day history may have begun one day in October 1932 (but see later for an alternative claimed date), when gold-prospectors Cecil Main (spelt 'Mayne' in some accounts) and Frank Carr blasted a hole through the wall of a ravine in the San Pedro Mountains, about 65 miles southwest of the city of Casper, Wyoming - and made a momentous discovery. The wall had been hiding a small, room-like, hitherto-sealed cavern, which contained a ledge, 2.5 ft off the ground. And sitting on that ledge, in cross-legged pixie-like pose, with its arms folded across its chest, was the mummy of a diminutive humanoid figure, with a sitting height of less than 7 in and a total height of only 14 in.

Front view of Pedro (public domain)

Sporting a tanned if wrinkled bronze-coloured skin, barrel-shaped body, well-preserved penis, large hands, long fingers, low brow, very wide mouth with large lips, and broad flat nose, this strange figure resembled a smirking old man, who seemed almost to be winking at its two amazed discoverers, because one of its large eyes was half-closed. Nevertheless, it was evident that this entity had been dead for a very long time, and its death did not appear to have been a pleasant one. Its head was abnormally flat, and was covered with a dark gelatinous substance - later examinations by scientists suggested that its skull may have been smashed by an extremely heavy blow, and the gelatinous substance was congealed blood and exposed brain tissue. Also, some reports claim that it had a broken clavicle (or scapula in certain others), as well as some broken vertebrae, and pointed "front teeth".

Due to its mountain provenance, this remarkable specimen was soon dubbed Pedro by the media, following its discovery's announcement in a report by the Casper Tribune-Herald newspaper on 21 October 1932 (but once again see later for an alternative claimed date).

When Main and Carr brought Pedro back home with them to Casper, it was widely denounced as a hoax, though some locals believed that it may indeed be one of the Little People long deemed in traditional lore to exist in the mountains. Carr died shortly afterwards, and in April 1934 Main sold Pedro to Homer F. Sherill from Crawford, Nebraska, who subsequently exhibited it encased inside a large glass dome as a curio at a circus there (as well as at several sideshows elsewhere), where it was seen by Eugene Bashor in 1936. Although he was only a boy at that time, Bashor was so fascinated by Pedro's enigmatic appearance that he went on to become a leading, longstanding investigator of North American mini-mummy and littlefoot reports.

Sideshow poster for Pedro (public domain)

Sherill owned Pedro for at least 7 years, but somehow this anomalous little entity subsequently turned up at Jones Drug Store in Meeteetse, a small town in Park County, Wyoming, where it remained on display until it was spied there one day in the mid-1940s by Ivan Goodman, a used car salesman from Casper, who reputedly purchased it from the drug store's owner, Floyd Jones, for several thousand dollars. Thereafter, Goodman utilised Pedro's eyecatching appearance to attract people to his car lot, and for which it became an unofficial mascot, with images of it being placed by Goodman in advertisements for his auto dealership. Moreover, it was during its period of ownership by Goodman that Bashor saw Pedro for a second time, in 1948, sitting on Goodman's desk.

In 1950, Goodman permitted some interested scientists to examine his 'mascot' in an attempt to uncover its true nature. The most detailed examination, including an x-ray analysis, was conducted by anthropologist Dr Henry ('Harry') Shapiro from New York's American Museum of Natural History. According to a Casper Tribune-Herald report of 5 March 1950, this study confirmed that Pedro was not a fake but did indeed contain a complete if minuscule skeleton, a fully-fused skull (seemingly verifying that it was an adult humanoid, not an infant), plus a full set of teeth. Some accounts have even claimed that Shapiro opined that Pedro had been approximately 65 years old upon death; others, conversely, alleged that he had identified it as an infant - yet another source of controversy regarding Pedro.

In that same newspaper report, Goodman himself was quoted as stating: "After an exhaustive study by the scientists it was agreed that it was the only specimen known of a human race of that type which perhaps dated back a million years". However, such a dramatic claim as this seems unlikely to have been made by the scientists, so it may well have originated from the canny Goodman instead - possibly as an additional means of publicising his car business. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure, because Goodman died later that same year.

Side view of Pedro (public domain)

Just before his death, Goodman loaned Pedro to Leonard Wadler, a New York businessman, for study purposes. However, it was never returned to Goodman's family, and Wadler moved to Florida soon afterwards, allegedly dying there during the 1980s. But what happened to Pedro? No-one knows, because no-one has been able to trace Wadler's precise movements and whereabouts once he had acquired Pedro. One report claimed that Wadler's family was contacted by (unnamed) investigators some time after his death enquiring where Pedro may now be, but that they had no idea either.

In a bid to rectify this regrettable situation, John Adolfi from Syracuse, New York, owner of the Bibleland Studios website, publicly announced on 3 February 2005 via a Casper Star-Tribune report by Brendan Burke that he would pay $10,000 for Pedro, if it still existed. He would then submit Pedro for DNA analyses, more x-ray studies, and magnetic resonance imaging in order to determine once and for all its precise identity. So far, however, Adolfi's reward remains unclaimed.

Reward poster for Pedro, issued by John Adolfi of Bibleland Studios (© John Adolfi/Bibleland Studios – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)

Incidentally, back on 13 November 1936 one of Pedro's original discoverers, Cecil Main, had signed an official affidavit containing what he claimed to be the true facts behind their notable find, and which was sworn in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and officially recorded in Hot Springs County, Wyoming, on 16 August 1943. Oddly, however, this document contains what would appear to be some glaring inconsistencies with other versions of events.

In it, Main stated that Pedro had been discovered by them in June 1934. Conversely, as already noted in this present ShukerNature article, a report documenting that event had allegedly been published in the Casper Tribune-Herald on 21 October 1932, followed by additional articles published by this same newspaper in that same year, at least according to Brendan Burke's above-mentioned Casper Star-Tribune report from 2005. Here is what Burke wrote in it:

Mayne was prospecting for gold near Pathfinder Reservoir when an explosion he detonated revealed a small cave, according to a Oct. 21, 1932, article in the Casper Tribune-Herald. Inside the cave Mayne found the mummified remains of what looked like a tiny human.

Debate about the mummy's nature started soon after it was found. Some said it was a hoax. Others said it was the mummified remains of a baby. And others said it was one of the little people spoken about in Indian legends, according to Casper Tribune-Herald stories from 1932.

So if these supposed Casper Tribune-Herald reports from 1932 do indeed exist, then Main's claimed date of June 1934 was clearly incorrect. Main also alleged in his affidavit of November 1936 that Pedro was "now owned by Homer F. Sherill, and located in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois". Yet once again, contemporary reports claim that Main had actually sold Pedro to Sherill in April 1934 (i.e. two months before it had even been discovered, according to the discovery date given in Main's affidavit). Moreover, as noted by Rebecca Hein in an undated online article concerning Pedro accessible within the WyoHistory website:

Archivist Armand Esai notes that the Field Museum has no record of the mummy's presence during that time. The item still could have been there on loan or for identification, but because it was not part of the museum's official collection, the mummy was not listed in the records.

As seen, the discrepancies between different accounts as to whether Shapiro had (or had not) claimed that Pedro exhibited certain adult characteristics are by no means the only contentious, contradictory aspects of Pedro's post-discovery history.

Pedro inside his glass dome, with ruler to show size (public domain)

Fortunately, at least Pedro's original x-ray plates are still on file and thus confirmed, as are some vintage photographs of it, including those presented here. Moreover, not long after Pedro's initial discovery by the two prospectors, a Mexican shepherd called José Martinez reputedly found another mummy and six separate skulls on a ranch in the same vicinity. After soon suffering a number of mishaps, however, Martinez considered them to be jinxed, so he swiftly replaced them where he had found them.

Other mini-mummies have also been reported over the years from elsewhere in the U.S.A. One of the most noteworthy of these was a 3-ft-tall, red-haired specimen discovered on a ledge in Kentucky's famous Mammoth Cave, and exhibited widely during the 1920s, which seemed to be only a few centuries old (later radiocarbon-dating studies, however, revealed that it was 3,000-4,000 years old). During 1922, sheep-herder Bill Street claimed to have found several small skulls and whole mummies in Montana's Beartooth Mountains, but their present whereabouts are unclear. Two young men on a day off from the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 came upon a dead pygmy with sharp teeth in Wyoming's Wind River Mountains, but both died soon afterwards, and others who saw it allegedly died from severe illnesses.

In 1969, author John 'Ace' Bonar visited orthopaedic specialist Richard Phelps in Casper to see the preserved head of a mysterious tiny humanoid that he was displaying at that time in his shop. Bonar learnt that the head had originally been taken from a cliff near Wyoming's Muddy Gap. After Phelps's death in 1980, his daughter donated the preserved pygmy head to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where it is still said to be today.

According to Bonar, the husband of Winnie Cardell from Alcova, Wyoming, also owned a mini-mummy - until he loaned it to a college professor, who never returned it. A specimen closely resembling Pedro, meanwhile, attracted media attention in January 1979 when it was loaned to Californian antique appraiser Kent Diehl of San Anselmo for examination. Just under 1 ft long, with an indentation at the back of the head indicating brain injury as the cause of death, the mummy was supposedly found in Central America during 1919, but Diehl would not publicly identify the family from Marin, California, that presently owns it.

This anterosuperior view of the head of an anencephalic human foetus demonstrates the disorganised connective tissue membrane that covers the top of the skull in the absence of the calvarium or skullcap (public domain)

Some researchers consider Pedro to have been a grossly-malformed human child or foetus - possibly with anencephaly, a teratological condition in which the brain has not developed fully (if at all) during foetal maturation. This latter identity was proposed for Pedro by anthropologist Prof. George W. Gill from the University of Wyoming after examining photos of it first shown to him by his students in 1971. Moreover, in 1994, after appearing with Eugene Bashor on an episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries hosted by Robert Stack and dealing with Pedro, Gill was contacted by a rancher from Cheyenne (Wyoming's capital) claiming to own a mini-mummy. This one proved to be a tiny blond-haired girl, only 4 in high, and dubbed Chiquita, which one of the rancher's (great-)grandfathers (reports differ) had purchased from a sheep-herder in or around 1929 and which had been kept ever since inside a trunk in his home's attic.

When Gill examined Chiquita and DNA analyses were conducted upon it, assisted by the Denver Children's Hospital, he found that it was indeed an anencephalic Native American infant (examination of a femur removed from this mini-mummy had revealed that its distal ends had not closed, a sign of infancy). In their book Mountain Spirit: The Sheep Eater Indians of Yellowstone (2006), Lawrence L. Loendorf and Nancy M. Stone stated that radiocarbon dating tests had indicated that it was around 500 years old.

With regard to Pedro, conversely, if its adult characteristics allegedly revealed by Shapiro during his 1950 study were genuine, and not erroneous identifications (or erroneous claims made by the media), they would seem to contradict an anencephalic status for it. (Incidentally, one report read by me claiming that Gill had studied Pedro's x-rays directly after Shapiro had conducted his own 1950 study of them, and that it was Shapiro who had personally given the x-rays to Gill at that time, is clearly in error, because in 1950 Gill was still only a youth.)

One of Pedro's x-rays from 1950 (public domain)

Also, why was Pedro placed on the ledge and then sealed away inside that small room-like cavern within the Pedro Mountains? After all, this does seem not only a very purposeful but also a very strange and extreme action for anyone to take with merely a malformed infant. And who placed it there anyway?

As documented in my 2009 two-part ShukerNature article on littlefeet, there are many Amerindian traditions of mysterious races of dwarves or pygmies. And some of these allegedly kill their own kind when they become old or infirm by beheading them, or by smashing their skulls - in precisely the way that Pedro and its Central American lookalike may have met their deaths. Just a coincidence?

Artistic representation of a North American littlefoot (© Tim Morris)

The story of Pedro the Wyoming mini-mummy is undoubtedly one of the most muddled, contradictory histories that I have ever investigated, so much so that I seriously doubt at this late stage in the proceedings, over 80 years since its discovery by Main and Carr, whether an entirely accurate course of events concerning this very enigmatic little entity will ever be pieced together.

Meanwhile, documenting Pedro in his book Stranger Than Science (1959), veteran mysteries investigator Frank Edwards made the following pertinent comment:

Scientists from far and near have examined this tiny fellow and have gone away amazed. He is unlike anything they ever saw before. Sitting there on the shelf in Casper, visible, disturbing evidence that science may have overlooked him and his kind much too long.

Moreover, just as there are two sides to every coin, in his own book The Monster Trap (1976) Peter Haining offered an equally disturbing, obverse view:

For as some of the more serious-minded of the old people of Casper who were alive at the time of the discovery will tell you, they believe the little man was one of a whole race of barbaric dwarf people who once lived in the region in ancient times. And they get the distinct impression from looking at him that he had been sitting there behind the stone wall for thousands of years waiting for someone - or something - to return.

Now just suppose, they go on with the merest hesitation, that the long-awaited return of what-ever-it-might-be has taken place - and it has found nothing there...

Seemingly not for thousands of years, but still a chilling little vignette, to say the least. And who knows - perhaps it really would have been best in this instance to have let sleeping dogs lie, or dormant dwarves dream on?

If anyone owns (or can obtain) copies of any of the Casper Tribune-Herald newspaper reports that were allegedly published in 1932 (and hence almost two years before the date of Pedro's discovery as claimed in Cecil Main's affidavit), I would love to see them! Thanks very much.

NB – As far as I aware, all illustrations included in this article are in the public domain (unless stated otherwise), including the x-rays (according to Wikipedia's entry for Pedro, they are in the public domain for the following reason: "Copyright expired because the work was published without a copyright notice and/or without the necessary copyright registration."), but in any case I am including all of them here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only.

Casper historian Bob David holding Pedro in a pre-1950 photograph (public domain)







Friday, 24 June 2016

GENERAL GORDON AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE - A BOTANICAL FOLLY OF BIBLICAL PROPORTIONS?


The Fairy smiled, and led him into a large and lofty room, the walls of which appeared transparent... In the middle of the room stood a tree, with luxuriant hanging branches, on which golden apples, large and small, appeared amongst the green leaves. This was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, of the fruit of which Adam and Eve had eaten. From each leaf dripped a bright red dew-drop, as if the tree were shedding tears of blood.

        Hans Christian Andersen – 'The Garden of Paradise',
                              in Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales


Holding a dehusked, hollow coco-de-mer seed or 'double coconut' (© Dr Karl Shuker)

2015 marked the 130th anniversary of the death of one of Britain's greatest military heroes – General Charles Gordon (1833-1885). Actually attaining the rank of Major-General during a long and distinguished military career, he will forever be remembered for his many acts of outstanding bravery on the battlefield. Not least of these was his valiant stand against the Mahdi's forces during the relentlessly violent Siege of Khartoum (13 March 1884 to 26 January 1885) in Sudan that finally claimed his life and those of so many of his men as well as numerous civilians while awaiting the arrival there of a tardy relief force. In stark contrast, however, it is nowadays all but forgotten that he also held a highly unexpected but passionate belief relating to a certain tropical island and its botanical wonders.

At the end of their 10-day honeymoon spent on North Island in the Republic of Seychelles during May 2011, the UK's Prince William and his bride the former Kate Middleton (now Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) received from this 115-island nation's foreign minister Jean-Paul Adam a very unusual honeymoon souvenir – the enormous 'double coconut' of the coco-de-mer tree, endemic to a handful of islands in the Seychelles archipelago.  The remarkable likeness in shape of this tree's bilobed seed to a certain part of a lady's anatomy is (in)famous, so the royal honeymooners may well have been aware of it too – but would they also have been aware, I wonder, of its alleged biblical link? Specifically, would they have realised that at least in the opinion of one very notable figure, they were now the owners of nothing less than a seed from the fruit of the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil – the very same fruit that fatefully tempted Eve and then Adam too, causing them to be banished by God from Eden forever?

Adam and Eve alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, together with the pre-cursed Serpent, interestingly portrayed here as a bipedal human-headed reptile or draconopides (click here for a ShukerNature blog article on the draconopides/pre-cursed Serpent concept) – this painting is 'The Temptation', by Hugo van der Goes, 1470 (public domain)

The coco-de-mer Lodoicea maldivica (sometimes referred as Lodicea sechellarum, but this is a junior synonym) is unquestionably one of the most iconic species native to the Seychelles. Today, it occurs principally upon just a single major island – Praslin, the group's second-largest member, roughly 8 miles long. It formerly existed on several smaller isles too, all close to Praslin, but today it survives on only one of these, Curieuse, situated just off Praslin's northern coast, and is officially categorised by the IUCN as endangered. Additionally, therefore, it has been deliberately introduced to certain other Seychelles islands in order to establish new populations, thus assisting in its conservation. Belonging to the palm tree family Arecaceae, the coco-de-mer is the only member of the genus Lodoicea, coined for it by French naturalist Jacques Julien Houtou de Labillardière and generally believed to commemorate Laodice, the most beautiful daughter of Troy's King Priam (although a few researchers have suggested the French King Louis XV as a possible alternative name-source, 'Lodoicus' being Latin for 'Louis').

The coco-de-mer is a dioecious species (male and female flowers occur on separate trees), it can grow to 100 ft tall or more (with male trees being taller than females), takes 25-50 years to reach maturity, lives for well over a century (its maximum lifespan is still unknown), and sports huge, fan-shaped, leathery leaves, pale-green in colour, measuring up to 46 ft across, 13 ft long, and capturing as much as 98 per cent of all rainfall. However, its most noteworthy claim to fame, earning this tree species a place in the record books, is its gigantic fruit (shaped like a normal, single coconut) containing the huge bilobed 'double coconut' seed, which is the largest seed produced by any species of plant.

Fruit on female coco-de-mer tree (public domain)

[NB - strictly speaking, a nut is defined as a specific category of fruit - one that possesses a hard shell (the husk) and a seed inside. However, in general parlance the term 'nut' is also often used in reference to a hard-walled edible seed (as is the term 'kernel'). Consequently, in this chapter I have completely avoided using the ambiguous term 'nut', in favour of the non-interchangeable terms 'fruit' for the combination of outer shell and inner seed, and 'seed' for the seed itself. As for 'double coconut', this is a term applied specifically and famously to the coco-de-mer's bilobed seed, so I have employed it here with this same meaning.]

Exquisite engraving from 1897 depicting various palm trees, including the coco-de-mer at right of image together with its unmistakeable double coconut and catkin-like male inflorescence (public domain)

Produced by female coco-de-mer trees, the fruit measures 16-20 in across, weighs 33-66 lb (up to 39 lb of which is the weight of the seed inside it), and takes 6-7 years to mature, plus a minimum of  two further years to germinate. The seed's bilobed shape infamously lends it more than a passing resemblance in form to a woman's buttocks on one side and to her stomach and thighs on the other side (resulting in it becoming a potent fertility symbol in the Seychelles and also nurturing a traditional belief there that its pulpy white meat possesses powerful aphrodisiac properties).

And as if this wasn't sufficiently suggestive, male coco-de-mer trees produce very sizeable catkin-like inflorescences (measuring up to 3 ft long) that are decidedly phallic in shape.

Beautiful painting of the coco-de-mer's male inflorescence and its ripe fruits, produced in 1883 by Marianne North (public domain)

Not surprisingly, these distinctive features have given rise to some very colourful local legends concerning this unique species of Seychelles palm.

Indeed, one particularly popular folk-belief here is that on wild stormy nights, the male trees uproot themselves, pair up with the still-rooted female trees, and engage in passionate love-making under the cover of darkness.

Inflorescence on male coco-de-mer tree (© ViloWiki/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The coco-de-mer's fruit is so heavy that whenever one falls into the sea, it is unable to float, sinking straight to the sea bottom instead, where it gradually rots, the husk falling away and the internal seed breaking down and releasing gas, which enables this now-hollow, bare, and much lighter structure to rise to the surface of the sea and float great distances, carried by the current. Because the seed is no longer fertile, however, even if it reaches land it cannot germinate and give rise to a tree (thus explaining this species' extremely limited distribution).

However, so spectacular is its outward form that several centuries ago these seeds would command enormous prices as greatly-prized curiosities among the more wealthy collectors, or were given as gifts to royalty (a tradition upheld with William and Kate!).

A bilobed de-husked hollow nut or double coconut of the coco-de-mer tree (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The Seychelles first became known to the West via Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's recorded sighting of these islands in 1502, and the coco-de-mer tree itself was formally discovered in 1768 by a French engineer named Barré, who was sent to explore Praslin following France's acquisition of this archipelago during the 1740s. Long before these events, however, this tree's spectacular seed was already well known to fishermen in such diverse localities as the Maldives, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India. This is because hollow, internally-rotted specimens were sometimes carried by the sea from the Seychelles to the shores of these and other countries with Indian Ocean coastlines. Indeed, it was the finding of such seeds around the Maldives that led to the mistaken belief among some early naturalists that the tree which produced them must exist somewhere here, thus earning it the maldivica portion of its binomial taxonomic name.

Moreover, the seeds' presence on the sea surface led the fishermen to believe that they must have originated from some majestic form of underwater tree ('coco-de-mer' is French for 'sea coconut'), growing in stately splendour beneath the waves. Some even believed that a griffin-like monster-bird deity called Garuda lived in this subaquatic tree's mighty branches, from where it would periodically rise up to hunt elephants and tigers – all complete fantasy, yet still being reiterated, albeit sceptically, as recently as the 1700s by the likes of German botanist Georg Eberhard Rumpf (aka Rumphius) in his 6-volume magnum opus, the Herbarium Amboinense, which was published posthumously in 1741 (almost 40 years after his death).

My wooden statuette of Garuda, from Bali (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Strange as these notions might seem, however, an even stranger one would not only be aired but also be fervently supported by a very notable historical figure during the late 1800s.

The figure in question was none other than the celebrated British army officer and diplomat Major-General Charles George Gordon – Gordon of Khartoum – and his avowed if highly eccentric belief was that the coco-de-mer tree was in fact the Garden of Eden's Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as alluded to in the Bible. But how and why did he come to believe in such an extraordinary notion?

Major-General Charles George Gordon (public domain)

Spurred on by his deeply-held religious beliefs as an evangelical Christian, Gordon had long been passionately (some would even say obsessively) interested in attempting to track down present-day localities that might correspond to various significant sites described in the Bible – in particular the Garden of Eden.

Traditionally, the favoured sites among those who believe that the Garden of Eden truly existed have been in the Middle East, two of the most popular suggestions being a location at the head of the Persian Gulf or one close to Tabriz in Iranian Azerbaijan. As for the Tree of Knowledge: scholars considering it to have been real rather than merely symbolic have typically supported conservative, non-controversial identities for it, such as a species of fig tree or apple tree. Gordon, however, nurtured radically different ideas – ideas that concerned a location far removed from the Middle East, and an exotic tree that bore a fruit much more extraordinary than any fig or apple.

'The Garden of Eden', Thomas Cole, c 1828 (public domain)

During the early 1880s, Gordon spent time in Mauritius as Commander of the Royal Engineers, and in 1881 he visited the Seychelles archipelago (then part of the Crown Colony of Mauritius), about 1000 miles further north, on a military engagement. This was of particular interest to him for non-military reasons too, however, because his Kabbalistic scrutiny of the Bible's Book of Genesis, coupled with his knowledge of geography and place-name etymology, had indicated to him that here may be clues to Eden's location.

Gordon subscribed to what was then the popular theory that a once-mighty but long-since-sunken continent called Lemuria formerly spanned the Indian Ocean from Madagascar to India, and when he entered a lush green valley on Praslin known today as the Vallée de Mai (May Valley), he became convinced that this idyllic tropical location was a last surviving remnant of the Garden of Eden, with the remainder now lying beneath the waves near to Praslin. Moreover, as he gazed up in stupefied awe at its forest of magnificent coco-de-mer trees, present in great profusion and towering above him on every side in this magical, secluded place, Gordon felt certain that these wondrous plants were the direct descendants of the original Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil created by God and present in Eden at the very beginning of the world.

Vallée de Mai (public domain)

Indeed, Gordon deemed it likely that the coco-de-mer seed's suggestive form would have contributed to the temptation that the Tree of Knowledge's forbidden fruit represented. For as he was later to comment to leading British botanist Sir William T. Thiselton-Dyer, at that time the assistant director at Kew's Royal Botanic Gardens:

The fruit is shaped like the human heart, the bud or stem which attaches it to the branch like the male organ of generation. When the husk is taken off, the inner double nut [i.e. seed] is like the belly or thigh of a woman...In a word, its lines are those of the male and female organs of generation, and it is a fruit which cannot fail to attract attention by any one seeing it.

Evidently warming to his theme, in his records Gordon also wrote:

Externally the coco-de-mer represents the belly and thighs, the true seat of carnal desires...[which] caused the plague of our forefathers in the Garden of Eden.

Lending further support to this grandiose notion, at least according to Gordon, was the fact that these trees even possessed their very own Serpent – in reality, a 3-ft-long species of green snake that can frequently be found living amid their foliage.

Nor was that all. Gordon also considered the breadfruit trees Artocarpus altilis present on Praslin to be descended from Eden's original Tree of Life, whose fruit had sustained Adam and Eve during their time in the Garden. For as he already knew well, breadfruit was a staple food not only in the Seychelles but also in Mauritius, as well as in many other locations around the world.

Breadfruit, painted by Marguerite Girvin Gillin, c.1884 (public domain)

Yet if Praslin's Vallée de Mai was truly derived from the Garden of Eden, how could its presence in the middle of the Indian Ocean be explained? Easily, in Gordon's view – because he considered Praslin and the other Seychelles islands to be remnants of the vanished continent of Lemuria, which, he believed, had existed at the world's beginning but had sunk forever beneath the waves during the Great Flood.

So taken was Gordon with his identification of Eden as having existed just offshore of Praslin, with the Vallée de Mai its last surviving portion, and the coco-de-mer as the Tree of Knowledge, with its immense fruit the still-existing instrument of humanity's fall and expulsion from Eden at the dawn of time, that he wrote various articles and corresponded with a number of authorities, including those at Kew in 1882, as well as William Scott, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Pamplemousses, near Port Louis, Mauritius, concerning his eccentric beliefs.

Vallée de Mai palm forest (© Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

He also sent specimens of the coco-de-mer and breadfruit tree fruits to Kew, and even prepared a detailed map in which he linked Praslin to the four rivers mentioned in the Bible as landmarks for Eden. Unsurprisingly, however, his beliefs were not greeted with enthusiasm from contemporary scientists and writers. In particular, Gordon's concept of the coco-de-mer with its gargantuan double coconut as a plausible contender for the Tree of Knowledge was swiftly and robustly dismissed by his critics.

After all, as pointed out very reasonably by writer and onetime Seychelles resident H. Watley Estridge, for instance, how was Eve meant to climb to the top of a 100-ft-tall tree and carry down with her a fruit almost 2 ft across and weighing up to 66 lb (heavier than 3 bowling balls!), and then take a bite through its immensely hard, 4-in-thick husk before offering it to Adam? True, she might have sought one that had already fallen to the ground; however, the Bible specifically states that Eve had stretched out her hand and plucked a fruit – clearly implying that she had taken it directly from the tree.

Eve stretching out her hand and plucking a fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, as portrayed in 'The Garden of Eden With the Fall of Man' by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens (public domain)

Alternatively, as Gordon deftly represented in a detailed drawing prepared by him, the afore-mentioned green snake associated with coco-de-mer trees on Praslin could have made its way up the tree to fetch one for Eve. Yet this option has to assume of course that such a modestly-sized reptile actually possessed the strength and dexterity to carry it back down to her (or even to bite through its sturdy stem so that it would then fall to the ground) after securing one!

However, the considerable problem posed by Adam and Eve lacking the necessary density of dentition to avoid breaking their teeth when attempting to bite through its rock-hard exterior and equally firm kernel inside seemingly defied all attempts at resolution. Even the resourceful Gordon himself was at a loss to provide a satisfactory response to this particular obstacle.

Breadfruit tree in the Seychelles (public domain)

Equally, how could the breadfruit tree be descended from Eden's Tree of Life when it wasn't even endemic to the Seychelles? This species' ancestral, wild homeland was New Guinea (and possibly the Moluccas and Philippines too), from where it was subsequently introduced to many Polynesian islands, beginning around 3000 years ago, and from these to the Caribbean by the French during the late 1700s, and thence to the Maldives, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Africa, much of Asia, Central and South America, northern Australia, and southern Florida.

As for Lemuria, what physical proof was there to support the theory that this supposedly lost continent had ever existed to begin with? None, at least as far as the scientific world was – and still is – concerned, with no known geological formation under the Indian Ocean corresponding to Lemuria, and with the discontinuities in biogeography that the concept of Lemuria seemed to explain during the 1800s later being rendered superfluous and obsolete by modern theories of continental drift and plate tectonics.

Map of Lemuria superimposed on the modern continents, from William Scott-Elliot's book The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria, 1896 (public domain)

Following Gordon's tragic death in 1885, his idiosyncratic theories regarding Eden, its Tree of Knowledge, and their supposed link to the Seychelles fell into disrepute and were swiftly discarded, scarcely even referred to, let alone documented in detail, within modern-day publications – until now.

Nevertheless, the magic and mystery surrounding the coco-de-mer lives on. For with ultimate, bare-faced irony, the species whose female trees notoriously produce enormous, unashamedly lewd seeds that impersonate a woman's pelvis and whose male trees infamously yield huge, decidedly phallic inflorescences laden with pollen has never revealed the modus operandi by which its pollination is actually effected in the wild state.

How ironic it would be if the Seychelles' 'Tree of Knowledge' were found to be pollinated by a serpent! (public domain)

Is the male tree's pollen simply dispersed by the wind (anemophily), or is pollination a zoophilous process (i.e. involving animals, perhaps insects, or birds, or bats, or even reptiles)? How deliciously delightful (not to mention supremely ironic) it would be if the coco-de-mer's pollinator proved to be none other than the green snake that lurks amid its foliage – or the Tree of Knowledge propagated by the Serpent, as Gordon might have described such a discovery.

Yet not even Gordon, surely, could ever have imagined anything quite as Fortean as that!

An extremely unusual portrayal of the Tree of Knowledge – 'Tree of Knowledge (Initiation)', by Mordecai Moreh (copyright free)


SELECTED REFERENCES

ANON. (n.d.). Coco de mer. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, https://www.bgci.org/ourwork/coco_de_mer/

ANON. (n.d.). Coco-de-mer. 3am Thoughts, https://3amthoughts.com/article/miscellaneous/coco-de-mer

ANON. (2010). Study of coco-de-mer – Lodicea sechellarum. Kew Royal Botanic Gardens website, http://images.kew.org/study-of-coco-de-mer-lodicea-sechellarum/print/7899198.html 3 February.

ANON. (2011). I should coco… Wills and Kate are given rare aphrodisiac 'love nut' as honeymoon gift. Daily Mail (London), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1389748/Kate-Middleton-Prince-William-given-rare-aphrodisiac-love-nut-honeymoon-gift.html 23 May.

ASPIN, Richard (2014). Spotlight: General Gordon's Tree of Life. Wellcome Library Blog, http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2014/04/spotlight-general-gordons-tree-of-life/ 17 April.

BLACKBURN, Julia (1995). The Book of Colour: A Family Memoir. Jonathan Cape (London).

EMBODEN, William A. (1974). Bizarre Plants: Magical, Monstrous, Mythical. Studio Vista (London).

LEY, Willy (1955). Salamanders and Other Wonders: Still More Adventures of a Romantic Naturalist. Viking Press (New York).

POLLOCK, John (1993). Gordon: The Man Behind the Legend. Constable (London).

SCOTT, Tim (2011). Royal honeymooners' 'erotic' Seychelles souvenir. BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9538059.stm 16 July.

An almost dream-like portrayal of Eve being tempted by the Serpent alongside the Tree of Knowledge and a sleeping Adam in the Garden of Eden, by William Blake (public domain)