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.

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Thursday, 20 December 2012

UNEARTHING THE EARTH HOUND - A CORPSE-DEVOURING CRYPTID FROM SCOTLAND

Behold, the earth hound! (Shaun Histed-Todd)


"Without a doubt, this must be the book of the year. Even before one opens the cover up the sheer quality of the publication grabs you. It is plush and impressive and the contents match the sleeve. This is Karl's finest work since The Lost Ark and is crammed so damn full of new information you just don't know where to begin. I pride myself in cryptozoological knowledge but there's stuff in here I've never heard of. Earth hound, weird subterranean carnivores that burrow into graves to devour cadavers, the sandewan, a Zimbabwean entity whose calling-card is a constant trail of blood, giant blue eels in the Ganges, and legions more."

Richard Freeman – Review of my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (Carlton: London, 1999) in Animals and Men, No. 20 (December 1999)


Cryptozoologically-speaking, Scotland is world-famous for the Loch Ness monster, and also for its plethora of pantheresque and cougar-like mystery cats that allegedly roam its lonely moors and shadowy glens. However, these are not the only cryptids on record from this northernmost country of the United Kingdom. As highlighted above in Richard Freeman's review of my book Mysteries of Planet Earth, I always strive to uncover and document intriguing but hitherto little-publicised, obscure mystery beasts, and one excellent example - far less familiar but no less fascinating than Nessie and Scotland's alien big cats - is the extraordinary, and distinctly macabre, earth hound of Banffshire (a former northeastern Scottish county now split up into two other counties).


STRANGER THAN FICTION?

They do say that art imitates life, and sometimes it does so even without anyone initially realising it! So it was with the earth hound. Back in 1994, Canadian actor Stephen McHattie starred in an intriguing horror movie entitled ‘The Dark’, in which a mystifying – and quite monstrous – rat-like creature inhabiting graveyards was pursued by a cryptozoological biker. It is well known that two of my own abiding passions are cryptozoology and riding motorbikes, but at the time of this film’s release I had no idea that just a few years later I would be investigating a hitherto-obscure graveyard-inhabiting mystery beast allegedly resembling a grotesque rat, and apparently living in my very own British homeland!

Two stills from 'The Dark'

I first learnt of the earth hound’s existence when I happened to read a short account of it written by British folklorist Paul Screeton and published in his own magazine, Folklore Frontiers. This summarised an earlier article, from the 1992-1993 volume of the journal Scottish Studies, written by Alexander Fenton and cryptozoological chronicler David Heppell, which reviewed what little information appears to have been documented on this cryptid.

What would seem to be the earliest currently-revealed reference to the earth hound – also known variously as the yard pig or yard swine – appeared in the Reverend Walter Gregor’s book Notes on the Folk-Lore of North East Scotland (1881), in which he wrote of:

"...a mysterious dreaded sort of animal, called the “yird swine”…believed to live in graveyards, burrowing among the dead bodies and devouring them."


A CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF THE BITING KIND

During their researches, Fenton and Heppell discovered a detailed letter on the subject of the earth hound within the archives of the Department of Natural History of the Natural Museums of Scotland. Written in 1917 by A. Smith of Wartle in Aberdeenshire to James Ritchie in Edinburgh, it recorded that a local gardener named Archibald recalled how his father was ploughing some fields in Deveron around 50 years earlier (i.e. around 1867) when he uncovered an earth hound in its nest. When he attempted to kill it with his foot, the earth hound bit his boot so hard that its teeth cut into the leather, so his father killed it with the plough’s swingle-tree, and took its carcase back home with him. (A swingle-tree is a wooden or metal horizontal bar used to balance the pull of a draught horse pulling a plough or carriage, known as a singletree in America.)

In his letter, Smith described the earth hound as being somewhat like a rat in basic form and brown in colour, but its head was long like a hound’s, and its tail was bushier than a rat’s. He also claimed that the nests of earth hounds were sometimes exposed by ploughs but the creatures themselves were only very rarely spied, and inhabited churchyards.

Depiction of the fraught encounter by Archibald's father with an earth hound (William Rebsamen)

Worth noting here is that the field being ploughed when this particular earth hound had been uncovered was very close to a churchyard – indeed, this churchyard was later abandoned due to the firmly-held belief that it was infested with these creatures. It was also believed that earth hounds always lived close to water, and constructed their nests in haughs (stretches of river-deposited land forming part of river valleys).

When his father arrived home with the earth hound’s carcase, Archibald saw it himself, as did all of their neighbours, who viewed it with great interest. In his letter, Smith stated that Archibald:

"...describes it as being something between a rat and a weasel, and about the size of a ferret, head very like that of a dog, and I think he said the tail was not very long. At a casual glance it would be mistaken for a rat, but was quite unlike on close examination."


OTHER INFORMATION

Interestingly, further details from Smith were present in a note bearing the same date as his previous letter but posted the following day, and referring to a meeting in Mastrick with someone who may have been Archibald himself, although this is not made clear in the note. Yet whoever this person was, he had evidently seen the earth hound carcase and knew of the incident itself, because Smith had questioned him directly about it. According to this person’s testimony, the earth hound had run some distance along the plough before it had been killed, and additional morphological information contained in this note revealed that it had been:

"...about the size of a rat. Asked about colour, he thought it was like a dark rat. It had feet like a mole, and a tail about half as long as a rat’s. Head was long and nostrils very prominent, suggesting a pig’s. Head somewhat like that of a guinea-pig. It had noticeable white “tusks”, whatever that might mean – (probably incisors)…Mastrick is about 10 minutes’ walk from here, and curiously enough is close to the churchyard."

Reconstruction of the supposed morphology of the earth hound, based upon eyewitness descriptions (William Rebsamen)

A paragraph about earth hounds that appeared in the People’s Journal in June 1950 referred to them as ‘yird pigs’ or ‘earth huns’, claiming that they were “really rats...only found in graveyards”. More recently, in April 1990, when Alexander Fenton visited a Banffshire town called Reith, he discovered that the earth hound was still spoken of there. A Reith friend stated that they are between a rat and a rabbit, and live in graveyards, digging down and breaking into the coffins. He even took Fenton to a churchyard where such creatures are still said to dwell – Walla kirkyard at the edge of the River Deveron (thus in the vicinity of the earth hound incident featuring Archibald’s father over a century before) - but, sadly, no sign of any was found there.


IN SEARCH OF AN IDENTITY

So what exactly is the earth hound – a still-undiscovered mini-beast awaiting detection if it hasn’t died out by now, or just a macabre Scottish legend, or even nothing more than a monstrous misidentification of some already known species? In the film ‘The Dark’, the movie equivalent of this mystery beast turned out to be an archaic species of rat previously thought by scientists to be long extinct. In contrast, I think it highly unlikely that Scotland’s earth hound will ever be shown to be a prehistoric survivor, but its tantalisingly scant documentation yet lingering recollection among the local Banff people is sufficiently noteworthy to warrant some consideration as to what it may – or may not – be.


Consequently, I included a concise account of the earth hound in my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), the first cryptozoologically-related book ever to document this mystery beast, and which also contained a specially-commissioned full-colour reconstruction of its likely appearance by acclaimed wildlife artist William Rebsamen from Fort Worth, Arkansas. This superb illustration is now included here too, along with a second picture by William, depicting the boot-biting earth hound encounter described above.

As a result, I have since received some suggestions and ideas regarding what this mystifying mammal could be. Two of the most intriguing ones, for different reasons, are as follows.


BADGERING FORTH AN EXPLANATION?

One of these is the suggestion that because ‘earth hound’ and ‘earth pig’ have been used as local names in Britain for the European badger Meles meles, and because badgers have been known to dig through graves, the Scottish earth hound may be one and the same creature as the badger. If only it were that simple! The fundamental, irreconcilable problem with this proposed identity is that the description of the earth hound as documented in all of the sources presented here is radically different in shape, size, and colour from that of the European badger, which in any case is one of the most distinctive, readily-identifiable, and familiar mammals throughout the British Isles. Consequently, it is inconceivable that any country-living person would not recognise a badger (even a very young, small badger) if they should encounter one. Also, badgers do not make nests in ploughable haughs or fields. Instead, they construct extensive setts in woodlands.

European badger – radically different in appearance from the earth hound (Peter Trimming/Wikipedia)

In short, whatever the earth hound is, or was, it certainly has no affinity with a badger, other than the sharing with it of a country name - something that occurs with many other animal species, often featuring zoologically unrelated species linked only by some common behavioural or very superficial morphological trait. In the case of the Scottish earth hound and the badger, the only similarities of any kind are their powerful digging feet (something that all burrowing animals necessarily possess anyway) and their underground (but very different) abodes – a simple nest in the case of the former animal, a complex and sizeable sett in the latter.


BEWARE THE WOLVERINE, MY SON!

The other intriguing identity is that the earth hound stories refer to young specimens of the wolverine Gulo gulo (adult wolverines are the largest members of the weasel or mustelid family). Unfortunately, however, as with the badger suggestion, the morphology and lifestyle of the earth hound do not correspond at all with that of wolverines, of any age, which are not fossorial at all. In addition, whereas the badger is at least native to Britain, the wolverine is not, though it does occur in parts of northern mainland Europe.

Young wolverine – not corresponding physically or behaviourally with the earth hound (Zefram/Wikipedia)

Having said that, and as also documented in Mysteries of Planet Earth, a few specimens have allegedly been sighted in recent years in various parts of Great Britain. If genuine, these may be escapees from fur farms (wolverines have not been maintained in British zoos for several years). Even so, the wolverine is simply too dissimilar in every way from descriptions of the earth hound for this to be a viable identity.


RAT, MOLE, OR FERRET?

So what is left? Just a Scottish myth, or something more? Reading through the earth hound accounts, three very different zoological identities come to my mind. One is that the rat-like earth hound is indeed a rodent of some kind. However, although it is comparable to rats in size, colour, and superficial form, and makes nests like the black rat (but not like the much more common brown rat, which isn’t a nest-builder), it still doesn’t closely match either of these two known species of British rat (or any other known British rodent) on account of its furry tail, digging feet, hound-like head, and large tusks.

Conversely, moles definitely possess large digging feet, but not a hound-like head or tusks. They do build nests, but only inside their deep burrows, not in fields, and they certainly do not burrow into graves and devour human corpses present there.

Equally, if we assume that the earth hound may be a small mustelid related to the weasel and to North America’s black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes (which until its near-extinction in the wild lived in abandoned prairie dog burrows), it is difficult to reconcile the possibility that until at least a century ago a very distinct species of mammal (rodent or mustelid) undocumented by science had been alive and well and living in Scotland.

Black-footed ferret (Mariomassone/Wikipedia)

After all, if this were indeed the case, surely there would have been a few preserved specimens or skins, or at least some illustrations of this creature, possibly even a blurry photo or two – especially as Great Britain is one of the most extensively-studied places in the world in relation to wildlife. Yet there does not seem to be any physical evidence of its existence on record anywhere. If only Archibald had preserved the carcase of the specimen killed by his father. That, to me, is the single biggest reason for casting a very sceptical eye over the earth hound file – at least for now. If, of course, someone should uncover additional information, and, ideally, some tangible evidence for this fascinating mystery beast’s reality, I would be only too delighted to reconsider!


PAW-NOTE

After first learning of its existence from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth, Richard Freeman became so interested in the earth hound that he subsequently wrote a suitably gruesome, chilling horror story concerning this necrophagous nightmare, which he has included in his recently-published collection of short stories. Accompanying his earth hound story was a spectacular, specially-commissioned artwork by Shaun Histed-Todd, who has kindly permitted me to include it in my writings too. So here it is, in two different colour versions, opening and closing this present ShukerNature blog post – thanks, Shaun!

The earth hound wakes! (Shaun Histed-Todd)


Monday, 17 December 2012

CATS OF MAGIC, MYTHOLOGY, AND MYSTERY IS NOW IN PRINT!



Yes, my latest book, Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2012), is now in print! No more pre-ordering; now, nicely in time for Christmas, it can be directly ordered and purchased from the publisher at www.catsofmagicmythologyandmystery.com - and it is also available online at Amazon, just click here.

And if you need any further inducement, here's one particular cat of magic, mythology, and mystery giving it a full feline endorsement, ably assisted by the CFZ Press's very own publisher-in-chief, Mr Jonathan Downes, who looks equally delighted with it!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

THE GRIFFINS AND THE FROG RAIN

My grandmother Gertrude Timmins (with my dog Patch), who experienced a frog rain when she was a girl during the early 1900s (Dr Karl Shuker)

One of the oddest enigmas of nature is the widely-reported phenomenon of frog rain - i.e. unaccountable falls of frogs down to earth from the sky, sometimes in appreciable numbers and usually (but not always) during a shower of rain. Sceptics attempt to explain this weird occurrence away by suggesting that the frogs in question were merely lurking unseen in ground-level vegetation, and were flushed out of cover by the rain, thereby creating the illusion that they had actually fallen down from the sky with the rain. However, there are various cases on file in which it is clear that the frogs really did fall from above. These cases include the following one - which happened to a member of my own family.

A frog rain as depicted on the front cover of Fate Magazine for May 1958 (© Fate Magazine)

In or around 1902, when she was about 8 years old, my maternal grandmother, Gertrude Timmins (née Griffin), was walking with her mother, Mary Griffin, across a field in what is now the town of West Bromwich, in the West Midlands, England. As they were walking, it began to rain, so they opened their umbrellas, but a few moments later Gertrude felt a great number of quite heavy thumps on top of hers. When she peered out from beneath it, she saw to her amazement that the objects responsible for the thumps were small frogs - dropping down from above, hitting the top of her umbrella, bouncing off it, and falling to the ground around her feet. She became quite frightened, but her mother assured her that there was nothing to fear, informing her in a wholly matter-of-fact manner that it was merely a frog rain, and that the frogs would stop falling soon - which they did. This dramatic incident left such a vivid impression in my grandmother’s mind that right up to her death in 1994, at the age of 99, she could still readily recall all of it.

This is the species, the European common frog Rana temporaria, to which the specimens encountered by my grandmother would have belonged (Richard Bartz/Wikipedia)

Why this case is so significant is that the frogs had actually been cascading down on to the tops of the umbrellas, confirming that they had not merely emerged out of undergrowth on the ground when the rain began. Moreover, there were no buildings or trees nearby from which they could have dropped – always assuming that they could, or would, have found their way onto such structures anyway. In short, the only place where the frogs could have come from was the sky.

Frog rain, in Conrad Lycosthenes's Prodigiorum ac Ostentorum, 1557

The most popular theory for zoological falls is that the creatures in question have been lifted from their normal terrestrial or aquatic abodes by a whirlwind or waterspout, carried some distance through the air, and then dropped back down to earth. Initially, this seems quite a reasonable solution - until it is realised that these falls are almost always species-specific, i.e. a given animal fall normally contains only a single species. Moreover, it does not usually contain any mud, vegetation, or any other substratum either - just the single animal species.

A photoshopped frog rain (Worth1000.com)

Yet how could a waterspout or whirlwind be so extraordinarily selective, just lifting members of one species (e.g. of frog, or fish, or snail), and leaving all other animal species in the same locality uncollected, and not even lifting up any substratum? It is this baffling specificity, this unexpected paucity of mixed showers, that poses such a problem when attempting to accept the vortex explanation for animal falls.


This ShukerNature post is excerpted from 'It's Raining Sprats and Frogs' – a chapter from my book Dr Shuker's Casebook: In Pursuit of Marvels and Mysteries (CFZ Press: Bideford, 2008).




Saturday, 15 December 2012

THE GOUROCK SEA SERPENT - METAPHORICALLY EXHUMING A LONG-BURIED CRYPTO-MYSTERY

Representation of the Gourock sea serpent carcase, based upon a sketch by eyewitness Charles Rankin (Dr Karl Shuker)

The history of cryptozoology is embarrassingly well-supplied with classic cases of lost opportunities, and the long-running saga of the sea serpents has provided quite a number of these over the years. One of the most notable examples took place on the shores of Gourock, on Scotland's River Clyde. This was where, in summer 1942, an intriguing (if odiferous!) carcase was stranded that was closely observed by council officer Charles Rankin.

Measuring 27-28 ft long, it had a lengthy neck, a relatively small flattened head with sharp muzzle and prominent eyebrow ridges, large pointed teeth in each jaw, rather large laterally-sited eyes, a long rectangular tail that seemed to have been vertical in life, and two pairs of 'L'-shaped flippers (of which the front pair were the larger, and the back pair the broader). Curiously, its body did not appear to contain any bones other than its spinal column, but its smooth skin bore many 6-in-long, bristle-like 'hairs' - resembing steel knitting needles in form and thickness but more flexible.

Rankin was naturally very curious to learn what this strange creature could be, whose remains resembled those of a huge lizard in his opinion; but as World War II was well underway and this locality had been classed as a restricted area, he was not permitted to take any photographs of it, and scientists who might otherwise have shown an interest were presumably occupied with wartime work. Consequently, this mystery beast's carcase was summarily disposed of - hacked into pieces and buried in the grounds of the municipal incinerator, but which have since been converted into a football pitch. All that remained to verify its onetime existence was one of its strange 'knitting needle' bristles, which Rankin had pulled out of a flipper and kept in his desk, where it eventually shrivelled until it resembled a coiled spring.

Great white shark - was this, or some similar canivorous shark species, the identity of the Gourock sea serpent?

When considered collectively, features such these bristles (readily recalling the ceratotrichia - cartilaginous fibres - of shark fin rays), the carcase's lizard-like shape, vertical tail (characteristic of fishes), lack of body bones, and smooth skin suggest a decomposing shark as a plausible identity (i.e. adopting the deceptive 'pseudoplesiosaur' form so frequently reported for rotting basking sharks).

Yet the large pointed teeth argue against this traditional basking shark explanation in favour of one of the large carnivorous species. However, if Rankin's estimate of its size was accurate, it must have been a veritable monster of a specimen - the world's largest known species of carnivorous shark, the notorious great white shark Carcharodon carcharias, rarely exceeds 20 ft.

If only some taxonomically-significant portion of the Gourock sea serpent's body could have been retained for formal examination - in particular its skull, a flipper, or at least some teeth. Instead, they have presumably been pounded ever deeper into the earth by the studs of a succession of soccer teams - oblivious to the cryptozoological treasure trove lying forgotten beneath their feet.

Diagram revealing how a decomposing basking shark (top) transforms into a deceptively plesiosaurian carcase, known as a pseudoplesiosaur (centre), with a genuine plesiosaur (bottom) for comparison (Markus Bühler)

Incidentally, it hardly need be said that the local council would definitely not be best pleased if anyone should attempt to dig up the grounds in search of this creature's remains without having first received permission to do so!!
 
 

Friday, 14 December 2012

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? IN SEARCH OF THE WOODWOSE, EUROPE'S ELUSIVE MAN-BEAST

Captive wild man being tamed by virtuous woman - Swiss tapestry, late 1400s

Homo sapiens was not the only species of human named and recognised by Linnaeus when publishing Systema Naturae, his revolutionary binomial system of zoological classification, in 1735. Among several others was Homo ferus, the wild man, which according to Linnaeus was covered in hair, moved on all fours, was mute, and lived apart from H. sapiens in forests, hills, and mountains. Today, none of Linnaeus’s ‘other’ species of human is recognised by mainstream science.

Bestiary depiction of European wild man

Nevertheless, his European wild man, also known as the woodwose or wudewasa, has such a richly intertwined history of folklore, depictions in medieval art and architecture, and reported true-life encounters, including certain very recent ones, that some cryptozoologists and primatologists wonder whether such beings might indeed have existed in the not-too-distant past, and may even still linger on today in some of Europe’s more remote, secluded localities. But what could they be? As will be seen from the following selection of cases, several very different identities could be involved, collectively yielding a composite, polyphyletic woodwose entity rather than any single-origin, monophyletic being.

Woodwoses (Albrecht Dürer, 1499)


WILD MEN, OR FERAL CHILDREN?

Linnaeus himself delineated various subcategories of Homo ferus, of which the most significant was Juvenis lupinus hessensis – ‘wolf boys’, or feral children. That is, children believed to have been abandoned or lost by their parents in the wild but subsequently raised there by wolves or other animals. According to legend, moreover, Romulus (alleged founder of Rome) and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. There is little doubt that such children were indeed responsible for certain reports of alleged woodwose.

Depiction of Mowgli, the wolf boy from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books, by Kipling's father, J Lockwood Kipling (1895)

As recently as 1934, for example, a supposed woodwose was briefly spied running through some trees by a party of hunters in the forests near Uzitza in Serbia. Pursuing it, they fired and the entity dropped to the ground, shocked but unharmed. When the hunters approached, they discovered to their great surprise that their quarry was a completely naked and somewhat hairy but otherwise normal-looking human youth, approximately 15 years old, terrified, and covered in mud. Taken back by the hunters to their home village, he was unable to speak any language, but was found to be remarkably fast-moving, could run naturally on all fours, and was able to imitate with startling accuracy the sounds and songs of the various beasts and birds sharing his woodland home, where he had apparently lived for much of his life, feeding upon berries and roots.

Famous statue of Romulus and Remus suckling a she-wolf

Another such case was the Wild Girl of Champagne, France, cited by Linnaeus himself (dubbing her Puella campanica) as support for his Homo ferus species. She had been confirmed to have survived 10 years (November 1721-September 1731) in this region’s forests before being captured at the age of 19. Unusually for feral children, she then learnt to read and write, and became totally rehabilitated intellectually and socially.


RETURNING TO THE WILD?

A number of so-called wild men have proven to be ordinary humans that for a variety of different reasons – from poverty, mental health issues, or escape from persecution or criminal retribution to a simple desire to shake off the burdens of modern life – had abandoned their normal life and dropped out of human society, seeking solace and solitude in the wild and regressing to an almost bestial existence.

A possible woodwose statue inside St Mary's Church at Woolpit, Suffolk, where the famous Green Children allegedly appeared many centuries ago - could they have been abandoned children, left to fend for themselves in the wild? (Dr Karl Shuker)

In autumn 1936, for instance, a team of foresters inspecting one of the great forests near Riga, Latvia, unexpectedly encountered an extraordinary apeman-like entity crouching at the base of a tree. When it saw the men, it fled rapidly, swinging itself onto an overhanging branch and climbing upwards with remarkable speed and agility to the very top. When shot at by one of the foresters, the entity shrieked and crashed down onto the ground, where it was seized by the men, who discovered that it was covered in hair and bereft of any clothing. When it was taken back to a village close by, however, the being was recognised there as a farm labourer who had disappeared many years earlier, but he was now no longer able to speak or understand speech, and was capable only of yelling gleefully when meat or fruit was placed before him.

Wild man of Orford sculpture on font in Church of St Bartolomew, Orford (Simon K/Flickr)

A similar, more famous entity was Suffolk’s “wild man of Orford”, who, during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), was captured in the nets of some sailors while he was swimming in the sea. According to a description penned by chronicler-monk Ralph of Coggeshall in his Chronicon Anglicanum, the being was completely naked but resembled a man in every way, with a profuse and pointed beard, hair that seemed torn and rubbed on his head, and very hirsute breasts. Brought back to the local castle and guarded day and night, he was unable to speak, did not display any sign of reverence when taken into the local church, and preferred eating fish raw rather than cooked. He escaped into the sea once, but eventually returned of his own accord; when he escaped a second time, however, he did not return and was never seen again.

William Blake's famous depiction of Nebuchadnezzar in the wilderness (1795)

During the Middle Ages, insane people or simpletons were sometimes released into the wilderness to fend for themselves, so that they became little more than wild beasts. According to the Holy Bible’s Book of Daniel, moreover, the once-mighty Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II underwent a seven-year period of madness during which time he lived alone in the wild, crawling on all fours eating grass, and allowing his hair and nails to grow unchecked until he resembled a man-beast instead of a man.

AT THE SIGN OF THE WILD MAN

There is no doubt that an appreciable component of the woodwose composite is the wild man as a symbol rather than a corporeal entity, personifying Nature or various aspects of it. In traditional rural folklore, the wild man most commonly represents strength, fertility, rebirth, and the ‘noble savage’ uncorrupted by modern civilisation. Very popular in medieval times but still occurring in certain rural areas of the Balkans and elsewhere in Europe even today are countryside pageants and festivals that feature dancers dressed in elaborate, ostentatiously hairy wild man costumes and taking part in symbolic wild man hunts, in which the latter is the quarry, to be captured and killed but afterwards resurrected.

The wild man and his family (De Negker David, Renaissance Period)

Moreover, the symbolic wild man is often closely allied to the green man, in which the former’s hair is replaced by a leafy profusion of foliage but its symbolic significance remains much the same.

Green man sculpture (Dr Karl Shuker)


CORPOREAL HUMANOID OR PARANORMAL PRESENCE?

In modern times, there have been reports of man-beasts in regions of Britain where it is simply not possible for such a species to exist without having been discovered by science long ago.

Visiting Cannock Chase (Dr Karl Shuker)

Persistent sightings of troll-like entities in the forests of Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, for instance, and even a 6.5-m-tall hairy bipedal giant allegedly encountered on Ben MacDhui, Scotland’s haunted mountain where the panic-inducing Big Grey Man is said to roam, cannot be readily explained (if accepted as genuine and not hoaxes) by normal cryptozoological theories.

Does a huge hairy man-beast entity exist on Ben MacDhui?

Consequently, it has been suggested that beings like these are not corporeal man-beasts at all, but instead are zooform entities – preternatural creatures assuming visible, humanoid form but of occult, paranormal nature and origin.


WAS GRENDEL A WOODWOSE?

The eponymous hero’s deadly foe, Grendel, in the famous Anglo-Saxon epic poem ‘Beowulf’, is generally thought of as a totally imaginary monster, and has been depicted and classified in many different ways. Intriguingly, however, some cryptozoological researchers, including American chronicler Thomas J. Mooney, have speculated that perhaps Grendel was actually a man-beast - because he is described in the poem as bipedal, clawed, larger and stronger than humans but somewhat humanoid in shape, very ugly, and residing in gloomy seclusion with his mother inside a cave hidden deep within a forest in Sweden.

Grendel, portrayed as a man-beast by J.R. Skelton (early 1900s)

If we assume (though it is obviously a very big, unsubstantiated assumption) that Grendel was based upon a real creature, a woodwose or similar man-beast would correspond more closely than any known animal species, including bears.


LAST OF THE NEANDERTHALS?

By far the most exciting suggestion on offer is that at least some woodwose reports are based upon relict Neanderthals. Variously deemed a subspecies of Homo sapiens or a separate species in its own right, Neanderthal Man first appeared in Europe as a distinct hominid with a complete set of recognisable characteristics approximately 130,000 years ago and officially became extinct here 24,000-30,000 years ago.
Reconstructions of Neanderthal man and woman at the Neanderthal Museum (UNiesert/Wikipedia)

Co-existing alongside our ancestor, Cro-Magnon Man, for around 10,000 years, Neanderthals are widely believed to have interbred with Cro-Magnons, and such interbreeding may even have brought about the Neanderthals’ extinction, via absorption into the Cro-Magnon population.

Neanderthal skull (Dr Karl Shuker)

It was veteran American cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson who first widely popularised the notion that perhaps the reports and legends of wild men in Europe arose from encounters with late-surviving Neanderthals, quietly persisting reclusively in various scarcely-traversed localities across Europe long after their official extinction date. This was subsequently championed by none other than the ‘Father of Cryptozoology’ himself, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans, who believed that the satyrs of Greek mythology also belonged to this category, and included the following paragraph in his comprehensive annotated checklist of cryptozoological creatures, published in 1986:

"[In Europe:] Wild hairy men, most probably Neanderthals having survived into historical times. Known as satyrs in classical antiquity – a name borrowed from the Hebrew se’ir (“the hairy one”) – and as wudewása (“wood being”) in the Middle Ages, they were reported until the 13th century in Ireland, until the 16th century in Saxony and Norway, until the 18th century on the Swedish island of Öland and in Estonia, in the Pyrénées ([known there as] iretges, basajaun) up to 1774 at least, and in the Carpathians (“wild man” of Kronstadt) up to 1784 at least."

Satyr statue by Frank 'Guy' Lynch, Sydney Botanic Gardens (Dr Karl Shuker)

In fact, it is possible that such beings have survived far beyond even those times in certain mountainous regions of Spain, with sightings there having being reported as recently as the 1990s, and which have since been researched by several cryptozoologists, including Sergio de la Rubia-Muñoz, who documented the following reports.

Neanderthal reconstruction (Dr Karl Shuker)

On 4 May 1993 at around 3.45 pm, in a sparsely-populated area known as Peña Montañesa (in Huesca) in the Spanish Pyrenees, woodsman Manuel Cazcarra was working with five others when, after they had all heard a scream and some squeals nearby, he went off to investigate and encountered a hairy man-beast, standing 1.7 m tall. It immediately clambered swiftly up a pine tree, where it remained, clutching a branch with its arms and legs, and screaming loudly. When Cazcarra called the other men, they came running up and one of them, Ramiro López, was just in time to see the entity climb back down to the ground and hide itself behind a dense thicket before hurling a hefty tree branch in their direction. Not surprisingly, they chose not to pursue it further!

'The Fight in the Forest' - a woodwose-featuring engraving (Hans Burgkmair, early 1500s)

These eyewitnesses were woodsmen, they were used to working in forests and were very familiar with bears, but they stated categorically that what they had seen was no bear. Mysterious footprints that could not be identified with any known species in the area were found there later that same week by a patrol of the Guardia Civil, accompanied by one of the woodsmen. And soon afterwards, an ape-like figure was seen crossing a road near the French border by a family travelling in their car towards Prats de Molló.

Wild man design for a stained glass window, generally (though not universally) believed to be by Hans Holbein the Younger

During the late spring of 1994, another putative woodwose sighting was made in this same region. While hiking from Peña Montañesa to the village of Bielsa close by, Juan Ramó Ferrer, a mountain climber from Andalusia, encountered a very hirsute but distinctly humanoid entity jumping from tree to tree and giving voice to ape-like squeals. According to the description later given by Ferrer, who had duly fled, terrified, to a campsite near Peña Montañesa, the entity was shortish, was covered with reddish hair, had very long ape-like arms, and exuded a musky odour.

Humorous set of figurines depicting a woodwose family (Dr Karl Shuker)

It would be easy to shrug off the woodwose as merely a medieval legend, but reports such as those documented here suggest that there is much more than that to this mystery.

Woodwose (Albrecht Dürer, 1520s)

Reports of hairy man-beasts in Europe and the Middle East (not to mention the Himalayan yeti, Mongolian almas, Chinese yeren, North American bigfoot, and numerous other similar beings reported elsewhere around the globe) date back to antiquity, and some of these definitely bear comparison with Neanderthal Man.

Wild man depiction in Omnium Fere Gentiumr - Jean Sluperji, Antwerp, 1572


EVIDENCE FROM THE BIBLE?

But perhaps we should not be too surprised that a second species of human, a hairy wild man far removed from our own naked ‘civilised’ species, may well have existed alongside us since the earliest days and even into the present day.

Wild man with shield (Martin Schongauer, 1490)

We have only to turn to the Holy Bible (Genesis 25: 21-27, referring to the brothers Esau and Jacob) for a highly unexpected yet remarkably precise corroboration of this dramatic cryptozoological prospect:

  "And Isaac intreated the Lord for his wife...and Rebekah his wife conceived.
   And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.
   And the Lord said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
   And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb.
   And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau.
   And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob...
   And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents."

Esau portrayed as a hairy wild man, alongside an ape (left) for comparison (Johann Scheuchzer, 1731)

What better way of describing to non-scientific laymen, back in the ancient days when this Old Testament passage was written, the existence and development of two separate species (nations) of human, one of which is modern man and the other the wild man? Perhaps Linnaeus was right after all.

'Wild Women with Unicorn', c.1500-1510, Basel Historical Museum


AND FINALLY:

Woodwose riding a unicorn - one fabulous beast, or two?
   

Thursday, 13 December 2012

THE MEGALOPEDUS, THE SUKOTYRO, AND A VERY CRYPTIC CABINET OF CURIOSITIES

The sukotyro, as depicted in a colour engraving from 1812 (Dr Karl Shuker)

In cryptozoology, it is always a delight to unearth accounts of hitherto-obscure mystery beasts from the archives of antiquity. Lately two such creatures, hailing from widely disparate geographical regions but of oddly similar appearance, have occupied my attention simultaneously, though with very different outcomes, as will be seen!


THE TUSKED MEGALOPEDUS

It was American cryptozoological contact Marc Gaglione who first brought the tusked megalopedus to my attention, asking me in early 2011 if I’d ever heard of this enigmatic beast:

"What are some animals, small or large, that are known only from a single specimen, skin, or skull? Is there something called a Tusked Megalopedus? I read the name somewhere."

However, I certainly hadn’t, because I would have definitely remembered a name as distinctive as ‘tusked megalopedus’, and, indeed, would have actively investigated it - if only because of the tantalising cryptozoological coincidence that ‘megalopedus’ translates as ‘bigfoot’! But a bigfoot with tusks? Moreover, judging from the context of Marc’s message, it appeared that this creature was known only from a single specimen, making it even more curious.

Mirroring that situation, internet searches for information concerning the tusked megalopedus yielded only a single but highly informative source. It stated that this mysterious creature had been described by no less an authority than Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), the famous Roman naturalist-scholar and author of the encyclopaedic work Historia Naturalis. It also claimed that the only known specimen of the megalopedus was ensconced in a quite extraordinary cabinet of curiosities, and it included a description of this remarkable collection as witnessed by a visiting journalist that contains a brief account of that unique specimen:

"...a strange stuffed animal greeted his eye: a large, tapirlike mammal with a huge muzzle, powerful forelegs, bulbous head, and curving tusks. It was like nothing he had ever seen before; a freak. He bent down to make out the dim label: Only known specimen of the Tusked Megalopedus, described by Pliny, thought to be fantastical until this specimen was shot in the Belgian Congo by the English explorer Col. Sir Henry F. Moreton, in 1869...[But] could it be true? A large mammal, completely unknown to science?"

So where can this peerless repository of the world’s only tusked megalopedus, and untold other scientific treasures besides, be found? Yes, you’ve guessed it – in the pages of a novel! Published in 2002 and entitled (what else?) The Cabinet of Curiosities, it was written by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and is the source of the above statements and quote.



Once I’d discovered that, I contacted Marc, who confirmed that this was indeed the book where he had read about the megalopedus, but he had wondered whether, although the story was fiction, the animal itself may have been genuine. Certainly, Pliny documented many bizarre creatures in his encyclopaedia, some of which were later unmasked as legendary beasts or even wholly fictitious monsters with no basis either in fact or in folklore, so such a situation would not be unprecedented.

Reconstruction of the tusked megalopedus's appearance as described in The Cabinet of Curiosities (Tim Morris)

As far as I am aware, however, there is no mention of the tusked megalopedus in any of Pliny’s works. Another reason for doubting even an erstwhile existence for this ultra-cryptic creature supposedly hailing from the Belgian Congo is that the name of its discoverer, Col. Sir Henry F. Moreton, is clearly inspired by that of a real explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who did indeed contribute to a major zoological discovery in the Belgian Congo – the okapi, in 1901.

Nevertheless, I would be delighted to be proven wrong, and receive verifiable evidence that Pliny genuinely documented the mystifying megalopedus, or even something comparable upon which the megalopedus may have been based. Consequently, if anyone out there can do so, please send in details!

Having said that, there is one final, but extremely significant twist in the tale (if not the tail!) of the tusked megalopedus. Even though this is assuredly a make-believe mammal, its description is strangely reminiscent of a seemingly genuine yet wholly obscure, long-forgotten mystery beast that I serendipitously uncovered during my megalopedus investigations. And the name of this overlooked oddity? The sukotyro of Java.


THE SUKOTYRO

While seeking possible images of the megalopedus before discovering its true nature, I spotted a very unusual antiquarian print for sale online. It depicted two animals. One was Australia’s familiar duck-billed platypus. The other was an entirely unfamiliar hoofed mammal labelled as the sukotyro. This print was a colour plate taken from Ebenezer Sibly’s A Universal System of Natural History (1794). I collect antiquarian natural history prints as a hobby, but I was reluctant to purchase this one as I considered its asking price to be unjustifiably high. Happily, however, further internet perusal soon yielded several other plates depicting this same creature, all dating from the early 1800s.

Despite emanating from different sources, these plates' depictions were all clearly based upon the same, earlier, original illustration (see later here). And as they were reasonably priced, I duly purchased no less than three large, excellent plates (two in colour, one b/w) that included the instantly-recognisable sukotyro image (together with various well-known beasts). At a later date I also succeeded in purchasing a reasonably-priced 1804-dated version of Sibly's plate.

The platypus (top) and the sukotyro (bottom), depicted in a colour plate from 1804 (Dr Karl Shuker)

As the images reproduced here from some of these plates reveal, the sukotyro does not readily resemble any known mammal. Its large, burly body (variously portrayed as elephantine grey or deep-brown in coloured depictions) is somewhat rhinoceros-like in general shape but its smooth skin lacks these creatures’ characteristic armour, and its long, bushy-tipped tail differs from their shorter versions. Equally distinct is the short upright narrow mane that runs down the entire length of its back.

Furthermore, each of its feet appears to possess four hooves (thereby allying it with the pigs, hippos, camels, ruminants, and other even-toed ungulates or artiodactyls, whereas the rhinos are odd-toed ungulates or perissodactyls, which also include the horses and tapirs). Its head is also totally unlike that of any rhinoceros, sporting a sturdy but elongate, hornless muzzle ending in a pair of decidedly porcine nostrils, a pair of long, pendant ears, and, most distinctive of all, a pair of truly extraordinary tusks.

A b/w undated plate depicting the sukotyro (Dr Karl Shuker)

Bizarrely, all of the sukotyro illustrations that I have seen depict these tusks emerging from a point located directly beneath and behind the eyes rather than from any anterior region of the jaws. In addition, they are held above the level of the snout, and (rather like those of elephants) are almost entirely horizontal in orientation with only their tips exhibiting a slight upward curve. I can only assume, therefore, that these depictions are meant to signify (albeit with poor artistry) that the sukotyro’s tusks emerge from some site at the back of the (upper?) jaws.

Tusks aside, in overall appearance the sukotyro resembles a big wild pig, but where does (or did) it come from? What, if indeed anything, is known about this strange creature?

Niewhoff's 17th-Century illustration of the sukotyro, alongside an elephant, a jackal, and other animals (Dr Karl Shuker)

The earliest known description of the sukotyro is that of Johan Niewhoff (aka Niuhoff and Neuhoff) in his account of his travels to the East Indies, entitled Die Gesantschaft der Ost-Indischen Gesellschaft in den Vereinigten Niederländern, and published in 1669. He also included an illustration of it (as reproduced directly above this paragraph), upon which all subsequent ones appear to have been directly based. His description, kindly translated from Dutch into English for me by longstanding Dutch cryptozoological correspondent Gerard Van Leusden, reads as follows:

"The animal Sukotyro as it is called by the Chinese has a wonderful and strange shape. It is about as big as an ox, has a snout like a pig, two long rough ears and a long hairy tail and two eyes that stand high, completely different from those in other animals, alongside the head.

"At each side of the head, along the ears, are two long horns or tusks that are darker than the teeth of the elephant. The animal lives from vegetables and is seldom captured."

Tapir (top) and sukotyro (bottom) in a colour plate from A New Cabinet Cyclopedia, published in 1819 (Dr Karl Shuker)

My continuing searches revealed that the sukotyro received its most authoritative scientific coverage in 1799, by British Museum zoologist Dr George Shaw in Vol 1 of his exhaustive 16-volume General Zoology: Or Systematic Natural History.

The sukotyro as depicted in a copper engraving within Shaw's treatise (Dr Karl Shuker)

Inserting it directly but somewhat hesitantly after the elephant in this volume’s main text (and neglecting to mention, incidentally, that in 1792 its species had been formally christened Sukotyro indicus by fellow zoologist Robert Kerr), Shaw paraphrased Niewhoff's description and concisely documented this enigmatic mammal as follows:

"That we may not seem to neglect so remarkable an animal, though hitherto so very imperfectly known, we shall here introduce the Sukotyro. This, according to Niewhoff, its only describer, and who has figured it in his travels to the East Indies [Die Gesantschaft der Ost-Indischen Gesellschaft in den Vereinigten Niederländern, 1669, containing the original illustration reproduced above], is a quadruped of a very singular shape. Its size is that of a large ox: the snout like that of a hog: the ears long and rough; and the tail thick and bushy. The eyes are placed upright in the head, quite differently from those of other quadrupeds. On each side the head, next to the eyes, stand the horns, or rather teeth, not quite so thick as those of an Elephant. This animal feeds upon herbage, and is but seldom taken. It is a native of Java, and is called by the Chinese Sukotyro. This is all the description given by Niewhoff. The figure is repeated in Churchill’s Collection of Voyages and Travels, vol. 2. p. 360. Niewhoff was a Dutch traveller, who visited the East Indies about the middle of the last century, viz. about the year 1563 [sic – should be 1653], and continued his peregrinations for several years. It must be confessed that some of the figures introduced into his works are not remarkable for their accuracy."

This would presumably explain, therefore, the anatomically aberrant positioning of the sukotyro’s tusks, and also, probably, the upright positioning of its eyes. Of course, if the latter are portrayed correctly, it could be suggested that the sukotyro spends time submerged in water, with only its eyes showing above the surface, as with hippopotamuses, whose eyes are also placed high on their skull. However, so too are the hippos’ nostrils and ears, whereas those of the sukotyro are not, thereby reducing the likelihood that it does spend any length of time largely submerged.

The sukotyro (top) and Asian elephant (bottom) in a colour plate from 1806 (Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the sukotyro’s tusks: ignoring their potentially-inaccurate horizontal orientation, they remind me both in shape and in size of those bizarre versions sported by the babirusas of Indonesia (formerly a single species, but recently split into several separate ones). These grotesque-looking wild pigs are famous for the huge vertical tusks sported by the males, in which not only the lower tusks but also the much larger upper ones project vertically upwards, with the upper ones growing directly through the top of the snout!

Babirusa (Hirscheber/Wikipedia)

Babirusas are native to Celebes (Sulawesi) and various much smaller islands close by, but zoologists believe that they may have been deliberately introduced onto at least some of these latter isles by human activity rather than by natural migration. If so, might they also have been transported elsewhere in Indonesia, perhaps as far west as Java, in fact?

Following Shaw’s cautious coverage of the sukotyro, other zoologists adopted an even more sceptical view of it. This deepened still further following the revelation that a pair of alleged sukotyro tusks acquired by British Museum founder Sir Hans Sloane during the 1700s were actually the horns of an Indian water buffalo. These had been presented as a gift to Sloane by a Mr Doyle after he had discovered them in a partially worm-eaten state inside the cellar of a shop in Wapping, London, and were formally documented in 1727 within the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences. Eventually, with no further specimens or data regarding it coming to light, the scientific world dismissed the sukotyro as a hoax, after which it quietly vanished from the natural history books. But was it really a hoax?

Babirusa (top) and sukotyro (bottom) - comparable, or conspecific? (Hirscheber-Wikipedia/Dr Karl Shuker)

The more I look at the depictions of the sukotyro, the more they seem – at least to me - to resemble a distorted but still-identifiable portrait of a babirusa. There is no indication that any of these porcine species exist on Java today, but perhaps Niewoff’s mystifying sukotyro is evidence that one did exist there long ago. Alternatively, could this cryptid even have been an unknown relative of the babirusas, differing from them via its bulkier form and longer ears, but still recognisably akin?

Finally, an even more controversial, dramatic possibility is that the sukotyro was a bona fide prehistoric survivor. If we assume that its extraordinary tusks really were horizontal, and not an artefact of poor artistry, its overall form calls to mind a modest-sized stegodont, a cousin of today’s elephants, complete with proboscis (albeit rather short in the sukotyro images), floppy ears, and long hairy-tipped tail.

Stegodon florensis (Povorot/Flickr)

Moreover, a dwarf, buffalo-sized species of stegodont, Stegodon florensis, is known to have survived on the island of Flores, just east of Java, until as recently as 12,000 years ago – so could a comparable form have existed on Java too, and lingered even longer there, right into historical times?

Sadly, we will probably never know, for in a very real sense the lost, forgotten sukotyro is today just as intangible as its literary, fictional doppelgänger, the tusked megalopedus.

Undated colour plate (c.1770-1820) depicting a female Asian elephant with a suckling calf (top) and the sukotyro (bottom) (Dr Karl Shuker)


This ShukerNature post is exclusively excerpted from my next book, Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology, to be published in 2013 by Anomalist Books.