The Loch Ness monster, bigfoot and the yeti are among the most familiar icons of modern popular culture. Millions of people worldwide have heard of these alleged creatures, and many have gone to the trouble of learning about them. The extraordinary popularity of these mystery creatures – often termed cryptids – is obvious from the huge number of books, magazine articles, TV shows and movies devoted to them. These superstar cryptids are so popular, so familiar, that a major portion of interest in world mysteries, in the paranormal and the unexplained is driven specifically by the curiosity that surrounds them. In other words, it’s partly thanks to an interest in the Loch Ness monster, bigfoot and so on that such subjects as UFOs, ghosts, reincarnation and telekinesis get the widespread coverage that they do. Cryptids tend to be lumped in with these other subjects, and thus have a bad reputation among scientists and other critical thinkers.
On the other hand, the idea that these creatures might really exist inspires many people to think about the reliability of eyewitness evidence as a source of information, and to consider seriously how cryptids might make sense as living, breeding, breathing creatures. The Loch Ness monster, the yeti and so on can introduce people to a broader interest in critical thinking, a scientific view of the world and a curiosity about the natural world and how we interpret it. Seen from this point of view, cryptids might not be a bad thing at all.
Throughout history, people claim to have seen or heard of unusual, often monstrous creatures. Cryptids don’t match the animals accepted as real by scientists, and ‘mainstream’ scientific opinion is that they very probably don’t exist. But a dedicated and specialized community of researchers have sought to overturn this view. These people have collected great quantities of eyewitness data pertaining to cryptids and have also come up with a great number of ideas about the sorts of creatures these cryptids might really be, about how they live and behave and about their evolutionary history.
This entire field of research is termed cryptozoology and in this book we’ll look at a number of classic ‘target creatures’ of the field in a critical fashion. One aim of this book is to work out how these alleged creatures are best interpreted. Do they really represent unknown creatures, or can we provide better explanations for their alleged existence? A second aim is to look at why they’ve been imagined or depicted in the way that they have.
We’ll start with a quick history. As we’ll see throughout this book, the idea that there might exist a number of large, mysterious creatures – ‘monsters’ – has been present throughout recorded history. At the beginning of the Renaissance (the 15th and 16th centuries), such monsters as dragons, unicorns, mermaids and giants were not regarded as the products of myth or fairytale, but assumed to be flesh and blood creatures awaiting discovery and documentation.
As the centuries passed and knowledge improved, views changed as to which creatures most likely existed and which did not. During the 17th and 18th centuries, unicorns, mermaids and dragons came to be regarded as having been based on confused or exaggerated descriptions of more familiar animals, like antelopes, seals, manatees, lizards, crocodiles and great snakes. And so they ended up disappearing from books and manuscripts on natural history and biology. But other mystery creatures remained in limbo. Even by the end of the 19th century there was no firm ‘official’ opinion on sea monsters, on the water beasts said to lurk in various lakes and rivers, or on more obscure mystery animals like the Queensland tiger of Australia and the hairy, man-like nittaewo of Sri Lanka.
Even if we consider the scientific writings of the early 20th century, we see that learnt people continued to ponder the existence of such creatures. New animals – some of which were surprisingly large – were still being found in many regions of the world, meaning that the existence of such mystery creatures remained a possibility. Gorillas were only officially discovered during the mid 1800s and early 1900s, meaning that the possible existence of gorilla-sized primates elsewhere in the world was by no means dismissed out of hand. The discovery of the Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis in Indonesia in 1912 meant that the existence of other large, undiscovered reptile species also remained plausible.
An important point that emerges from this quick review is that there’s never been a time in history when scientists as a whole denounced all interest or belief in mystery creatures. People interested in animals have always been aware of stories about mystery or legendary creatures, and – right up into modern times – have also written about such creatures and gone in search of them. Indeed, there is still today a reasonable amount of mainstream engagement in discussions about mystery creatures. And as we’ll see throughout this book, there remain a number of qualified, scientifically trained researchers and writers who still endorse the existence of a diverse array of mystery beasts. Notably, however, the number and diversity of these mystery creatures has reduced over time, as has the number of ‘endorsers’. This is a key theme that we’ll revisit later.
Despite this general interest in mystery creatures, an effort to consider them together in their own area of special research was lacking until the middle of the 20th century. This changed due to the efforts of two individuals. Ivan T. Sanderson was a Scottish-born author, based in the United States, who wrote widely about animals and went in quest of them on a great many expeditions. Sanderson had a special interest in mystery animals and, from the 1940s onwards, wrote books and articles devoted to their consideration. The most famous of these is his 1961 book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life.
Among the many people that Sanderson inspired was Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans obtained his doctorate by studying the teeth of aardvarks and other mammals. After reading a 1948 article by Sanderson entitled ‘There might be dinosaurs’ that focused on dinosaur-like creatures reported from tropical Africa, he developed a major interest in mystery animals and decided to dedicate his life to their study. He began to collect and analyse literature and correspondence, and by 1955 he’d written the first of several books on the subject. This was Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées, published in English in 1958 as On the Track of Unknown Animals. This had an enormous international impact and was published in numerous translated versions and later editions.
Heuvelmans went on to publish books on sea monsters, giant squids and octopuses, the alleged survival to the present of Neanderthal man and on the ‘living dinosaurs’ and other mystery animals of tropical Africa. All of these works were published in French and only one or two were ever translated into English. Heuvelmans also produced manuscripts for additional books, some of which never saw print in his lifetime. He also wrote technical papers on mystery animal research, explaining what cryptozoology entailed, how mystery animal reports should be interpreted and which mystery animals were (in his view) worthy of further investigation. Clearly, he was prolific and generated and collated a vast amount of information on mystery animals – more than any other single person.
Heuvelmans corresponded with other researchers, investigators, zoologists and naturalists and collected a great deal of his data this way. In letters, he and his colleagues took to referring to the study of mystery animals as ‘cryptozoology’, and this word first saw print in 1959 when French wildlife official Lucien Blancou dedicated a book to Heuvelmans, describing him as the ‘master of cryptozoology’. This term became mainstream during the 1980s and today Heuvelmans is widely regarded as the ‘father of cryptozoology’: he was not only responsible for collecting and cataloguing the vast bulk of mystery animal reports known prior to the time of his death, but also for formalizing, defining and codifying cryptozoology as a topic of study.
It should be said that a third individual also wrote about mystery animals at the same time as Sanderson and Heuvelmans. This was German palaeontologist, aerospace engineer and science writer Willy Ley. Ley’s books of the 1940s and 50s are often given fair mention in discussions of the early history of cryptozoology and include chapters on sea monsters, mystery primates and legendary creatures like dragons and unicorns. While Ley’s books were widely read (and were respected by the likes of Sanderson and Heuvelmans), they did not have the same foundational importance as works like On the Track.