Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Mapinguary

The NY Times (among others, I saw it in the Denver Post) had this story of a strange beast of the Amazonian jungles that the natives there call the mapinguary - which means "the roaring animal" or "the fetid beast." Many researchers believe that this is a legendary animal, but natives insist that they continue to see them. It is described thus:

"... all accounts agree that the creature is tall, seven feet or more when it stands on two legs, that it emits a strong, extremely disagreeable odor, and that it has thick, matted fur, which covers a carapace that makes it all but impervious to bullets and arrows."

Stories from the natives have intrigued many outsiders:

"So widespread and so consistent are such accounts that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find the creature. They have not succeeded, but at least one says he can explain the beast and its origins.

“It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,” thousands of years ago, said David Oren, a former director of research at the Goeldi Institute in BelĂ©m, at the mouth of the Amazon River. “We know that extinct species can survive as legends for hundreds of years. But whether such an animal still exists or not is another question, one we can’t answer yet.”

I find the possibility that the legends are based on native contact with Megatherium fascinating and this seems to agree with some North American Indian legends. Adrienne Mayor's interesting book, Fossil Legends of the First Americans, does an excellent job in tying Indian legends of giant birds, giant bears, giant beavers, and other huge monsters to native memories of condors, teratorns, the short-faced bear (Arctodus simus - half again as large as the largest grizzly), the giant beaver (Castorides ohioensis - as large as a black bear) , mammoths and other extinct Pleistocene birds and animals.

But the natives still say that the mapinguary is a living animal. They have almost convinced some people:

"Glenn Shepard Jr., an American ethnobiologist and anthropologist based in Manaus, said he was among the skeptics until 1997, when he was doing research about local wildlife among the Machiguenga people of the far western Amazon, in Peru. Tribal members all mentioned a fearsome slothlike creature that inhabited a hilly, forested area in their territory.

Dr. Shepard said 'the clincher that really blew me away' came when a member of the tribe remarked matter of factly that he had also seen a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima. Dr. Shepard checked; the museum has a diorama with a model of the giant prehistoric ground sloth."


"'There’s still an awful lot of room out there for a large sloth to be roaming around,' Dr. Shepard said."


Anonymous said...

Could it be we scooper Darren on this one?


Steve Bodio said...

He knows of it but hasn't posted (we both know a lot of "crypto"). Maybe this will stimulate him.

You of course know about the ground sloth pelts in Argentina? Actually I have a piece of glyptodont skin-- I should blog it. And you do know I have handled Grand Canyon sloth dung courtesy of Paul Martin, a who put it in our hands.

It would be a smaller species than a Megatherium I think.

Reid Farmer said...

If it's only 7-8 ft tall you're right. Guess I was going for the gusto!

PBurns said...

How about the simplest explanation of all: a *real* sloth (which is not much seen by natives) on the ground when they come down (about once every few weeks) to crap?

7 feet tall? Sure -- 7 feet tall is their version of "a rat as big as a cat" or the red fox as big as a German Shepherd, or the whitetail deer as big as a moose, or the fish that swallowed Jonah.

How big is a sloth when it stretches its arms up a tree, and puts it feet down (gently) to go poop at the base of the tree? That 2 foot body could easily be 5 feet with legs and arms outstretched, I would think.


Anonymous said...

I have a more cynical explanation.

Witness the Dogon people of Mali and all the press they've gotten.

While the Dogon are anthropologically interesting for a lot of legitimate reasons, among them some of their funerary customs and their anasazi-like cliff settlements, they have gotten a rather lot press over the years for knowing that Sirius is a binary star.

This is, of course, to say that two French anthropologists claim that the Dogon know that Sirius is a binary star. What this claim actually means is the subject of some speculation. The Dogon certainly hold Sirius in some regard, neighboring tribes do as well. Is their knowledge that its faraway light comes from not one, but two stars a serendipitous intersection of religion and astronomical truth or does it indicate some deeper understanding of astrodynamics?

In the seventies, of course, it was quite in vogue to cite this apparent anomaly as evidence that the Dogon had been contacted by otherworldly intelligence. Of course, back then fake Maya artifacts were seen as incontroverable evidence of extraterrestrial visitation, so the criticality of thinking seems to have been somewhat muddled back then. I suspect it had something to do with Leonard Nimoy, but this is idle speculation on my part.

Anyhow, there is a perfectly likely and reasonable explanation for the Dogon to know that Sirius is a double star; a learned and completely alien civilization. My money's on the French, maybe even the two anthropologists who advanced the claim in the first place. In such an even, I do not think intentional fraud was the goal, but rather that during one of their long stays with the Dogon, one of the anthropologists watching some ritual for the veneration of Sirius idly remarked that it was in fact two stars. This particular bit of religious knowledge became canon, completely unbeknownst to the French Anthropologist, who went back to swatting flies and was fantastically surprised five years later to find the Dogon still in the possession of astronomical information he had accidentally provided them with and forgotten about previously.

Certainly, that the Dogon know about Sirius but not transsaturnian planets (as remarked by Carl Sagan, at least), suggests European dissemination of their remarkable knowledge. A thousand plausible courses for such a dissemination present themselves.

Might some learned anthropologist or other bystander with a side interest in paleontology have remarked idly about the remarkable fauna that lived in South America prior to the Great American Interchange and Overkill events? Provided they were a good enough story teller, these tales of fantastic beasts (which is a genre that will never die) would spread until some other outsider heard of them. Doubtless the tales kept getting repeated, since those outsiders found the tales fascinating and strangely compelling, for some reason.

-R. A. W.

Gregg Barrow said...

Looks like a Chessie that boards here frequently and from the description…….smells like him as well.
Now if I could only encourage him to keep with the analogy and crap just once a week.