Tuesday, July 10, 2007
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 Belém, 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."