MAPINGUARI: LEGENDARY MAN-EATING CRYPTID OF THE AMAZON RAINFOREST - PART 1
Legendary Sloth-like Creature Might Exist in Amazon Rainforest
It was not so long ago that tales of an awful creature that stalked the Argentine pampas were commonly told. It was difficult, if not impossible, to find anyone who had actually seen it, but many knew of its fearsome power. It was called the Yemisch, and it was a predator that preferred to disembowel its prey. One moment a person or some cattle would be crossing the stream and the next the water would be a blood-red boil. All that was usually left of the victims were greasy entrails floating their way downstream.
That such a creature existed was confirmed by a discovery made in January 1895 near Last Hope Inlet in Argentina. Near the entrance of a cave a group of men found a large piece of skin, about five feet long and three feet wide, covered with coarse hair and pockmarked with tough ossicles. This must have been the skin of the Yemisch. The jerky-like bits were divvied up among the discoverers and fame of their find spread.
Sooner or later word of the find reached the eminent South American paleontologist Florention Ameghino, and he quickly recognized the type of animal the skin belonged to. In 1898 the Argentine naturalist identified the skin as belonging to a giant ground sloth. That this was true was backed up by a story he knew of a man named Ramon Lista who said he had seen a giant pangolin trundling about the pampas.
It could not have been a pangolin, Ameghino knew, but was instead the Yemisch of the native people and the giant ground sloth of scientists. In his report Ameghino wrote;
Lately, several little ossicles have been brought to me from Southern Patagonia, and I have been asked to what animal they could belong. What was my surprise on seeing in my hand these ossicles in a fresh state, and, notwithstanding that, absolutely similar to the fossil dermal ossicles of the genus Mylodon, except only that they are of smaller size, varying from nine to thirteen or fourteen millimeters across. I have carefully studied these little bones from every point of view without being able to discern any essential difference from those found in a fossil state.
These ossicles were taken from a skin, which was unfortunately incomplete, and without any trace of the extremities. The skin, which was found on the surface of the ground, and showed signs of being exposed for several months to the action of the air, is in part discolored. It has a thickness of about two centimeters, and is so tough that it is necessary to employ an axe or a saw in order to cut it. The thickest part of the skin is filled by the little ossicles referred to, pressed one against the other, presenting on the inner surface of the skin an arrangement similar to the pavement of a street. The exterior surface shows a continuous epidermis, not scaly, covered with coarse hair, hard and stiff, having a length of four to five centimeters and a reddish tint turning toward gray.
The skin indeed belongs to the pangolin which Lista saw living. This unfortunate traveler lost his life, like CreVaux, in his attempt to explore the Pilcomayo, and until the present time he is the only civilized person who has seen the mysterious edentate of Southern Patagonia alive; and to attach his name appropriately to the discovery, I call this surviving representative of the family Mylodontidae Neomylodon listai.
Now that there are certain proofs of its existence, we hope that the hunt for it will not be delayed, and that before long we may be able to present to the scientific world a detailed description of this last representative of a group which has of old played a preponderating part in the terrestrial faunas which have succeeded each other on South American soil.
Ameghino's hypothesis was confirmed when his brother Carlos, the field man of the duo, collected some more descriptions of the Yemisch from native people. It was indeed a large, amphibious mammal that sounded just like a giant ground sloth. They even had some bits of skin like those collected from Last Hope Inlet which they attributed to the animal. Clearly giant sloths were still roaming South America, and they were dangerous creatures indeed.
Newspapers in Argentina went crazy over the story. Not only had the continent's most eminent paleontologist confirmed the existence of living giant sloths but new sightings funneled their way into the press. The megatherium fever even stretched to England where some naturalists, like E. Ray Lankester, agreed that giant ground sloths may still survive in South America. It is not surprising then that some enterprising souls set out to catch the beast, but all ultimately returned empty handed. It seemed that those who went out looking for the Neomylodon were the least likely to find it.
Not everyone was convinced that giant ground sloths survived into the modern day, however, and some of Florentino's South American colleagues thought that his enthusiasm had superseded good judgment. To check the validity of Ameghino's claim the naturalist Rodolfo Hauthal went back to the Lost Hope Inlet cave to reexamine the evidence. His conslusions were just as startling as Ameghino's.
When Hauthal investigated the cave he found stone tools, hay, charcoal, plant fibers, sloth bones, and a pile of sloth dung several feet high. What could this all mean? Clearly humans and sloths had both used the cave, but Hauthal went a step further to suggest that they had been in the cave at the same time. Humans had held sloths in captivity and may have even domesticated them, Hauthal argued, and the Lost Hope Inlet cave had once been a giant sloth stable. For this reason the kind of extinct sloth represented by the scraps of skin and bones was renamed Grypotherium domesticum, the domestic ground sloth.
(It is also noteworthy that Hauthal and colleagues re-named the animal said to terrify the native people. Based upon the evidence from folklore they renamed it Lemisch listai, a move that irritated some other scientists. In a review of the papers, for instance, the paleontologist J.B. Hatcher objected to 1) using a "barbarous" native word as a genus name, and 2) erecting a new genus and species on folklore.)
It seems that other authorities did not quite know what to make of Hauthal's hypothesis. It was often repeated in reviews and announcements but rarely did it receive further comment (at least in English-language publications). The author of To the River Plate and Back, William Jacob Holland, agreed but it seems that many others did not know how to handle the idea of domesticated giant sloths. Even the paleontologist A.S. Woodward, while skeptical, wanted to know more about this potential relationship between humans and ancient sloths.
In the end, though, the tale of the Yemisch seemed to unravel. J.B. Hatcher stated that he had never heard of such a creature during his time in South America and others suggested that the mythological creature was better understood as an amalgam of a giant river otter and a jaguar. It was entirely possible that the Ameghino brothers inflated what little they had heard from the native people and the newspapers ran with it once it hit the academic presses.
We should not be too hasty in saying that the Ameghinos created a story where there was none, however. Recall that Thomas Jefferson, on first sight of seeing the huge claws of the giant sloth Megalonyx, thought they belonged to an enormous tiger-like cat. If the native people of Argentina did hold beliefs about the Yemisch it is entirely possible that their beliefs were reinforced by finding the plentiful remains of giant sloths. This one sounds like a case for a geomythologist.
The Mapinguari (also called mapi, inashi or sloth) is actually believed to be a species of Mylodon, a medium-sized ground sloth, weighing about 500 pounds, and standing up to 9 feet when on its hind legs. They had very large claws that curled under their feet and faced backwards when they walked on all fours. They reportedly ate leaves and may have even been raised by local inhabitants at one time as a source of food, similar to today’s cattle. They were similar in many ways to the modern, though much smaller, three toed sloth and two toed sloth. The Mapinguari is generally thought to have died out around ten thousand years ago (some believe closer to 4,000 years ago) but survived as late as the 1500’s and may even still be thriving in the remote jungles of South America. According to fossil records, these sandy red-haired vegetarians once roamed North and South America, the Caribbean and Antarctica.
The existence of the Mapinguari went mainstream in 1994 when biologist David Oren told The New York Times that the Amazonians were reporting sightings of this ground sloth; however he had no physical evidence to support his theory and as a result the scientific community still considers the Mapinguari, Mylodon, to be extinct.
THE LEGEND: MAPINGUARI VS. MAPINGUARY
Some are of the impression that mapinguary is simply another spelling of mapinguari, and that both are names for the same creature; however, this does not seem to be the case. Although there appears to be some overlapping in the lore associated with both creatures, and both are firmly embedded in the local folklore of the Amazon Rainforest of South America, legends of mapinguary describe a hairy biped with characteristics that would tend to classify this beast as, at the very least, a South American version of Bigfoot, and at the other extreme, a supernatural being, which scares away researchers who work in the field of cryptozoology.
According to local native legends, the Mapinguari (or Mapinguary) is a prehistoric cryptid that reportedly lived (and is still reported to live) in the Amazon rain forests of South America, particularly in Brazil and Patagonia. It was consistently described as resembling either an ape or giant ground-dwelling sloth, having red hair, long arms, powerful claws that could tear apart palm trees and rip out the tongues of cattle, a sloping back, a crocodile-like hide that arrows and bullets could not penetrate, a second mouth on its belly and backwards feet (said to make a bottle-shaped footprint). It was said to stand up to 6 feet tall when it assumed a bear-like stance on its hind legs, which it did when it smelled a nearby human. It also gave off a putrid, disorienting stench, emitted a frightening shriek, and could move slowly and stealthily through the forest, often surprising unsuspecting locals. Although it was believed to be carnivorous, by all accounts it did not eat humans. Finally, it was said to sometimes speak and to enjoy punishing hunters who violated religious holidays. Certain lore even seemed to link it with the South American werewolf. The more werewolf-like version of the creature is called the "wolf's cape" and is thought to have originally been human.
Although most mainstream scientists dismiss the Mapinguari as myth, some cryptozoologists believe that the Mapinguari is a close relative of Bigfoot, while others, among them ornithologist David Oren, theorize that it may be a surviving giant ground sloth similar to the Mylodon, generally thought to have gone extinct about ten thousand years ago. It would not be entirely unprecedented to discover a living specimen of a species thought to be extinct for such a long period. In 1972, Dr. Ralph Wetzel discovered living specimens of the Chacoan Peccary, a close relative of pigs and boars, while on an expedition to the Gran Chaco. Prior to his discovery, the only example of this type of peccary had come from fossil remains, and they were generally considered to have died out about ten thousand years ago.
In addition to the legend of the Mapinguari (or also overlapping it) is an even more interesting legend which has developed over the years. It is one that proposes the existence of a lion-sized sloth that still has some arboreal traits. But this beast, called Xolchixe (pronounced shoal-CHICKS-ay) or the Tiger Sloth seems to move much faster than its sloth contemporaries. What makes it even more bizarre is the claim by local natives that it is carnivorous—that is, it eats meat. But if the sloth does exist, how could it become a carnivore?
It has recently come to light that many paleontologists believe prehistoric sloths were not strictly vegetarians, but also scavenged meat, even stealing meaty kills from feral predators. A scene like this was even played out in the Discovery Channels "walking with prehistoric beasts" program. Could such a creature still exist?
I suggest the possibility that these legends actually encompass three (3) separate entities and that they may be sorted out based on their reported characterisitics, which I shall attempt to do here, recognizing that certain characteristics may be shared by all three.
In my opinion, there are enough characteristics that are unique to each of these entities, to validate separating them into at least two separate species of cryptids, or possibly three if Xolchixe constitutes a species separate from Mapinguari. These would be as follows:
Mapinguari, a giant ground sloth, possibly a surviving Mylodon.
Mapinguary, a South American species of Bigfoot.
Xolchixe or the Tiger Sloth, a partially arboreal, carnivorous, lion-size sloth.
All other characteristics, which cannot logically be attributed to any species in the natural world, and are related to other preposterous beings of Brazilian mythology, I have relegated to the supernatural and local native superstitions. These include:
a second mouth on its belly—The only possibility I can think of, which would explain this characteristic as one which might occur in the natural world, would be if the creature has a pouch for carrying its young, and that this pouch has been mistaken for a second mouth by frightened natives. However, as far as we know, such pouches only occur in marsupials (kangaroos, opposums, koala's, etc.), and all living species of sloths are placental mammals, not marsupials. Was the giant ground sloth an exception? There is currently no evidence to support such a supposition.
backward feet—No known species of animal has "backward feet". First, let's consider the obvious: If one did, they would not be backward, now would they?" Regardless, backward feet would be the ultimate hinderance to balance and locomotion, and would defeat the entire physiological function of the structure of the foot and toes. The only possible explanation that comes to mind is if this observation is based on tracks of the giant sloth, which is known to have had long claws on it's feet that were folded under the feet when it walked.
capable of speaking—This characteristic obviously stretches the limits of credulity for any creature in the natural world, with the exception of man, certain birds that learn to mimic the sounds around them, and the occasional, dubious report of a talking Bigfoot.
punishes hunters who violate religious holidays—I think this one speaks for itself.
was once a human—As previously mentioned, certain lore even seems to link Mapinguary with the South American werewolf. The more werewolf-like version of the Mapinguary is called the "wolf's cape" and is thought to have originally been human.
Having differentiated between what I regard as three separate and distinctive species of cryptids, I will devote the balance of this article to the Mapinguari and the Xolchixe, which I will hereafter refer to as the Tiger Sloth.
Legend has it that arrows and bullets could not penetrate the Mapinguari’s caiman-like hide. A paleontologist’s examination of preserved ancient ground sloth skin samples in the late 19th century revealed hard dermal ossicles, small pieces of bone also found in the skin of dinosaurs and caimans, that protected them from predators. It is possible that such skin would have been impervious to arrows and bullets.
MEGATHERLINAE AND CRYPTOZOOLOGY
Charlie Jacoby went as principal expert to South America for Giants of Patagonia, filmed in 2005, which aired first on the History Channel in the USA in April 2006. Part of the History Channel series Digging for the Truth, presented by Josh Bernstein and directed by Priya Ramasubban, the programme Giants of Patagonia showed viewers that the giant sloth may still exist. Portions of the following are from a script by Mr. Jacoby for a TV documentary proposal about the giant sloth.
I grew up with an image like this in my head. It is one of the giant ground sloths, the mylodon, a 9ft hamster-like creature which once roamed across Patagonia in South America. Although almost certainly extinct 10,000 years ago, rumours persist that the mylodon still lives in pockets of forest. These rumours were what drove my great grandfather Hesketh Prichard to lead an expedition to find it in 1900 and 1901. Thanks to the Daily Express, I spent a month in Patagonia looking for the giant sloth and following his footsteps.
By the early years of the last century, Prichard had established himself as a first-class explorer, naturalist, cricketer, journalist and, of course, big-game shot. He counted men such as Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic, the author Arthur Conan-Doyle and the African explorer Frederick Courtenay Selous among his friends. Conan-Doyle based part of his book The Lost World on Prichard's adventures in Patagonia.
We are going to use the words of another of Conan-Doyle's creations to track down the giant sloth's habitat—its ecological niche—the "lost world" where it still may live. Sherlock Holmes said: "When you have eliminated all that is possible, whatever remains no matter how improbable, must be the truth."
The first rumours that a giant ground sloth species may still exist reached Europe in the 16th century. Sailors brought home stories of "water tigers" backed up by fossil bones.
This creature is a "su" or "succurath". Reported as early as 1558, it lived on the banks of Patagonian rivers. It had the head of a lion with—according to reports—"something human about it", a short beard from ear to ear, and a tail armed with sharp bristles which provided shelter for its young. The Su was a hunter but not for meat alone. It killed animals for their skins and warmed itself in the cold climate.
In 1789, Dr. Bartolome de Muñoz found Megatherium bones near what is now Buenos Aires. He gave them to the King of Spain, prompting the King to order a complete specimen of the animal alive or dead.
Charles Darwin, during his famous voyage of the Beagle, found the bones of a mylodon among his "nine great quadrupeds" on the beach at Punta Alta in northern Patagonia.
The rumours gained more credence in the late 19th century. The future governor of Santa Cruz province in southern Patagonia, Ramón Lista, was riding in Santa Cruz in the late 1880s when a shaggy red-haired beast resembling what he called a "giant pangolin" trotted across his path. He had time to loose off several rounds from his rifle before it disappeared into the scrub, and was amazed to note that they bounced off the animal's hide. Lista only gave a verbal account of this story, to an animal collector called Carlos Ameghino, who told his brother Florentino Ameghino, who was one of Argentina's most notable naturalists and later the vice-director and secretary of the best natural history museum in South America, La Plata, which opened in 1888 outside Buenos Aires.
There is now a giant fibreglass mylodon at Last Hope Sound in Chilean Patagonia, where a German sheep farmer, Herman Eberhard found a near-perfect mylodon skin in 1895. The skin was covered in bony nodules, which may explain what deflected Lista's bullets. Eberhard believed it was the skin of an unknown sea mammal. He hung it on a tree where it remained until 1897. Expeditions to Eberhardt's cave and other caves soon recovered additional pieces of hide.
Another great Argentinean naturalist and explorer Perito Moreno found it, boxed it up and sent it back to La Plata museum, of which he was both founder and director.
Something fishy was afoot, however. The skin's arrival coincided with a story by Professor Florentino Ameghino, a paleontologist in Argentina, that a native Indian had knocked down a mylodon with bolas—the balls on string which they used with deadly accuracy—and that he, Ameghino, had the skin.
Professor Ameghino had heard Lista's story and began to wonder if the strange beast was a giant sloth that had somehow survived till the present day. He had already collected legends from natives in the Patagonia region about hunting such a large creature in ancient times. The animal in the stories was nocturnal, and slept during the day in burrows it dug with its large claws. The natives also found it difficult to get their arrows to penetrate the animal's skin. Ameghino claimed that he was so sure this was the creature Lista had seen, that he had decided to name it after him: Neomylodon listai, or "Lista's new Mylodon."
Despite being colleagues, Ameghino and Moreno were enemies. They had strong personalities and different points of view about natural history—and Ameghino was notoriously arrogant. Their enmity started when they worked together at the La Plata Museum, where Moreno was director. Perhaps, the museum was too small for two celebrities like them.
It is likely that Ameghino intended to pinch Moreno's mylodon skin and say that it was the Indian's. In the end, he didn't steal it and went quiet on his claims.
Moreno brought the skin to the British Museum in London for safekeeping. It is now held by London's Natural History Museum. In a lecture to the Royal Society on 17th January 1899, he said the animal was long extinct. Dr Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of palaeontology, said, however, that the skin was so fresh that, were it not for Dr Moreno, he would have "no hesitation in pronouncing the animal recently killed."
The skin story caused a sensation. Giant sloth fever gripped the British public.
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