Everything Old Is New Again: Prehistoric Monsters

Yeti. Sasquatch. Mapinguari. Yowie. Bigfoot. Chupacabra. Nessie. To some people, these names conjure images of legendary beasts, mysterious encounters, and direct links to our primordial origins. To others, the words In Search of … in front of these names qualifies them for a pseudoscientific TV show.

The pursuit of prehistoric monsters is not necessarily a scam; other than maybe a haggis restaurant on Loch Ness, nobody is really making money out of them. The belief in these creatures, or at least the hope that there are still worlds left to explore, is a tribute to human curiosity, as well as an enduring fascination with what preceded us on the planet (and therefore may still be around waiting to dine on us).

That having been said, do they really exist? The principal cast includes:

REALITY CHECK

The Burbank Bigfoot

An ersatz Bigfoot is said to have been the work of John Chambers, the Oscar-winning makeup artist who designed the ground-breaking Planet of the Apes facial appliances. Supposedly, Chambers and John Landis (gorilla fancier and director of movies such as Animal House and Schlock, a comedy about an apelike missing link) dressed a guy in a Sasquatch suit and sent him through a California residential community to see what would happen. Both men, when asked by Those Who Care, denied having anything to do with the “Burbank Bigfoot.”

  • The Abominable Snowman. Specifics vary, but in general this is a primate-like creature with an ape’;s body and a human face. It is more commonly known as “Yeti” to the Sherpas of Nepal, who have described the creature as being reddish brown in color, having feet that point backward, and smelling as bad as he sounds. The National Geographic wrote that Sir Edmund Hillary (who “conquered” Everest) sought Yeti and, indeed, followed tracks in the snow. The magazine later determined, however, that the prints were simple animal tracks that had become enlarged by the melting process. A sample of Yeti fur turned out to be from the Tibetan blue bear. “Abominable Snowman,” incidentally, is a mistranslation of the term metoh-kangmi, which is what Sherpas call Yeti

  • Bigfoot/Sasquatch. According to eyewitness reports dating back to 1884, this visitor stands 6½ to 8 feet tall, weighs between 500 and 1,000 pounds, walks upright, and is covered with hair. The American name is Bigfoot, but when the creature crosses into Canada, it becomes Sasquatch. Native American and Native Canadian legends describe a “hairy man” and were-creatures who stalk the woods and make huge footprints, yet never seem to leave any scientific evidence of their presence. The image the public knows best of this reclusive wilderness denizen comes from a 1967 color home movie taken by Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin near Bluff Creek in the Six Rivers National Forest near the California/Oregon border. It shows a husky, fur-covered creature lumbering left-to-right on the edge of a stream. The film has never been proved to be a fake, but that’;s not the point, since it has never been authenticated either. Where Bigfeet have been seen in the Amazon they are called Mapinguari, and in Australia they are called Yowie.

  • The Loch Ness Monster. Probably the world’;s most beloved surviving prehistoric beast, the Loch Ness monster has played hard-to-get in the Scottish Highlands for at least 1,500 years. As far back as A.D. 565, St. Columba was reported to have seen “a large beast” in the loch (lake). Among the oldest legends is that the “beast” sticks a horse’;s head out of the water and lures children onto its back for a ride. Their hands stick to its skin, and it pulls them under, their livers washing ashore the next day But it took urban development to make Nessie a modern hero. In 1933 a roadway was constructed along the loch, and (according to the Inverness Courier) a young couple driving past happened to notice “an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface.” By the end of the year a £20,000 reward had been offered for its capture. The money has frequently been claimed but never awarded. The closest anyone has come was when footprints were presented as evidence, but they turned out to be those of a hippopotamus. All sightings (some 4,000 of them according to the record books) have been chalked up to ducks, otters, logs, boat wakes, and a swimming deer, as in the classic, widely circulated, back-lit photo. Rather than scaring people, camera-shy Nessie has actually been embraced by the loch community, who politely endure visitors’ curiosity. But the best thing about Nessie might be that she can’;t leave the water; as with so much else in the United Kingdom, even monsters know their place.

  • Chupacabras. The chupacabra is a mysterious force, or a demon, that preys on cows, sucking their blood. Of fairly recent note (reports only surfaced in 1996) and apparently indigenous to Hispanic countries such as Mexico and Puerto Rico, chupacabras have been described as compact tailless creatures with quills running up their backs, sharp teeth, and curved claws. The May 12, 1996, Houston Chronicle reported that a chupacabra raided a farmhouse in Zapotal, Mexico, punctured the throats of sheep, and was chased off by dogs. According to the owner of the farm, it could not have been the work of the region’;s customary predator, the coyote. There were also separate rumors that the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments had captured two specimens and were going to perform an “alien autopsy.” If such an event transpired, the results were never released. Meanwhile, lock up your goats

So what are we to make of animals appearing in modern times that supposedly vanished before humans were a twinkle in Darwin’;s eye? In light of the way species become extinct in the normal course of events, who’;s to say that some might not reappear, or might still survive in some uncharted region?

For example, in 1938, fishermen off the South African coast netted a 5-foot-long fish that was unlike anything they had ever seen. Through fossil records, scientists identified it as a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have become extinct 70 million years ago. Since 1972, almost a hundred others have been caught around Comoros in the Indian Ocean. So you never know …

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