Daniel Elkind / October 6, 2020
During Christmas 1879, the last known wild tarpan (Equus gmelini) was run off a cliff somewhere in Ukraine. Native to the forests of Poland, this undomesticated horse species had survived in Europe’s ancient woodlands since at least the time of Herodotus. Apart from a few individuals scattered among various zoos, its death left Przewalski’s horse the sole wild species.
Apparently some wild horses remain in Poland’s managed old-growth Bialowieza Forest, but their population is the result of Nazi-era experiments in back-breeding extinct animals, the tarpan included, from captive specimens. Lutz Heck, a Nazi zoologist and head of the Berlin Zoo, was not alone in his enthusiasm for resurrecting the dead. He and his hunting buddy, Hermann Göring—who, in addition to being propaganda minister and chief of the Luftwaffe, was also Reich Hunt Master and Forest Master—intended to reinvent a host of ancient and endangered “native” animals like the auroch and wisent to populate their future game reserve. In the future Europe they imagined, they and other elite Nazis would retreat to lodges in forests like Bialowieza to hunt and kill these impossible animals.
Impossible animals—animals that do not, should not, or cannot possibly exist—have been part of human iconography and myth from the art of cave paintings to medieval bestiaries. Their absurd anatomies have been used to symbolize and subjugate, to parody and portend. (Think of the details in The Garden of Earthly Delights.) Ironically, it was the discovery of very real fossils belonging to implausible behemoths in the earth beneath our feet that renewed a belief in fantastic creatures. Since the dinosaurs were extinct, however, living anachronisms would have to be found. And because science values “skulls and skins” above all, a whole menagerie of freakish and often fraudulent specimens have cropped up to support one claim after another of isolated species still stalking remote parts of the globe.
With the introduction of photography, new opportunities for deception arose. Using nothing but their father’s camera and some painted specimens, two girls from Yorkshire managed to fool Sherlock Holmes inventor Arthur Conan Doyle into believing that fairies lived all around us. Obviously, Conan Doyle was less of a skeptic than his invention. In dispelling the shadows, he seemed to believe, science had also purged the world of mystery: “Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare,” he wrote, “like a landscape in the moon.”
In the early days, these pretenders tended to come from the ranks of the learned—from disciplines such as evolutionary biology, zoology, and Egyptology. Their hoaxes appealed not to fear but to the equally compelling desire to confirm whatever pet theory one had already developed. George Montandon, for example, was happy to christen De Loys’ Ape (Ameranthropoides loysi) a new species based on nothing more than a single, staged photograph taken by a Swiss petroleum geologist named François De Loys. After much publicity and speculation, however, this new primate species turned out to be a dead white-bellied spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth). Erudition can entrap as effectively as ignorance—perhaps more so. Montandon apparently “endorsed and required the creation of a large, vaguely human-like South American primate because—as a supporter of the then seriously regarded ‘hologenesis’ hypothesis—he needed a primate that could serve as an ancestor of South American humans.”
Sergei Isaakovich Freshkop (often Frechkop), a mummy expert from Moscow, was an early proponent of another theory, now likewise discredited: the initial theory of bipedalism, which suggested that all mammals started out upright. One of his most promising students at the Free University of Brussels was Bernard Heuvelmans, who coined the term cryptozoology, and dedicated his 1955 opus Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (translated as On the Track of Unknown Animals in 1958) to his former mentor.
Heuvelmans’ book is an exasperating, encyclopedic bestiary located at the “frontier of science and fantasy.” It’s also a beast of a book, a doorstop-sized chunk of zoological history with no less than 50 photographs, 120 illustrations—from the “monkey-eating eagle of the Philippines” to a “reconstruction of the abominable snowman”—and five hand-drawn maps. (To my eternal disappointment, neither my home state of New Jersey nor the Jersey Devil seems to merit any mentions.) If you’ve ever wondered about how we got from Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and nineteenth century Forteana to the Weekly World News of the checkout aisle, you would do well to look him up.
Heuvelmans, who died in 2001, lived through some radical transformations in the state of the art. On the one hand, he was a trained zoologist with a dissertation on aardvark teeth; on the other, he marshaled folklore as scientific evidence and wasn’t shy about slapping his name on sensational pulp. (Allegedly, the Yeti bits in Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet derive from his input.) For Heuvelmans, as for Conan Doyle, it was all about bringing back a sense of faded romance. Along with German mammalogist Ingo Krumbiegel and Ivan T. Sanderson, Heuvelmans is often considered one of the founders of the field of cryptozoology. Perhaps more important, he embodied the embattled crypto figure as a righteous scholar who stalks the unknown while reminding the “armchair naturalists” and stuffy old Pharisees in the academy of the great mysteries that still remain in the forests of Minnesota.
Much of Unknown Animals is thus spent in attempting to “confound the skeptics”—i.e. agreeing that we cannot say we don’t know for sure—rather than in attempting to demonstrate that there is any evidence for his claims. Heuvelmans casts this power struggle as a kind of religious schism. In Searching for Sasquatch (2011), Brian Regal attributes the contest between “eggheads” and “crackpots” to the growing professionalization of natural science as a discipline. Folklore scholar and zombie expert Peter Dendle puts it even more diplomatically:
Unconfirmed species served as an implicit ground of conflict and dialogue between untutored masses and educated elite, even prior to the rise of academic science as a unified body of expert consensus.
What’s particularly interesting about 1950s cryptozoology is the way it seemed to exploit this haunted zone of possibility between fiction and verifiable fact, using doubt to its advantage. After all, dinosaurs, too, were once considered the stuff of fantasy. It was only with Cuvier and the bones unearthed by American paleontologists Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh in the 19th century that the systematic study of fossils could take place, bringing dinosaurs closer to the realm of nonfiction, if not yet science. But Sanderson and Heuvelmans went even further. Leveraging their status as outsiders, they argued that dinosaurs not only existed, but likely still survived in some remote corner of the globe. Though they claimed to despise the academy, the cryptozoologists simultaneously aspired to remake it in their image. At the same time, they were right to call out the overreliance on fossil evidence and the role of colonialism. Too often native accounts were dismissed, while white administrators who rarely left the comforts of their coastal abodes were given the benefit of the doubt regarding matters in the interior. Then there was and still is the practice of naming a new species after the first western interloper to lay hands or eyes on it.
Take the gerenuk. Native to Somaliland, where it is known as garanuug, this beautiful giraffe-necked creature is often called the Waller’s gazelle because in 1879 a hunter-naturalist “discovered” and named it after the Waller who procured the specimen. Ditto Clarke’s gazelle, Père David’s deer, Burchell’s zebra, Hunter’s hartebeest, Meinertzhagen’s forest-hog, and so on. But in what sense can one claim to discover something well-known or to name something that already has a name?
It echoes an earlier struggle, during the 18th century, when European naturalists were skeptical about biological life in the New World. The Comte de Buffon was especially vocal in his doubts that any significant new species remained to be discovered there. Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the founder of American paleontology, disagreed. Jefferson had a network of people supplying him with newly-discovered fossils, specimens that ultimately convinced him that mammoths or mastodons must still exist somewhere out in the American wild. “It may be asked, why I insert the mammoth, as if it still existed,” he wrote in 1785’s Notes on the State of Virginia. “I ask in return, why I should omit it, as if it did not exist? […] [the north and west] still remain in their aboriginal state, unexplored and undisturbed by us, or by others for us. He may as well exist there now, as he did formerly where we find his bones.”
In sowing doubt and helping to bust down the door to amateurs, Heuvelmans and his descendants also opened up the flood gates to crowdsourced conspiracy, in which one begins with the desire to believe and then seeks corroborating evidence among the like-minded. The more corrupt our political and environmental reality seems to get, the more technocratic the solutions proposed, the more desperate the reaction from people with nothing left to lose. In a world of constant contact, ubiquitous information, and surreptitious surveillance, doubt has become a powerful weapon against orthodoxies of all kinds. For some self-styled freethinkers, it serves as a shield from truths too ugly and dangerous to perceive directly. It reminds me of the Toynbee Tiles, an anonymous graffiti phenomenon that started with tantalizing mosaics pressed into the asphalt of major cities in the US and abroad, promising some kind of utopian TOYNBEE IDEA/IN MOVIE ‘2001/RESURRECT DEAD/ON PLANET JUPITER, but ultimately spelling out a paranoid Protocols-like media conspiracy: MURDER EVERY JOURNALIST I BEG OF YOU.
We need monsters. Without them, the world is somehow more terrifyingly rational, shrunken, diminished. The imagination rebels against such austerity, casting shadows where they didn’t exist. “But then everyone thinks himself better than his neighbours and gives them beastly habits or animal appearance,” writes Heuvelmans. “Most of the ancient travellers gave tails to the savages they found, especially on islands. Marco Polo mentions men with tails in Sumatra. Gemelli-Careri finds them in Luzon, Jean Struys in Formosa, the Jesuit missionaries in Mindoro near Manila, Köping, a Swede, in the Nicobar Islands.” Then, as if looking in the mirror, he turns back to Europe and the West: “in Europe in the seventeenth century the Spaniards believed Jews had tails, in France the people of Bearn attributed them to the Cagots who lived at the foot of the Pyrenees, and in England the Devonians believed the same slander about their Cornish neighbours. . . . Every savage believes in someone more savage than himself.”
Daniel Elkind is a writer and translator living in San Francisco.