Follow the Footprints: Enigmatic Ichnology and the Unexplained

The year was 1776, and as even the most casual retelling of American history can offer, revolutionaries in the Northern Hemisphere had undertaken a war against British imperialism, fighting for their independence in a new land that would eventually become the United States of America. While the impact of the ensuing emancipation would set a new precedent for freedom and the rights of man in Western society, half way across the world in the dank jungles of the Congo, yet another remarkable, if less widely publicized set of circumstances, was unfolding before the eyes of a French missionary visiting the region.

What the adventurous Abbé Lievain Bonaventure had discovered appeared to be something of truly remarkable significance… but what was it, precisely, that lay before him? Or perhaps more importantly, what kind of animal could have left traces of its existence in footprints so large, and still maintain elusiveness enough in a modern world of science and scrutiny to remain unidentified?

Ichnology (not to be confused with the fishy science of Ichthyology, of course) entails the scientific study of tracks and traces left by creatures, as well as the nests, burrows and abodes that mark the residencies of various vertebrates. In modern science, Ichnology is most often employed in an effort to learn about the behaviors of animal species now believed to be extinct; but in at least a few instances, perhaps the study of animal tracks can also point us in the direction toward discovery of as-yet unknown animals still existing on Earth today.

Such may have indeed been the case with that intrepid and aforementioned Bonaventure, who in his field studies amidst the natives of the Congo River region, had also stumbled onto evidence of something very–and perhaps even curiously–large and unexplainable. Though he never witnessed a physical creature, Bonaventure had nonetheless stumbled upon tracks belonging to some mystery beast of rather massive proportions. As recounted of the discovery in his History of Loango, Kakonga, and other Kingdoms in Africa:

“It must be monstrous, the prints of its claws are seen upon the earth, and formed an impression on it of about three feet in circumference. In observing the posture and disposition of the footprints, they concluded that it did not run this part of the way, and that it carried its claws at a distance of seven or eight feet one from the other.”

One can only begin to guess what evidence of the region’s unidentified fauna Bonaventure may have discovered. And yet, while the study of creatures only believed to exist by some (called cryptozoology, to borrow the title awarded it by scientist and explorer Bernard Heuvelmans) often borrows from a variety of other fields and disciplines, the study of anomalous tracks and footprints often constitutes some of the very best potential proof, and at times even the only physical evidence for the existence of such creatures.

For instance, with the case of a supposed creature such as Bigfoot, the name says it all: America’s mythical monster certainly wouldn’t be considered a diminutive dwarf that merely possessed a pair of titanic trotters; the entire creature is taken to be a huge, manlike beast of both strength and stature exceeding that of humans. Hence the name, Bigfoot, is a clear allusion not merely to the creature’s actual feet, but rather, the massive footprints it leaves. While footprints are hardly the only evidence for the existence of such a beast, many would hold that plaster castings made of alleged prints left by the creature would constitute, in some instances, a more reliable form of physical evidence than alleged hair samples, audio recordings, or even photo and video “proof.”

And of those strange footprints Bonaventure discussed in coincidence with the worldly happenings of the American Revolution, more could indeed be said, for the tracks of the mystery beast the Frenchman had seemingly uncovered would appear yet again, albeit decades later. In the very same region, it was said that African guides would later discuss having found “large, unexplained tracks along the bank of a river,” as investigated around 1920 by the Smithsonian Institution. Loren Coleman, writing along with colleague and Fortean chronicler of the anomalous, Patrick Huyghe, would note in their Field Guide to Lake Monsters that, “later in a swamp the team heard mysterious roars, which had no resemblance with any known animal.” The Smithsonian expedition would fail to produce any further results, however, following a deadly train accident that left four members of the expedition team dead. Nonetheless, further stories of a large creature, variously called by names such as emela ntouka, jago-nini, amali and, more popularly, mokele mbembe (meaning “one who stops the flow of rivers”) would continue to surface, as well as reports detailing the discovery of the creature’s roundish, three-clawed footprints around the region’s bogs and river bends.

Could such things contribute to evidence for the existence of a large animal in the Congo which, to this day, might represent the remnant of some ancient saurian beast, the likes of the brontosaurus? Perhaps so… and if the footprints this animal is believed to have left behind are to be taken as proof of such a beast’s presence in the remote wilds of Africa, then perhaps we are indeed on the right “track” to its eventual discovery.


Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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