One wonders how many pieces of remains of mystery animals, or cryptids, are still buried away in the dusty collections of museums. As long as people have explored the planet, they have brought back with them various specimens and remains which may or not be something truly unknown, and many of these have no doubt been lost. One such supposed specimen brought back from the wilds of the world has long been discussed and speculated on; the supposed head of some unknown primate brought back from the wilderness of Guyana, which has managed to become a symbol of the uncertainty of taxidermy in the world of cryptozoology.
In the 19th century, the wealthy and eccentric English naturalist and explorer Charles Waterton traveled the world collecting an eclectic mix of specimens that he then used his formidable skills in taxidermy to create exhibitions for his estate, a sort of museum of the strange and macabre. He was by all accounts a rather odd individual, known for his remarkably eccentric behavior and myriad odd claims. For instance, he was known to prowl about his estate acting like a dog and biting strangers on their legs, dressing like a scarecrow and sitting in trees, pretending to be his own butler, and making a myriad of bizarre claims such as that he could “navigate the atmosphere,” but he was still nevertheless respected for his writings on natural history and conservation, which were groundbreaking at the time.
In 1804, Waterton made his way to the South American country of Guyana to take control of some of his uncle’s estates there, and he would branch out to explore and collect various specimens of the wildlife there as well, as he was wont to do. Between 1812 and 1824 he would make various journeys and expeditions out into the unexplored areas of the country, all the while collecting numerous specimens of wildlife, which he would put on display in his home, amassing an enormous menagerie of stuffed birds and animals in the process. He was known for his unique method of taxidermy, in which he would use a mercury-based chemical to harden the skins and make them hollow, yet very lifelike simulacrums of the animals they had been. One of the most famous of all of these was a curious little exhibition that concerned an anomalous head of a monkey-like creature that Waterton simply referred to as “The Nondescript.”
The origins of this peculiar specimen were written of in Waterton’s 1825 travel memoir Wanderings in South America, a fairly influential work which is said to have even captured the imagination of a young Charles Darwin, and turned out to date back to an expedition to the jungles of Guyana during which he came across a rather odd beast indeed. During the journey, the expedition allegedly came across a rather peculiar humanoid creature that was covered with thick hair and possessed a tail and a face with strikingly human features. The group did the human thing and promptly shot and killed it, after which Waterton claimed he had been forced to preserve merely the head and neck of the beast. Waterton would say of this:
I also procured an animal which has caused not a little speculation and astonishment. In my opinion, his thick coat of hair, and great length of tail, put his species out of all question; but then, his face and head cause the inspector to pause for a moment before he ventures to pronounce his opinion of the classification. He was a large animal, and as I was pressed for daylight, and moreover, felt no inclination to have the whole weight of his body upon my back, I contented myself with his head and shoulders, which I cut off, and have brought them with me to Europe.
Since the weird specimen looked so incredibly human, albeit with a hairy body, there were all kinds of theories orbiting the find. One was that Waterton had actually shot, killed, and stuffed the corpse of a native tribesman, which he had then snuck into the country through bribing customs officials, which Waterton himself vehemently denied, claiming that it had been some sort of unidentified ape-like creature. Another theory was that the creature on display was exactly what Waterton claimed it to be; some sort of new type of primate.
The specimen itself was just the head and shoulders, with a strikingly human countenance with a hairless face and large eyes surrounded by a thick, red mane, sort of reminiscent of an orangutan. The specimen drew flocks of gasping, puzzled onlookers, but there were some who were aware of Waterton’s skill with taxidermy and began to suspect that this was some sort of cleverly crafted fake. It was suggested that he had merely taken the corpse of a howler monkey, in particular its hindquarters, and modified it to make it more human in appearance. Indeed, he had already shown a propensity for using taxidermy for satire and to make a political point, such as using lizards to craft into likenesses of various famous Protestant figures (Waterton was a devout Roman Catholic), and he had indulged in creative taxidermy on many occasions before.
It was even pointed out that the “Nondescript” bore an uncanny resemblance to a customs official who had given Waterton some trouble on his return to England from Guyana. Apparently, when he had docked there had been a custom inspector named Mr. Lushington, who had seen the mass of animal specimens and demanded that Waterton pay a premium taxation on the haul. Waterton had fought the import tax, but had invariably been forced to pay it, which had apparently irritated him to no end.
The thing is, while with all of his other more creative designs he had readily admitted to the whole thing, with the Nondescript he not only firmly denied any tampering with the specimen, but actually provided a full back story to capturing it. He always maintained that the specimen was real, and there were plenty of people who believed him. Why would he do such a thing? It has been suggested that he was trying to test his skill by presenting a hoax as real and seeing how well it stood up to scrutiny, or that it was even meant to be a beacon to try and draw more exploration to Guyana, or even a satirical jab at other naturalists of the time. Others think that this was just a long running practical joke that he had thought up for the fun of it all, or merely a stubborn dis to the customs official who had irked him. To this day the specimen is exhibited at the Wakefield Museum in England, and still generates controversy as to its origins and reality. In the end, it is unknown.