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The Strange Case of the Maori Gorilla

Cryptozoology is often very similar to detective work. The field of cryptozoology is littered with countless mysteries and puzzles which have sort of been lost to time and have become cold cases for which we have to piece together the puzzle, often with incomplete, vague, or even contradictory information. There are those occasions in which we have a tale of some weird or fantastic creature lurking in the wilds of the world for which we have only a few historical accounts frustratingly low on information to work with. In such cases, we are left scratching our heads, trying desperately to track down every shred of history and eyewitness testimony we can find, every old article or clipping we can, and often never quite finding the answers we so desperately seek. Indeed, lost or forgotten cryptid reports can certainly test our patience. One old cryptid account that came to my attention not long ago is the case of what was referred to as the Maori Gorilla, some sort of ape-like creature inhabiting the wilds of New Zealand, which is so far certainly odd enough, but it is a story which rapidly gets just stranger and stranger as it goes on, all while leaving frustratingly few clues and historical accounts to go on before just fading into obscurity.

In the latter part of 1870, the area around New Zealand’s Porter’s Creek became the scene for a bizarre series of sightings of a creature that was described as some sort of gorilla-like creature. The beast was mostly described as being around 5 feet tall, with sparse, scraggly hair covering its body, a tuft of hair on the top of the head, and with a pair of visible “tusks” sprouting from each side of the head or from the mouth depending on the report. What would come to be known as the “Maori Gorilla” was reported as being seen both on the shores of the creek and also on occasion wading through the water. According to reports published starting in September, 1870 in the Thames Advisor, the creature was apparently well-known by the native Maori people, who referred to it as a tupuna, or “ancestor.” The Maori Gorilla was said to eat a wide variety of foods, including potatoes, pie crust, and nuts. The newspapers at the time speculated that it could be “the missing link” or some sort of primitive form of human ancestor, and there was a great amount of interest expressed in tracking it down and capturing whatever it was.

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After sightings of the Maori Gorilla became frequently reported on in various newspapers at the time, including the New Zealand Herald, the West Coast Times, the Auckland Star, and the Thames Advisor, there came spectacular news when it was reported that the elusive creature had actually been captured. In late September of 1870, the Thames Advisor ran an article which was subsequently picked up by several other publications claiming that the creature had been caught in a swamp near Porter’s Creek with the use of hunting dogs. The article spectacularly claimed that the creature had been captured and then its hands and legs tied up. The paper’s description tends to be somewhat racially insensitive, but describes the creature thus:

This Maori gorilla has a head somewhat like a native, but two tusks stick out, one on each side of the head. There is a tuft of hair on the top of the head. The body is as dark as that of a Maori, with hair on the arms and legs. He grunts somewhat like a pig. We are informed that he is to be brought over here for public exhibition, and we must say we should like to see him.

It sounds exciting enough, but then the case starts to get a little strange. In the September 30, 1870 edition of the Auckland Star, a short article ran claiming that the creature that had allegedly been caught was not any sort of gorilla or primate at all, but rather just a seal. The article reads:

The strange animal reported to have been found at Porter’s Creek, on the other side of the river, we were informed last night by some natives that it is simply a seal. Whether the person who brought the first news of its being caught had never seen such an animal before, or could not resist the opportunity for drawing upon his imagination, we cannot say; certain is that the animal has very little resemblance to the monster it was represented to be.

This to me is very odd, as it seems that there is little chance anyone, whether they are familiar with seals or not, could ever possibly mistake one for a primate of some sort. Indeed details of the original report, such as the mention of arms and legs, seem very different from a seal, and it seems apparent that a seal would have been unlikely to cause the spate of sightings of a gorilla-like creature, which was known to the Maori of the area on top of that. Especially considering that the thing was allegedly captured, wouldn’t someone have fairly quickly ascertained that it was a seal before it went to print as something else? How could the mystery creature possibly go from being described as being a gorilla-like thing with tusks in the news to being just a regular seal? Was the original report fabricated to such a dramatic degree? Are both of the reports bogus? Or is there something else going on? Is there a chance that someone was perhaps trying to cover up the find with this whole seal explanation, or that someone was just messing around?

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More clues can be gleaned in a subsequent article from the Thames Advisor, which backtracks on its original story, but does so in a report that totally contradicts the seal report as well as its own previously published story, while simultaneously making the whole case even weirder and more puzzling than it already was. In an article from the Thames Advisor related in the October 1, 1870 edition of the New Zealand Herald, just one day after the claim that the Maori Gorilla was nothing more than a seal, it was stated that two men had gone to view the captured creature hoping to purchase it for exhibition, but were rather perplexed with what they found, and it was not a gorilla nor a seal, but rather a human! The article starts off strangely enough, saying:

We are sorry to disappoint our readers, more especially with reference to any interesting question in natural history, but it now appears that the Maori gorilla is not a gorilla at all- in point of fact, the Maori gorilla turns out to be an old woman.

An old woman? Again, it is an incredibly jarring revelation in light of the fact that, just a week before, the very same newspaper had clearly described the captured beast as first of all, a “he,” second of all not human but rather ape-like with tusks, and additionally not looking in the slightest bit like an old woman. This isn’t even considering the fact that the Auckland Star had reported that the captured creature was a only seal just the day before. So which was it, a seal or an old woman? Neither option seems to lend itself to anything even resembling the gorilla from previous reports, and furthermore a gorilla, a seal, and an old woman are about as wildly conflicting in appearance as you can get. It is really hard to reconcile any of these reports with each other. It is also curious that at no point does this article acknowledge the previous seal article. As the article continues, it gets even more bizarre still. Later it goes on to say:

We understand that two gentlemen went over to get this most notable creature for exhibition, and after a long walk came to the place where she was kept. There they were shown a poor old woman, who really, in some respect, is as great a curiosity as the gorilla itself would be. She has been as she is, it seems, beyond the memory of all who know her, and has attained, it is said, the patriarchal age of 175. How this estimate has been arrived at we do not know, and cannot guarantee its correctness. Her hair has dropped off, except a small tuft at the top, and altogether she is such a wonder that the gentlemen who went to buy a gorilla would willingly have made terms for her if her relations had permitted.

There are so many oddities with this story and things that don’t make sense that it is hard to even know where to begin. Even forgetting for the moment the earlier report that the captured creature was a seal, it is hard to really imagine an old woman even half the purported age of 175 running around causing people to think they are seeing a gorilla with tusks, then find herself out in the swamp eluding hunting dogs, and then subsequently being dramatically captured and having to be tied up, presumably because of resisting, only to then be described as a gorilla creature with tusks in a newspaper article. How would an elderly woman manage that? What threat would she pose where she had to be restrained like that, and above all how would anyone mistake her for a male gorilla, even after she was detained? And by the way, what happened to the whole seal angle being played up in the paper just the previous day?

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Another oddity here is the woman’s reported 175 year-old age, which as the article said is pretty much just as miraculous and mysterious as a gorilla running around in the wilds of New Zealand. It is not stated how they came to this conclusion about her age, but it seems a bit exaggerated to say the least. It really is a rather bizarre detail, especially in light of the fact that this is supposed to be the culprit behind the sightings and capture of a gorilla-like beast. There are sadly not enough details here to really say just what exactly the two gentlemen saw or whether the alleged age is accurate or not, but what is clear is that, whatever they saw, it was no gorilla and there is no mention of the prominent tusks here either. Which leads me to another question. If there was no gorilla all along and relations would not permit the two men who had gone to see the lady to make terms for her, then why had they been brought there in the first place? It seems that they obviously went there under the pretense that they fully expected to purchase a gorilla or similar creature, yet then they just see an old woman and that’s the end of that? If no relations were willing to make a deal and it was in fact not a gorilla as advertised, then who invited the men there in the first place? Who told them that there was a gorilla there to buy? I suppose the men may have heard rumors that the gorilla was there and had gone there unsolicited to try and buy it unbeknownst to the woman or her family, but something just seems off to me here.

So we are left with a trail of bizarre little tidbits that do not seem to fit together very well. We have a series of sightings of a gorilla-like, most certainly a primate creature of some sort with tusks. Then a widely published report claims that the beast is captured, a beast that is described as ape-like and clearly not seal-like or old woman-like in any way. This is followed by an article bizarrely stating that the whole Maori Gorilla scare was all just because of a seal, followed a mere day later by yet another article saying that no, in fact it was a 175 year-old woman. Were all of these conflicting reports fabricated for some reason? Which story do we believe? What is the deal with a 175 year-old woman? Was anything really captured at all and if so was it a seal, an old woman, or what? None of the original sightings reports gives any hint that it was anything other than a mysterious large primate. It seems that either one or more of the reports of capture is false or inaccurate, or that perhaps a gorilla-like creature perhaps really was captured and the conflicting reports were efforts to cover up the find by people who maybe just weren’t on the same page with which cover story to go with. Is that what happened here? Is it possible that the Maori Gorilla was in fact neither a seal nor an old woman, but rather very real and its existence buried in a somewhat sloppy cover-up that leaves us with these contradictory accounts? Or is the whole thing just a big joke?

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The frustrating thing is that I have been unable to find any further reports on the situation after the 175 year-old lady claim. I’ve scoured the archives where I found these articles and there is no further mention of anything else to do with the Maori Gorilla. The story just goes completely cold and stops, so it seems there is sadly no way to truly get to the bottom of this case, leaving us with all of these questions with no clear resolutions. I’m not sure why such a widely covered story covered in so many news outlets would just be abruptly dropped like that, but it certainly is one more little oddity to add to everything else. So there is the weird story of the Maori Gorilla, a case which I find to be very intriguing and any theories are of course welcome.