Since childhood, I've always been fascinated with the subject of cryptozoology. The term itself was coined by the late scientist Bernard Huevelmans, who offered it in reference to the search for biological organisms as-yet unrecognized by science, but which are nonetheless represented in various belief systems (often folk traditions among indigenous cultures, for instance).
While reports of things like "sea monsters" and mysterious "wild men" in the remote forests are often eye-grabbing, they also represent the most sensational kinds of stories offered in the broader discussion of cryptozoology. Because of this, over the years I've grown to be more careful in my approach to the subject, as with similarly "fringe" topics like unidentified flying objects, etc.
Of course, some stories about sea monsters or wild men might be capable of bearing fruit; however, most often this ends up being of the lowest-hanging variety. In other words, deep, explorative cultural and biological studies seldom form the basis for what is offered as evidence of these creatures. Instead, what makes its way into the pages of books is tantamount to modern folklore, borrowing from existing stories that are well known in the cryptozoological literature, or the incorporation of new ones that build onto an already well-worn mythos.
By contrast, if we really wanted to take time to examine the varieties of unknown species waiting to be discovered on this planet, we would need to look no further than limestone caves that flourish beneath states like Kentucky and Tennessee. By some estimates, there are as many as several hundreds of unexplored subterranean systems in this region of North America, each probably teeming with tiny--or even microscopic--new lifeforms. However, "microscopic" is much harder to sell, whether in books or on reality television shows.
The point I'm making here is that, as far as the search for undiscovered animals, there is plenty yet to be found, although the likelihood that many of those will be exceptionally large (let alone manlike) becomes increasingly rarer with every passing year, and the acquisition of new knowledge about our planet. We have scoured our world, and our oceans, in search of new organisms, and while many new discoveries do turn up on a frequent basis, we continue to see little vindication for the classic "monsters" that have haunted our imaginations since time immemorial.
At this point, I should offer a caveat since there are, from time to time, what I feel to be good cases that lend substance to the idea that one or two "mystery monsters" may be out there. One of my favorites takes us back to Halloween 1983, where a group of construction workers at Stinson Beach, California, observed what they described as being a "giant snake" swimming several meters off the coast for a period of several minutes. I had the opportunity to interview one of the primary witnesses, Marlene Martin, who adamantly maintained that the creature was large, dark colored, and by all observations resembled a massive aquatic snake (further details of this incident can be read about in my MU post from last year).
Of course, the Stinson Beach incident is a modern corollary for countless similar stories from earlier times; accounts of oceanic creatures of serpentine appearance have been a mainstay in America since its founding, with stories the likes of the Gloucester sea serpent of 1817, and an earlier series of sightings around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, that occurred as early as 1639.
North America is by no means the only region of the world with legends about large, mysterious creatures; nor are such reports confined to our oceans. Consider the fact that reports of primal creatures, which often are likened to being "wild men," stem from a remarkably diverse collection of regions around the world. The following examples make reference to different varieties of cultural beliefs involving such creatures; the first comes to us from a 1978 Nature article titled, “Yeti or Wild Man in Siberia?" (Nature, 271:603, 1978):
Reports from Russia tell of a creature known locally as the "Chuchunaa" which is over 2 m tall, clad in deerskin, and unable to talk, although it does utter a piercing whistle. A man-eater, the Chuchunaa often steals food from settlements. Observers say that the creature has a protruding brow, long matted hair, a full beard, and walks with its hands hanging below its knees. Soviet scientists speculate that the Chuchunaa represents the last surviving remnant of the Siberian paleoasiatic aborigines that retreated to the upper reaches of the Yana and Indigirka rivers. The last reliable sightings were in the 1950s, and this animal may now be extinct.
The next, from China, denotes the creature known as Yeren in various parts of the country, as discussed in the New York Times article, ”It's Tall, It Has Wavy Red Hair and Chinese Keep Hunting for It," (NYT, p. 5, January 5, 1980). It reads:
“Spurred by reports of large (6 -feet tall) animals with wavy red hair walking on two legs, Chinese scientists have been combing the thick forests of Shennongjia, in Hubei Province. Many footprints 12-16 inches long as well as samples of hair and feces have been found. So far, though, no photos or specimens.”
The next instance is a most interesting excerpt, which appeared in 1982 in Myra Shackley's "The Case for Neanderthal Survival: Fact, Fiction or Faction?" published in the journal Antiquity (56:31). A review of it via Science Frontiers, and the scientific cataloguing of William R. Corliss reads as follows:
All continents have their tales of wild men, abominable snowmen, sasquatch, etc. Most anthropologists give little credence to these stories. Shackley, however, has assembled considerable evidence for the reality of the so-called Almas (plural form: Almasti), primitive men who closely resemble Neanderthal Man, or at least what we think Neanderthal Man looked like. Abundant, internally consistent data come from an east-west band running from the Caucacus, across the Pamir Mountains, through the Altai Mountains, to Inner Mongolia. Even today, sightings of these creatures are rather common; and several scientists have seen them. One incident occurred in 1917, when the Reds were pursuing White Army forces through the Pamirs. The troops of Major General Mikail Stephanovitch Topilsky shot an Almas as he was emerging from a cave.
"The eyes were dark and the teeth were large and even and shaped like human teeth. The forehead was slanting and the eyebrows were very powerful. The protruding jawbones made the face resemble the Mongol type of face. The nose was very flat ...the lower jaws were very massive."
In some instances the Almasti have even associated with modern man; and cases of successful interbreeding have been reported. After reviewing the mountains of evidence, Shackley feels that the Almasti are very likely surviving Neanderthals, because the physical characteristics of the Almasti and reconstructed Neanderthals are basically identical. This long review article also discusses the many Chuchunaa sightings from northern Russia -- perhaps another relict population of Neanderthals.
As can be seen from the preceding reports (and their publication dates), the notion that some small groups of "wild men" had remained undiscovered in remote areas of the world was once given at least some serious consideration. However, more recent genetic studies that have examined the scant physical evidence available leave us with far less to imagine: in every case, the genetic evidence points to bears, rather than mystery hominids, existing primally at the outermost skirts of the modern world.
How can we reconcile the richness of these cultural traditions from around the world, with the lacking physical evidence for the existence of such creatures? It is difficult to make sense of, on account of the demands of modern science, which require indisputable physical proof before any credible argument can proceed.
Yet eyewitness reports, anecdotal though they are, shouldn't be ruled completely out of hand; especially those which contain what are, at times, a remarkable degree of detail. Arguably, my favorite from recent memory involves an observation made in the early 1990s by Russian scientist Arkady Tishkov, who watched a strange, upright-walking apelike creature in the Himalayan mountains for a period of two hours in September of 1991:
"About midday, on the top of a moraine ridge at a distance of about 400 feet (120 m), I noticed a human-like animal sitting by a boulder on the sunlit side. My position was lower on the slope, and at first I did not see the full silhouette. A little later, however, I observed the animal in full. It had the following characteristics: erect, bipedal posture; dark brown color; cone-shaped head; no visible neck; long forelimbs; and short and slightly flexed hind limbs. When first observed, the creature was squatting in what seemed an unnatural position for an animal, with its back touching the sun-warmed surface of the boulder.”
A lengthier presentation on the Tishkov encounter can be read here.
We could discuss reputable articles and reasonably constructed eyewitness reports all day, but ultimately there is no clear resolution here. Hence, many in the scientific community would feel most comfortable concluding that if so little evidence exists, then there are probably no such creatures. I have never felt that this is the most logical way to reconcile the two opposing elements to the ongoing cryptozoological mystery; still, at what point will the remarkable observations--many of which no doubt involve valid and real circumstances--be complemented by equally remarkable physical specimens, which will settle the debate once and for all?
Stories about cryptids truly are a cultural phenomenon, stemming from places all around the world. For my part, I do hold onto some hope that certain technological advancements of the coming years may help us settle the debate over the existence of some of these creatures. Whether small microbial lifeforms or larger beasts lurking beyond the regions known well to us in modern times, the field of cryptozoology does bear certain promise for the patient and persistent among us.
In a world that grows seemingly ever-smaller as science teaches us more, it is likely just a matter of time before the next big (or microscopic) discovery in the frontiers of biology.