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Percy Fawcett and the Mysterious Man Apes of South America

The remote jungles of South America have long been the source of tales of strange creatures and legends, and among these are numerous sightings of large, ape-like creatures prowling the wilderness. The descriptions of these beasts often varies, with sizes ranging from a diminutive 3 feet tall all the way up to hulking, 12-foot-tall hairy giants, and are often claimed by the natives of the region and witnesses to live in villages of their own, use primitive bows and arrows, and to have a language of grunts and whistles. Although regional names may vary, they are now mostly filed under the blanket name Maricoxi, and they are for the most part more or less the South American version of Bigfoot.

Perhaps one of the most well-documented and harrowing encounters with these mysterious creatures was detailed by the famed British explorer Colonel Percival H. Fawcett, who vanished into the jungle during an ill-fated expedition to find a mysterious lost city he called Z. Fawcett was known to write extensive journals of his travels, many of which would later be compiled into books by his son Brian Fawcett. In one of these books, called Lost Trails, Lost Cities, there is to be found within its pages a rather curious and spectacular tale of encountering the Maricoxi.

Percy Fawcett

The encounter supposedly happened in the year 1914, as Fawcett was on an expedition to map out the uncharted southwestern region of an area called Matto Grosso. From Bolivia they penetrated into the dark jungle up the Guapore River, and already they had become well acquainted by local tribes with the bizarre stories of hairy man-beasts said to dwell out there in that sea of trees, and although it seemed rather fantastical it was enough to keep them wary of their surroundings and what they would find out there on their journey. Ivan Sanderson wrote of the stories Fawcett heard in his 1967 book Things, in which he writes:

These creatures were apparently called Maricoxis by the Maxubis. They dwelt to their northeast. Due east there were said to be another group of short, black people, covered with hair, who were truly cannibalistic and hunted humans for food, cooking the bodies over a fire on a bamboo spit and tearing off the meat. These the Maxubis regarded as merely loathsome and lowly people. On a later trip, Colonel Fawcett was told of an “ape-people” who lived in holes in the ground, were also covered with dark hair, and were nocturnal, so that they were known in surrounding areas as the Morcegos or Bat-People. These types are called Cabelludos or “Hairy People” by the Spanish-speaking, and Tatus, or armadillos, by several Amerindian groups because they live in holes like those animals. Fawcett also records forest Amerinds as telling him that the Morcegos have an incredibly well-developed sense of smell which prompts even these acute hunters to suggest that they have some “sixth sense.”

They nevertheless bravely ventured out along the river, coming across some oddities along the way. The first interesting discovery was a previously unknown Amerindian tribe, who identified themselves as the Maxubis and displayed some curious traits, such as their religion of worshiping the Sun, and demonstrating an inexplicable knowledge of the planets of the solar system, which they could draw out with rather shocking accuracy. This would have been interesting to have studied further, but Fawcett and company were not there to do anthropological work, and after staying with the tribe for a few days they headed back out into the mist-shrouded jungle once more, leaving these fascinating people behind and crossing over into a region that was completely unseen by outsiders and may as well have been the surface of some alien planet.

Matto Grosso

After several days of dealing with the numerous perils of this untamed land, the expedition found themselves faced with a mysterious trail out there in the middle of nowhere, which they presumed to be one used by the Natives of the region. As they stood there deciding whether to follow the trail or not and which way to go, Fawcett writes that they saw two figures moving about 100 yards away, apparently chattering away in some unknown language and carrying bows and arrows. Although they were at first presumed to be from a local tribe, closer inspection showed them to be decidedly odder, and Fawcett described them:

We could not see them clearly for the shadows dappling their bodies, but it seemed to me they were large, hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and with foreheads sloping back from pronounced eye ridges, men of a very primitive kind, in fact, and stark naked. Suddenly they turned and made off into the undergrowth, and we, knowing it was useless to follow, started up the north leg of the trail.

It seems quite obvious by this point that Fawcett did not regard what he had glimpsed as human beings. This was perhaps all odd enough as it was, but it got even more bizarre that evening at dusk, when the forest suddenly came alive with the sound of what seemed to be braying horns from out in the distant dark. The expedition members were immediately on alert, as they instinctively knew that this was an aggressive sound issued forth with the promise of threat. Fawcett would write of these horns and what followed:

In the subdued light of evening, beneath the high vault of branches in this forest untrodden by civilized man, the sound was as eerie as the opening notes of some fantastic opera. We knew the savages made it, and that those savages were now on our trail. Soon we could hear shouts and jabbering to the accompaniment of the rough horn calls–a barbarous, merciless din, in marked contrast to the stealth of the ordinary savage.

 

Darkness, still distant above the treetops, was settling rapidly down here in the depths of the wood, so we looked about us for a camping site which offered some measure of safety from attack, and finally took refuge in a tacuara thicket. Here the naked savages would not dare to follow because of the wicked, inch-long thorns. As we slung our hammocks inside the natural stockade we could hear the savages jabbering excitedly all around, but not daring to enter. Then, as the last light went, they left us, and we heard no more of them.

It is an eerie image to be sure, this solitary camp of bedraggled explorers terrified by the sight of hairy men and now harassed by these mysterious horns in the night, punctuated by the chattering of some rough, alien language, and it was still not over for them. The next morning the team warily checked their surroundings and could find no sign of any of the “savages” having intruded into the vicinity. They continued along one of the well-delineated trails they were finding and camped once again that evening without incident. The next morning, they struck out from the camp and within just about a mile stumbled across what seems to have been the actual village of the strange tribe, populated by creatures who were obviously not exactly human. Fawcett rather spectacularly describes what happened:

In the morning we went on, and within a quarter of a mile came to a sort of palm-leaf sentry-box, then another. Then all of a sudden we reached open forest. The undergrowth fell away, disclosing between the tree boles a village of primitive shelters, where squatted some of the most villainous savages I have ever seen. Some were engaged in making arrows, others just idled–great apelike brutes who looked as if they had scarcely evolved beyond the level of beasts.

 

I whistled, and an enormous creature, hairy as a dog, leapt to his feet in the nearest shelter, fitted an arrow to his bow in a flash, and came up dancing from one leg to the other till he was only four yards away. Emitting grunts that sounded like ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’ he remained there dancing, and suddenly the whole forest around us was alive with these hideous ape-men, all grunting ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’ and dancing from leg to leg in the same way as they strung arrows to their bows. It looked like a very delicate situation for us, and I wondered if it was the end. I made friendly overtures in Maxubi, but they paid no attention. It was as though human speech were beyond their powers of comprehension.

 

The creature in front of me ceased his dance, stood for a moment perfectly still, and then drew his bowstring back till it was level with his ear, at the same time raising the barbed point of the six-foot arrow to the height of my chest. I looked straight into the pig-like eyes half hidden under the overhanging brows, and knew that he was not going to loose that arrow yet. As deliberately as he had raised it, he now lowered the bow, and commenced once more the slow dance, and the ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’

This brutish ape-man allegedly continued to do this several more times, aiming the bow only to continue with his odd, disjointed dance and then aim it again. However, Fawcett seemed to know that at any point that arrow could unleash, and his hand was firmly kept upon the butt of his pistol as he took in the whole outlandish scene. At some point Fawcett says he began to seriously fear for his life, and decided to try scaring it off with his sidearm, shooting off a round that pinged the earth by the beast’s feet and sent a thunderous boom echoing through the jungle. He says of this sequence of events:

I drew out a Mauser pistol I had on my hip. It was a big, clumsy thing, of a caliber unsuitable to forest use, but I had brought it because by clipping the wooden holster to the pistol-butt it became a carbine, and was lighter to carry than a true rifle. It used .38 black powder shells, which made a din out of all proportion to their size. I never raised it; I just pulled the trigger and banged it off into the ground at the ape-man’s feet.

 

The effect was instantaneous. A look of complete amazement came into the hideous face, and the little eyes opened wide. He dropped his bow and arrow and sprang away as quickly as a cat to vanish behind a tree. Then the arrows began to fly. We shot off a few rounds into the branches, hoping the noise would scare the savages into a more receptive frame of mind, but they seemed in no way disposed to accept us, and before anyone was hurt we gave it up as hopeless and retreated down the trail till the camp was out of sight. We were not followed, but the clamor in the village continued for a long time as we struck off northwards, and we fancied we still heard the ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’ of the enraged braves.

This account may seem to be completely sensational to the point that it might be easy for the more skeptical minded to dismiss it out of hand, but there are a few reasons why it has warrant and deserves consideration, the first being that this was likely not some fictional story Fawcett was telling. It was part of his very serious and typically meticulous notes on his expedition and sitting right there amongst more mundane observations of the wildlife and region’s peoples. He was a consummate professional and member of the Royal Geographical Society, as well as a very respected, experienced explorer and surveyor, and there is no rational reason at all for why he should want to concoct such a story to drop in the middle of his otherwise meticulous journal. Why would he do that and risk his reputation? To what ends? It also means he would not likely have made misidentifications of local tribes or wildlife, as he was as familiar with these jungles as one could possibly be in the era.

Fawcett has also been accused of having perhaps exaggerated his dealings with the Natives and in this case made them out to be hairy brutes out of some racist agenda, but if that were the case then why are there other records of his dealings with locals that are completely accurate in their depiction of their appearances and behavior? It is somewhat true that Fawcett was known to have some strong opinions on the more primitive tribes, but he seems to have never let it compromise the matter-of-fact way in which he recorded the people themselves. Sanderson has much to say about this aspect of the journal entries, writing:

He (Fawcett) was not an ethnologist, anthropologist, or archaeologist but it was with these disciplines that he clashed, and it was towards the protagonists of the first that he most often expressed himself as feeling most bitter. In his extensive travels through hitherto unexplored territories he discovered many groups of people for the first time, lived with them, often acquired not a little of their language, recorded what of their customs he could, and attempted some classification of their origins. Much of all of this conflicted with established beliefs among ethnologists, and Fawcett’s historical theories were at complete variance with what was then, and still is, accepted. Yet, while those theories were strongly criticized, the veracity of the facts he collected were never questioned. It was his assessment of them that was considered invalid.

 

This puts his account of the hairy Maricoxis in an entirely different light, quite apart from the fact that his word was never doubted, that he had two reliable witnesses, and that what he saw was both before and afterwards confirmed by others, in that reports relayed to him by several people described exactly what he had seen without the relaters knowing anything of what he did see. We are therefore compelled to accept this report in toto; and this means simply that, in the year 1914, there were living to the northeast of the Parecis Range in the Matto Grosso, what were apparently tribal groups of fully-haired hominids of grossly primitive aspect, and in no possible way descended from or related to the Amerindian aborigines of the Americas.

While Sanderson may seem perhaps too quick to buy the whole tale, it certainly is an account that stands out among Fawcett’s writings, and which ultimately leaves more questions than answers. What did Fawcett and his fellow expedition members encounter out there in that jungle? Were these indeed the legendary Maricoxi or something else? It is truly unfortunate that, considering that Fawcett was not particularly interested in following up on it, and seems to have considered it mostly an obstacle and oddity, he never did make any effort to find out what they were, and the creatures of his account just sort of fade into the background to remain perplexing enigmas. Did these creatures really exist the way Fawcett described them, and if so what were they and how did they fit into the Maricoxi legend? The answer may forever remain hidden out there in that forbidden jungle lair.