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Oregon’s Stone Ape Heads: An Archaeological Mystery, Part Two

In the late 1890s, a curious collection of stone carvings from near the Columbia River in Oregon were causing a bit of a stir in archaeological circles.

“In Professor Marsh’s specimen… the nose is represented by two round protuberances similar to the eyes, but smaller and closer together,” wrote anthropologist James Terry of one of the finds. “The mouth is distended, exhibiting the teeth, of which there are eleven. The corrugations of the forehead are intensified and project forward… both of which features would seem to indicate anger. This specimen is made from a close, compact bowlder of basalt, which exhibits the natural surface except in the sculptured parts.”

Head-on view of one of Terry’s sculptured “ape” specimens (public domain).

As outlined in the first part of this two-part article, the features Terry had been describing led him to the conclusion that these carved faces, found along the John Day River (a tributary of Oregon’s Columbia River) most closely resembled gorillas than any other animal.

Terry wasn’t the only one who interpreted the features of the lithic sculptures as being “gorilla-like” in appearance. Thomas Condon, an Oregon-based paleontologist and owner of one of the  sculptures, wrote his own speculations about how this may have come to be in a letter to Terry (featured as a footnote in Terry’s monograph).

According to Condon: 

“In regard to the gorilla likeness and the inquiry where the Indians got it, I would say: I have drifted into the conviction that some Malay proa (a variety of sailboat) with a wooden figurehead like this may have been wrecked on our coast. The Indians would think it a Godsend and give this permanent form in stone.”

Thomas Condon.

Imaginative though Condon’s speculations had been, of greater importance had been his agreement with Terry that the sculpted figures bore apelike facial characteristics. In fact, from what we can glean from Terry’s monograph, It would give the impression that at least a few professionals at the time were in agreement with Terry and his description of these artifacts as having an appearance resembling an “anthropoid ape.”

Why is this significant? After all, there are many other interpretations that could be made here; similar-looking artifacts from the region have been identified with such things as bears, or even mountain goats. However, the interesting aspect about all this is that at the time Terry learned about these artifacts, and then committed his thoughts to paper in 1891, it is questionable as to whether he would have had any knowledge of what is commonly known today as Sasquatch; in other words, it seems that a good case can be made that Terry was not aware of reports of gorilla-like “mountain devils,” the likes of which would not begin to be reported more commonly in American newspapers until the early 1920s.

My reasoning behind this has to do with the scant number of early written accounts of Sasquatch (and, here again, that name for the creature—Sasquatch—would not come into use for several years, when J.W. Burns began to publish articles where he was first to employ this term). Perhaps the earliest description we find in written American accounts of something resembling the modern idea of Sasquatch is an account given by the missionary Elkanah Walker around 1840, which I’ll include below:

“Bear with me if I trouble you with a little of their superstitions. They believe in a race of giants, which inhabit a certain mountain off to the west of us. This mountain is covered with perpetual snow. They (the creatures) inhabit the snow peaks. They hunt and do all their work at night. They are men stealers.

 

“They come to the people’s lodges at night when the people are asleep and take them and put them under their skins and to their place of abode without even waking. Their track is a foot and a half long. They steal salmon from Indian nets and eat then raw as the bears do. If the people are awake, they always know when they are coming very near by their strong smell that is most intolerable. It is not uncommon for them to come in the night and give three whistles and then the stones will begin to hit their houses.”

Many of the modern tropes associated with Sasquatch appeared in this account, based on legends of the Spokane Indians which Walker recorded at the time. However, there is no explicit reference in Walker’s account to the “giants” he refers to being covered in hair, or otherwise being gorilla-like in appearance.

It should be noted, of course, that there is one other famous account, given in a journal entry dated January 7, 1811, in which David Thompson, an employee with the Northwest Company, described finding a 14-inch-long animal track while crossing the Rocky Mountains near Jasper, Alberta. While Thompson’s account has generated some interest over the years, he rather explicitly describes the spoor in his journal entry as “very much [resembling] a large Bear’s track.” As far as known written accounts that Terry might have come across prior to writing his monograph in 1891, sources appear to be rather scant. However, there is always the possibility that Terry had been told about such creatures by his Native guides, who accompanied him as he paddled along the Columbia River and its tributaries. Could this have been the original source of Terry’s interest in the ape-like appearance of the stone artifacts described in his monograph?

It is possible that Terry’s interest in the “apelike” qualities of these stone carvings might also have been inspired by an earlier commentator on the subject. In 1877, O. C. Marsh (the owner of one of the carvings) had described them during an address he gave before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Nashville, Tennessee, where he described them as follows:

“Among many stone carvings which I saw there [Columbia River] were a number of heads, which so strongly resemble those of apes that the likeness at once suggests itself.”

Here, it certainly seems possible that the earliest suggestion that the carvings resembled apes might have come from Marsh himself, whom Terry mentions by name in his own later monograph. Whether or not Marsh had been the source that inspired others to interpret these stone carvings as “apes”, it is also noteworthy that at least a few academics many decades later would continue to argue the same, even going so far as to suggest a possible connection between the carvings and myths about Sasquatch.

“[T]o the best of my knowledge,” wrote ethnohistorian and anthropologist Roderick Sprague in 1970, “no one has suggested in print that perhaps the carved stone anthropoid ape heads of James Terry and later workers from the John Day region on the Columbia River could well be associated with the sasquatch phenomena.”

Head-on and lateral view of one of Terry’s sculptured specimens from 1891 (public domain).

Sprague, who became the leading expert on the carved “apes” from Oregon prior to his death, also found accounts about them provided in the annual report of the Smithsonian Institution for

1886, which described them as “baboons”:

“[Dr. Rafferty] also has a baboon with the eyes, forehead, and nostrils plainly marked; it is 6 inches long, 4 inches high, weighs 6 pounds 10 ounces, and is of volcanic rock. Mr. Steel, of Portland, has another well-made baboon, which is 7 inches long, 17 inches around the body, and weighs 13 pounds. The eyes are an inch in diameter; it is 2 inches between the center of the two eyes, 4 inches from the eyes to the end of the nose, and 2 inches across the nose.”

The account given in the Smithsonian annual report goes on to say, “[Rafferty] obtained it from the Dalles and has traced it some distance further east of the Cascade Mountains. Mrs. Kunzie has another of these stone baboons which likewise came from eastern Oregon, and Mr. Stevens has a fourth, very nearly the same size as that of Dr. Rafferty’s, and all of them seem to be of similar stone.” The fact that the specimens originate from the regions of Oregon described here becomes of particular interest, given their proximity to sighting reports of Sasquatch that have been concentrated in the area over the last several decades.

“Where the Indians of this region obtained the idea of such perfect baboons is a mystery,” the entry concludes, adding, “or were the stones, in their present shape, imported?”

Terry had considered these questions in his monograph as well, which he ended with the following appraisal of the unique carvings:

“In reaching a conclusion in regard to the origin of the stone heads here described, it would appear, from our present knowledge, either that the animals which these carvings represent once existed in the Columbia valley, or that, in the remote past, a migration of natives from some region containing these monkeys reached this valley, and left one of the vivid impressions of their former surroundings in these imperishable sculptures.”

There is, of course, a third possibility which has already been strongly alluded to: that such a creature might have lingered in the Columbia valley until more recently, and might even still exist there today. Arguments against the reality of the Sasquatch rooted in its interpretation as a purely “modern” phenomenon may be challenged by the information presented here, as these artifacts could suggest that knowledge of gorilla or apelike fauna may have been known to indigenous Americans in pre-Columbian times. If this interpretation is correct, the implications would be profound for anthropologists and zoologists alike, and may provide yet another missing piece in the great puzzle that is the American Sasquatch enigma.

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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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