Thursday, March 28, 2013

Creature of the Month - Mokèlé-mbèmbé by Micah Hanks

We are excited this week to add a new author into the fray for our Creature series.  Please welcome Micah Hanks. We hope that you enjoy his musings on creatures big and small over the year to come.

Mokèlé-mbèmbé: The Last Long Necked Saurian?
Studies of strange beasts that may exist beneath the waters of inland lakes have remained an item of fascination in cryptozoological circles for some time now. Peter Costello’s classic book In Search of Lake Monsters did for the study of inland aquatic beasts what Sanderson’s Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life had done for strange and beastly proto-humans like the popular Bigfoot and its Himalayan cousin, the Yeti. Arguably, each of the aforementioned volumes remain unparalleled even today, as far as being exhaustive, worldwide studies of strange animals that keep themselves hidden in our world’s more remote corners.
The study of monsters in lakes is indeed fascinating, though at times it becomes problematic. For instance, there are numerous reports of a strange beast said to exist in Lake Norman, North Carolina, described as being a large, fleshy monster covered in fins. However, with the possible exception of a very large catfish, the possibility that a mysterious beast could reside there seems quite remote indeed, considering the fact that Lake Norman is a manmade body of water.
The same cannot be said for all lakes, as there are many large portions of land-locked water whose breadth and great depths would rival some oceans. And true, there are reports of strange beasts that exist in some of these larger inland water bodies that manage to capture our imagination not only for their size, but also for the more credible stories of strange beasts that might exist there. Yet even still, the primary question that remains is one of how, precisely, a beast can come to exist in a large, inland body of water, and exist there for what some speculate to be thousands upon thousands of years, perhaps as literal relics from prehistoric times?
Our general view of such great water beasts is that these creatures are either writhing scaly coils of slithering serpent stuff, or perhaps, as mentioned above, aquatic holdovers from prehistoric times, armed with fins that might propel them through icy waters like those at the most famous monstrous watering holes, the fabled Loch Ness of Scotland. But not all so-called “water monsters” may be the kind whose locomotion is by flipper or fin, per se. Arguably, one of the most famous examples hails from the humid tropical jungles of the Dark Continent, nestled in a lake called Tele deep within the recesses of the Congo River Valley Basin. Here, the beast in question resides only partially beneath the water’s surface, spending the rest of its time stomping about the muddy shores of nearby rivers and tributaries, leaving enormous, three-toed footprints as it meanders along, searching for vegetation to consume.

The stories of a long necked water beast in Lake Tele date back to at least 1776, when Abbé Lievain Bonaventure noted his discovery of huge tracks in the region, presumably left by an unknown animal. Bonaventure guessed that the culprit, “must have been monstrous: the marks of the claws were noted on the ground, and these formed a print about three feet in circumference." Similar stories would continue to emanate from the region over the next few centuries; one local folk tale even claimed that a group of the pygmy natives that lived nearby managed to capture and kill one of the monsters some time around the middle of the last century. Upon cooking and consuming its meat later that evening, a number of them fell gravely ill after consuming the creature’s flesh.
And of this strange beast that the pygmies learned so quickly to respect for its strange properties (in this instance, perhaps even after its physical demise), while there are many names ascribed to water reptiles said to live in the region, arguably the most popular remaining today is that of Mokèlé-mbèmbé, derived from the native Lingala language, meaning “one who stops the flow of rivers.”

Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, a German Captain who was visiting Cameroon in the early 1900s, had also heard the odd stories of there being a beast of some kind that existed somewhere around Lake Tele and the various rivers and tributaries feeding it. Eventually, von Stein’s notes from his 1913 travels through the region would make their way to the printed page, painting the strange portrait of what, even today, seems to suggest the existence of a large reptile that lives somewhere in the Congo:

The animal is said to be of a brownish-gray color with a smooth skin, its size is approximately that of an elephant; at least that of a hippopotamus. It is said to have a long and very flexible neck and only one tooth but a very long one; some say it is a horn. A few spoke about a long, muscular tail like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to attack the vessels at once and to kill the crews but without eating the bodies. The creature is said to live in the caves that have been washed out by the river in the clay of its shores at sharp bends. It is said to climb the shores even at daytime in search of food; its diet is said to be entirely vegetable. This feature disagrees with a possible explanation as a myth. The preferred plant was shown to me, it is a kind of liana with large white blossoms, with a milky sap and applelike fruits. At the Ssombo River I was shown a path said to have been made by this animal in order to get at its food. The path was fresh and there were plants of the described type nearby. But since there were too many tracks of elephants, hippos, and other large mammals it was impossible to make out a particular spoor with any amount of certainty.

Not only was von Stein’s creature reminiscent of its cousins around the world at locations such as Loch Ness; the beast was then, and has since nearly always been described as a violent, territorial beast. While favoring fruits of the liana plant as its primary dietary staple, the creature will nonetheless attack other large animals that enter its domain, with similar regard to humans unlucky enough to come nearby.
With the picture that emerges on account of von Stein’s recounting of local tales, paired with the recollections of others who claim to have seen the beast over the years, what does seem to emerge is an animal that resembles a moderately sized dinosaur-like creature, perhaps bearing closest resemblance to a brontosaurus or similar long-necked dinosaur. And yet, despite what some researchers might consider a preponderance of evidence supporting not just the creature’s existence, but also its identity as a prehistoric monster the likes of which no living man had ever been presumed to have coexisted alongside, it is still difficult to paint a clear picture of what, exactly, the Mokèlé-mbèmbé really is… or even “if” it is.

In more recent years, expeditions to the region—which almost inevitably seem to fail upon encountering hardships once they arrive—have nonetheless reported that indigenous natives claim the creatures are seen far less often, perhaps dwindling in numbers due to pressures from changing climate and the eventual encroachment of humankind upon their once archaic and unchanged environment. Other traditional views have led to the notion that the locals never accepted Mokèlé-mbèmbé as any kind of physical beast at all, and that Western explorers had come to misinterpret a spectral tradition among the pygmies and others as being a real, flesh and blood creature when, in truth, no such animal ever really existed.
An alternative viewpoint on this, however, might be that a secretive and misunderstood animal like the Mokèlé-mbèmbé would naturally lead to superstitious views regarding the creature and its capacities. If, for instance, the story of the captured creature whose flesh had poisoned the pygmies who consumed it were indeed true, one might have little trouble seeing how a superstition about the beast and its innate magical properties might come to exist. And arguably, while there is no hard proof of the creature’s existence (let alone its saurian identity), natives in the Congo aren’t the only ones claiming to have seen it; even renowned explorers the likes of Ivan Sanderson had claimed to have encountered some variety of large beast while visiting the region.
As to whether some species of large, prehistoric reptile with a long neck—and an aggressive attitude—actually does exist within the heart of the Congo, one can only speculate at present, and acknowledge the collected reports and accounts which span several centuries. One can only hope, once the time, technology, and funding required to safely enter the region and observe its mysterious residents is made available, that these strange creatures—if they ever existed—will still be there, living today. With luck, we may discover an indigenous beast still living there, existing virtually unchanged, and as it may have done since long before modern humans ever walked the Earth.

Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.

He is author of several books, including Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, and his 2012 New Page Books release, The UFO Singularity. Hanks is an editor for Intrepid Magazine, and consulting editor/contributor for FATE Magazine and The Journal of Anomalous Sciences. He writes for a variety of other publications, and produces a weekly podcast, The GralienReport, which follows his research.

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