Thursday, June 27, 2013

Move over Nessie?

The Loch Ness monster was first mentioned in a 7th Century text written by Adomnán, who reported that St. Columba had seen a monster in the River Ness a hundred years earlier.  Between the 7th Century and the 20th Century there was no mention of the animal.

The monster returned to the public eye in 1933 when George Spicer and his wife reported seeing 'a most extraordinary form of animal' cross the road in front of them.  Since then Nessie, as the supposed monster became to be known, has captured the world’s interest, even though there has been no hard evidence that it actually exists.  Many photographs of the monster, such as the ‘ssurgeon’s photograph’ of 1934, are generally now regarded as being hoaxes.
The 'surgeon's photo' of Nessie - a hoax

Sculpture of Nessie at the visitor centre

Despite the prominence of Nessie in the public’s eye, there is a similar monster that has been sought for much longer, namely Mokèlé-mbèmbé, meaning "one who stops the flow of rivers".  It is reputed to be found in Lake Télé and the rivers forming the Congo basin. It is said to have a preference for deep water, and local folklore claims that its favorite place is on  river bends.

The first possible mention of mokèlé-mbèmbé was by Abbé Lievain Bonaventure, a French missionary and naturalist in the seventeen hundreds.  He reported seeing footprints of an enormous creature that were neither those of an elephant or hippopotamus.

In 1909, several people reported hearing of mokèlé-mbèmbé but not actually seeing it.  Lt. Paul Gratz's account spoke of a creature known by native people, which was said to inhabit the Lake Bangweulu region in Zambia.  Gratz described the creature as resembling a sauropod.  This is one of the earliest references linking a local legend with dinosaurs.
In the same year, famed big-game hunter, Carl Hegenbeck claimed to have heard multiple reports of a creature described as "half elephant, half dragon".  And naturalist Joseph Menges also told Hagenbeck about an animal alleged to live in Africa, described as "some kind of dinosaur”.
These reports excited the press and the possibility of a modern-day dinosaur was discussed at length.
In 1913, a German, Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, conducted a survey of German colonies in what is now Cameroon.  He heard stories of an enormous reptile alleged to live in the jungles, and included a description of the beast in his official report.

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 apple-like fruits.

The first organized expedition  to search for mokèlé-mbèmbé was sent by the Smithsonian in 1919-1920.  The 32-man team never saw the creature but "African guides found large, unexplained tracks along the bank of a river and later in a swamp the team heard mysterious roars, which had no resemblance with any known animal".

From then on, there have been numerous expeditions.  One problem they all faced is that the area in which the creature is thought to live is in the middle of the almost-impenetrable Congo jungles.  Some expeditions never even reached their destination.

Most of the expeditions have produced no hard evidence, as is the case with Nessie.  But there are some tantalizing scraps.

In 1966 a man called Yvan Ridel photographed a large three-toed footprint.  Hippos have four toes.

In 1992, a Japanese film crew shot 15 seconds of a large animal swimming across Lake Télé although, as would be expected, the photo is indistinct.  It appears that the animal has a single horn - which is also the description in a lot of local legend.  I could not find a photo worth printing.

One of the most interesting activities is the search for mokèlé-mbèmbé by creationsists, led by Young Earth Creationsist William Gibbons of England.  His first expedition in 1985-1986 was unsuccessful in finding the creature, but it did discover a new subspecies of monkey.  He returned in 1992 and again was unsuccessful.  Gibbons obviously believes that locating a dinosaur or dinosaur-like creature living today would undermine evolutionary theory.  Gibbons has returned several times, all without success.

The most recent expedition was about five years ago, and a Kickstart campaign has raised about $30,000 for another expedition, but it seems unlikely that it will materialize.

So is it time for Nessie to move over?  I think not.  Given the inhospitable terrain in which mokèlé-mbèmbé lives, and given the armed conflicts in the area, I think that Nessie is going to continue being the most popular of the two.  However, the chances that something unusual being found is greater in the Congo jungles, much of which has yet to be mapped.

Who knows, may we’ll all be headed there one day – to a living Jurassic park.

Stan - Thursday


  1. Our economy is in trouble. Nessie is one of the few profitable businesses we have!

  2. Frankly Stan, if the Congo expects to compete with Caro's Nessie for the weirdo tourist dollar-euro-franc, it needs a cuddlier name for its whatever than Mokèlé-mbèmbé. Especially since I'm certain Nessie's stomping grounds has a far higher pub-per-peeker ratio.

    Hmmmm, perhaps something like...Bembe?

  3. Too bad Bembe is a vegetarian. There are some truly nasty humans living thereabouts that I would like to think might get eaten by a prehistoric monster. I would call their morals "prehistoric," but that would be an insult to prehistory.

  4. I do believe there is all kinds of scientific data that proves Nessie sightings increase with units of alcohol consumed!

  5. In 1776 the earliest reference to the creature was found in a book by Abbé Lievan Bonature, who was a missionary in the Congo. He wrote; “It must have been monstrous: the claws were noted on the ground, and they formed a print about three feet in circumference.”

    In 1913, Captain Freiher von Stein, who was checking on German immigrants in the Congo, wrote; “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… A few spoke of a large muscular tail, like that of an alligator. Canoes coming near it are said to be doomed; the animal is said to… kill the crews without eating the bodies.”
    In 1966, a photo was taken of a large footprint with three toes, notable because hippos have four.
    In 1979, Reverend Eugene Thomas was told the story I told you in the intro.
    Finally, in 2009, the TV show MonsterQuest sent William Gibbons and Rob Mullins to the Cameroon where they found possible air vents hat the monster could breathe through, and saw large serpentine shapes underwater on sonar.
    But what I think is the BIGGEST piece of evidence is that these Pygmies, who have absolutely no connection to society, are able to describe a creature that matches a sauropod so closely!