Reports of mysterious beast-men come from all corners of the globe. Some such as Bigfoot and Yeti, are well known. Sian Hall reviews the less familiar South African traditions of man-like creatures.
Sasquatch, Yeti, Bigfoot... these are all familiar names for the legendary man-ape that haunts the ancient mind and the remotest regions on this planet. Glimpses of such a beast, mythical or real, can be found in a multitude of unrelated cultures around the world, whose descriptions are remarkably alike. However, while most reports come from North America and Asia, how many know of the man-beasts said to inhabit the southern tip of Africa?
According to current academic thinking, Africa is the apparent birthplace of man. It was nursery to such early forms of hominids as the Australopithecines of more than 5 million years ago, the tool-making Homo habilis, and the upright, bipedal Homo erectus. But reports of other strange beasts having both ape-like and human-like attributes still persist in Africa.
For example: there is the South African waterbobbejan (Water-baboon) which, since the early 19th century, has been said to prowl about the outskirts of farms and outlying dwellings, raiding and terrifying inhabitants of the northern parts of South Africa. Rumors of the waterbobbejan's existence have persisted since the 1880s; the most recent report was made in 1965 when two boys spotted it on the farm 'Leeufontein' (Lion Fountain), between Roster and Swartruggens, and was published in the newspaper Die Vaderland.
In Tanzania and northern Mozambique, they speak of the agogure or agogue, a human-like, long-armed pygmy with a coat the color of fired earth. Although its appearance is grotesque, the agogue is said to be more mischievous than menacing. Similar creatures have been described in Guinea, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and the Congo Basin.
The obvious question is what are these creatures?
The conformity of descriptions among these diverse groups surely can't be coincidental? If this conformity illuminates what lies behind the man-ape enigma locally, perhaps the observations from southern Africa will provide researchers with a few more pieces to fit into the more general puzzle.
During British colonial occupation of the South African Cape in 1838, numerous Afrikaner families set off on one of the most grueling and dangerous treks in history in an attempt to remove themselves as far as possible from British influence. The most rebellious of these settled in the arid and hostile wilderness close to the borders of modern Zimbabwe and Botswana, and the territory adjoining the Limpopo River, which separates these countries.
In the 1860s, sightings were made of a gigantic, ape-like creature, which visited farms by night. Farmers in the Dinoka area, especially, lost livestock — mostly sheep but also cattle and goats — killed in a manner which could not possibly have been attributed to any of the known natural predators such as leopards, lions, hyenas or jackals. These killings were very different.
One particular tale tells of a prize bull that did not return home in the evening with the rest of the herd. When the farmer searched for him the next morning, he found the bull's remains completely dismembered.
Stories tell of stock forced from their kraals (enclosures) in the dark by whatú farm laborers described as a "huge, ape-like creature" -
It was tremendously strong and was sometimes seen leaping over the enclosure walls with terrified animals under its arms.
Other farmers experienced damage to their fruit trees that, according to eyewitnesses, had been stripped of all their oranges by an enormous ape-like creature.
At the turn of the century, members of the Venter family were adamant that they experienced the creature at close-hand and described it as being taller than a man, with long, powerful arms and reddish hair. It resembled a baboon but was obviously much bigger and, unlike baboons, it was shy and solitary.
A similar description is given by author Credo Mutwa of Fudu, a man-ape that he claims forms part of African folklore. He describes Fudu as: "... gigantic, taller than the tallest man and as bulky as the largest gorilla... This creature, half-man and half-ape, the Beast of the Forbidden Valley, stood there, incredibly menacing..." These descriptions accord with those of other man-apes sighted around the world.
Tswana farm laborers believe that this creature lives in caves, behind waterfalls, or at least close to water. They say that the waterbobbqan will take its prey to a cave and there devour it, ripping it to pieces.
But the Tswana also believe that no matter how destructive the animal may be, it should not be killed; to do so would bring many years of drought, as they associate its presence with the promise of abundant water.
There are a number of theories that could possibly account for the man-ape sightings in Africa. The one most favoured by sceptics is that they could be partial observations of a known animal such as the Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) or the Samango monkey (Cercopithecus mitis). Both are fairly common in the territories from which man-ape sightings have been reported; and both are sufficiently large and have the stature to give, if seen fleetingly, an impression of a vaguely human form or face.
Unfortunately for this theory, however, both Chacma and Samangos are diurnal and gregarious and simply do not fit the historical descriptions of waterbobbejans and their ilk. Nor do they kill or eat in the manner attributed to a waterbobbejan.
World-renowned palaeontologist Dr Robert Brain of the Transvaal Museums in Pretoria has investigated reports of the waterbobbejan. On one occasion, he received a phone call from a farmer in the Mpumalanga province, in the northeastern parts of the country, who claimed to have shot and killed a waterbobbejan and skinned it. When Dr Brain visited the farmer, he found, to his disappointment, that the trophy was of a Samango monkey. The farmer had exaggerated the whole encounter on the phone and, Dr Brain's identification to the contrary, continued to believe that he had shot a waterbobbejan.
One would normally expect a farmer who lived in the bush his whole life to be familiar with such a common animal as a Samango, but obviously this man saw what he wanted to see. Perhaps other man ape sightings have a similar explanation, fuelled by legend and myth.
A strange San Bushman painting — in a rock shelter near Warden in the Orange Free State — illustrates a battle between a group of slenderly-built well-armed Bushmen and a group of powerfully-built, but unarmed, primitive hominids.
Opinion is divided about whether this painting refers to the late existence of primitive man-apes or simply depicts, metaphorically, feral men (men who have lost contact with civilized society and reverted to a primitive existence in the wild, becoming animal-like in their behaviour and appearance).
The Mfecane of the 1820s — a time of great social upheaval throughout South Africa due to the rise of Shaka's Zulu nation — left many groups destitute, wandering about the landscape surviving as best they could, eking out a miserable existence in caves, and other hiding places without resources and without culture. Many were forced to turn to cannibalism.
Cannibals in African folklore are often described as grotesque, beastly half humans, often equated with baboons and described as being covered in fur.
The phenomenon of feral humans has been reported from all parts of the world and in all centuries. Recent cases in Africa include a number of gazelle-boys and children found living, Tarzan-like, among apes.
In the early 1980s a five-year-old boy was captured by police in KwaZulu-Natal's Newpark Forest who distracted his monkey-family with a box of bananas. Now about 15-years-old and living at the Ikhwezi welfare center, Saturday (as, he is known) still behaves in a "monkey fashion". He is classified as mentally retarded, incapable of focusing on anything for any length of time and preferring his own company to that of other humans. He hates wearing clothes and will walk about naked if he can. Saturday can't talk, but appears to understand almost everything said to him. Workers at the center believe must have abandoned in forest shortly after birth and was found by a troop of monkeys who reared him as one of their own.
Could some of the man-ape sightings be explained by similar Wildmen, grown tremendously powerful and lithe due to their rugged way of life? Might their hairy appearance also be explained by rustic clothing made from hides? Seen fleetingly and left to the human imagination, could this not result in a man ape report?
A quite different explanation speculates that sightings of humanoid creatures may be an indication of the continued existence of ancestral hominid forms. Modern descriptions of man-apes are remarkably similar to scientific descriptions of early hominids and their behaviour seems to be consistent with how these creatures are thought to have acted.
Has some form of proto-human managed to escape detection by humans in inhospitable and sparsely populated areas of the world?
Dr. Robert Brain believes that "the whole phenomenon comes down to a question of the human psyche" — that what people see when they see ape-men are residual archetypes from prehistory.
Ancient evolutionary hominid forms lived a life of danger; they were never free from the threat of natural predators. At Swartkrans for example, skull fragments belonging to a juvenile Australopithecine had two holes pierced in its skull, the result of a fatal attack by a leopard.
Travel author Bruce Chatwin refers to the ape-man phenomenon as "The Prince of the Night" — a terror that stalks by night in the minds of early hominid descendants.
This has possibly been instilled into the hominid mind-frame as a hereditary survival mechanism resulting in manifestations, throughout history, of an archetypal image from the distant past.
Such a psychological hypothesis provides an explanation of sorts for the numerous reports of Bigfoot-like creatures which simply disappeared when shot at, sometimes in a blinding flash of light or in a swirling mist, as reported in Fortean Times [FT96:32-33].
It could explain the universal similarity in man-ape descriptions.
In many reported sightings there is water nearby; commonly, the man-ape is associated with water — a river, a waterfall, or even snow (see FT93:34-38).
Even so, these adaptable creatures have been sighted in all sorts of terrain: high lying mountains, alpine forests, tropical jungle and even broken thorn-savannahs.
Few, if any, have been seen in desert regions where there is an absence of water.Despite reports spanning some 200 years or more, there is still frustratingly little definite evidence for contemporary man-apes in Africa. We have no post cranial bones, no film and no photographs.
What we do have is eyewitness accounts, footprints, the uncanny loss of livestock, and the theft and destruction of fruit trees.
We also have the enigmatic Bushman depiction of a confrontation between hominid-like man-apes and Bushmen stone-age hunter-gatherers. This painting encourages us to entertain the possibility of a late existence for one of these early hominids coinciding with the era of the emergence of Bushman hunter-gatherers just as Homo habilis was co-existent with the
But the question remains: what is out there? An ancient psychological manifestation, a feral human or a distant relative from our own evolutionary journey.
Some of the possible identities of the men-ape are: in Asia, Gigantopithecus, existing between nine million and 50,000 years ago; and, in Europe, the Neanderthals of between 75,000 and 40,000 years ago.
In Africa, one of the main contenders for this title would be Australopithecus robustus which lived between one and 2.2 million years ago. Although more massive, he had the jaws and teeth of a human and a partially upright gait suited to life on the savannahs. Sometimes weighing more than 971bs (44kg), he had overhanging brow ridges, and bony flanges on his skull to which the massive chewing muscles were attached. He had a cranial volume of about 32 cubic inches (517 cubic cm) and is considered to have been more intelligent than gorillas and chimps.
In South Africa remains of this creature have been found in the dolomite caves of the Northern and North-west provinces, not far from the areas in which the Waterbobbejan has been reported. Of these sites, perhaps the most famous are Swartkrans and Kromdraai near Krugersdorp, and Makapansgat in the Waterberg region.
Existing at the same time as - and having developed out of the Australopithecines was Homo habilis (handyman). He practiced a mixed economy, eating mostly vegetal matter but occasionally hunting to vary his diet. With the advent of Homo habilis, the small-brained hominids came to an end. He had a cranial capacity of 39 cubic inches (636 cubic cm) and was intelligent enough to have a rudimentary tool-bearing culture, and a more advanced subsistence technology than the Australopithecines.
From: © Fortean Times (FT#111),
June 1998 Article Courtesy Marlene Trask
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