A Huge Amazon Monster Is Only a Myth. Or Is It?
By Larry Rohter
July 8, 2007 - RIO BRANCO, Brazil — Perhaps it is nothing more than a legend, as skeptics say. Or maybe it is real, as those who claim to have seen it avow. But the mere mention of the mapinguary, the giant slothlike monster of the Amazon, is enough to send shivers down the spines of almost all who dwell in the world’s largest rain forest.
The folklore here is full of tales of encounters with the creature, and nearly every Indian tribe in the Amazon, including those that have had no contact with one another, have a word for the mapinguary (pronounced ma-ping-wahr-EE). The name is usually translated as “the roaring animal” or “the fetid beast.”
So widespread and so consistent are such accounts that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find the creature. They have not succeeded, but at least one says he can explain the beast and its origins.
“It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,” thousands of years ago, said David Oren, a former director of research at the Goeldi Institute in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River. “We know that extinct species can survive as legends for hundreds of years. But whether such an animal still exists or not is another question, one we can’t answer yet.”
Dr. Oren said he had talked to “a couple of hundred people” who had said they had seen the mapinguary in the most remote parts of the Amazon and a handful who had said they had had direct contact.
In some areas, the creature is said to have two eyes, while in other accounts it has only one, like the Cyclops of Greek mythology. Some tell of a gaping, stinking mouth in the monster’s belly through which it consumes humans unfortunate enough to cross its path.
But all accounts agree that the creature is tall, seven feet or more when it stands on two legs, that it emits a strong, extremely disagreeable odor, and that it has thick, matted fur, which covers a carapace that makes it all but impervious to bullets and arrows.
“The only way you can kill a mapinguary is by shooting at its head,” said Domingos Parintintin, a tribal leader in Amazonas State. “But that is hard to do because it has the power to make you dizzy and turn day into night. So the best thing to do if you see one is climb a tree and hide.”
Geovaldo Karitiana, 27, a member of the Karitiana tribe, claims to have seen one about three years ago, as he was hunting in the jungle near an area that his tribe calls “the cave of the mapinguary.”
“It was coming toward the village and was making a big noise,” he said in a recent interview on the tribe’s reservation in the western Amazon. “It stopped when it got near me, and that’s when the bad smell made me dizzy and tired. I fainted, and when I came to, the mapinguary was gone.”
Mr. Karitiana’s father, Lucas, confirmed his son’s account. He said that when his son took him back to the site of the encounter, he saw a cleared pathway where the creature had departed, “as if a boulder had rolled through and knocked down all the trees and vines.”
Though the descriptions of the mapinguary may resemble the sasquatch of North America or the yeti of Himalayan lore, the comparisons stop there. Unlike its counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere, the creature is said not to flee human contact, but to aggressively hunt down the hunter, turning the tables on those who do not respect the jungle’s unwritten rules and limits.
“Often, the mapinguary gets revenge on people who transgress, who go where they shouldn’t go or harvest more animals or plants than they can consume, or set cruel traps,” said Márcio Souza, a prominent Brazilian novelist and playwright who lives in Manaus, in the central Amazon, and often draws on Amazon history and folklore in his works.
Amazon folklore, in fact, is full of fanciful creatures that are used to explain unwelcome or embarrassing phenomena. The boto, for example, is a type of dolphin that is said to be able to transform itself into human form, wearing a white hat to cover its air spout, and seducing and impregnating impressionable young virgins.
When a hunter or woodsman gets lost in the jungle, he often blames the curupira, a mischievous red-haired elf who has feet that face backward and takes delight in making trails that lead travelers astray. And when an experienced navigator inexplicably disappears or drowns in calm waters, he is usually said to have fallen victim to the iara, a cross between a siren and a mermaid.
Mr. Souza, the writer, counts himself among those who believe the mapinguary is a myth. The deforestation of the Amazon has accelerated so rapidly over the last generation, he argues, that if the creature really existed, “there would have been some sort of close encounter of the third kind by now.”
Partly for that reason, most zoologists scoff at the notion that it could be real. The giant ground sloth, Megatherium, was once one of the largest mammals to walk the earth, bigger than a modern elephant. Fossil evidence is abundant and widespread, found as far south as Chile and as far north as Florida. But the trail stops cold thousands of years ago.
Glenn Shepard Jr., an American ethnobiologist and anthropologist based in Manaus, said he was among the skeptics until 1997, when he was doing research about local wildlife among the Machiguenga people of the far western Amazon, in Peru. Tribal members all mentioned a fearsome slothlike creature that inhabited a hilly, forested area in their territory.
Dr. Shepard said “the clincher that really blew me away” came when a member of the tribe remarked matter of factly that he had also seen a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima. Dr. Shepard checked; the museum has a diorama with a model of the giant prehistoric ground sloth.
“At the very least, what we have here is an ancient remembrance of a giant sloth, like those found in Chile recently, that humans have come into contact with,” he said. “Let me put it this way: Just because we know that mermaids and sirens are myths doesn’t mean that manatees don’t exist.”
Even so, the mystery of the mapinguary is likely to continue, as is the search.
“There’s still an awful lot of room out there for a large sloth to be roaming around,” Dr. Shepard said.
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