Monday, March 3, 2014

Mokèlé-Mbèmbé, A Living Dinosaur? Part One: 1776 to 1939

Mokele-Mbembe according to Roy P. Mackal

Mokèlé-mbèmbé is a legendary water-dwelling creature of Congo River basin folklore, claimed to be a living sauropod by creationists and many cryptozoologists. In addition to a sauropod some claim there are living sivatheres, ceratopsians, stegosaurs, and even tyrannosaurs in the African Congo. To these people Central Africa is an actual Lost World that will disprove evolution

Unfortunately, no matter how much I would love to see a living dragon, once the actual reports are consulted the claims fall apart into wishful thinking, misquoted scientists, reports of known animals, reports of an unidentified rhinoceros, and hoaxes.

First the name “Mokele-mbembe” is a Lingala word that can mean a variety of things including "one that stops the flow of rivers, "one who eats the tops of trees," "monstrous animal “or even”spirit beast." It is thus a generic local term for “water spirit/monster.”

Now let’s look over the history of this entity starting with the earliest reports and clearing up some of the misconceptions given in Wikipedia…

 The Early Reports

1776:  Abbé Lievain Bonaventure, a French missionary to central Africa claimed to have seen enormous three clawed footprints “about three feet in circumference."

1909: famed big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck claimed in his book Beasts and Men, of hearing stories about a creature "half elephant, half dragon” in the Congo. Naturalist Joseph Menges told Hagenbeck about an animal alleged to live in Africa, described as "some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurs." Another of Hagenbeck's sources, Hans Schomburgk, asserted that while at Lake Bangweulu his native guides informed him of a large hippo-killing creature that lived in the Lake.

1909:  According to Lt. Paul Gratz  the indigenous legends of what would be modern day Zambia spoke of a creature known by native people as the "Nsanga", which was said to inhabit Lake Bangweulu. He was shown a hide which he was told belonged to the creature, while visiting Mbawala Island. Gratz speculated that it was a saurian after consulting with Carl Hagenbeck.

NOTE: According to Wikipedia Gratz described the creature as resembling a sauropod. This is not so. The original report states a saurian. A saurian is NOT a sauropod but rather is a term that was used for any sort of lizard-like reptile in the 18th and early 19th century. In fact it was commonly used for crocodiles as well as any sort of prehistoric reptile. Inany case it is obvious that Carl Hagenbeck is the source of the rumors that our cryptid is a living dinosaur.
A lovely piece of Apatosaurus from Clipart

1913:  German Captain Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz was ordered to conduct a survey of German colonies in what is now Cameroon. While there he heard stories of a brownish -gray animal with a smooth skin that was between the size of a hippopotamus and an elephant.  It was said to have a long, flexible neck a very long tooth or horn on its snout. A few spoke about a long, muscular tail like that of a crocodile. The creature was said to live in caves washed out of the river bank and to attack canoes and kill the people but not eat the bodies as it was completely vegetarian. Its preferred food was a kind of liana with large white blossoms, a milky sap, and an apple-like fruit.

The Smithstonian/Le Page Hoax

1919-1920: A 32-man expedition was sent to Africa from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. between 1919 and 1920. The objective of this expedition was to secure additional specimens of plants and animals. Supposedly the African guides found large, unexplained tracks along the bank of a river and heard “mysterious roars”. A train wreck supposedly killed four team members and injured several others so the expedition was curtailed before anyone could confirm these rumors. However, the “dinosaur” reports are actually due to the following report…

1919: In November reports began appearing in newspapers claiming that the Smithstonian Institution encountered a living dinosaur that October. It began with “A Tale From Africa, Semper Aliquid Novi” published in the London Times. According to this report  one of the explorers named M. Le Page who was in charge of railroad construction in the Congo followed some strange footprints while hunting and encountered a monster.

The creature charged out of the jungle forcing Le Page to flee. Now at a safe distance Le Page watched the animal through binoculars. It was 24 feet long with a long pointed snout, tusks like a boar, a single short rhino-like nose horn, a scaly hump on its back, and the front feet ended in solid hooves like a horse while the rear feet ended in cloven hooves!

This which-what-who then supposedly rampaged through a village, killing several natives. According to the Smithstonian “Primeval monsters could of survived in the African Swamps”.

This story was expanded upon in latter newspapers until the New York Times in December 13th 1919 claimed the hunter, now named M. Gapelle, shot a “brontosaurus of the rhinoceros order” with large scales reaching far down it’s body, a kangaroo-like tail, a horn on it’s snout, and a hump on it’s back.

Things got so silly that Wentworth D. Grey, acting representative of the Smithstonian African Expedition, contacted the London Times on January 21st to contradict the reports. According to him the dinosaur story was just a practical joke that had got out of hand and Le Page/Gapelle did not exist but the name was coined from the famed paleontologist L. Le Page.

So there you have it, the whole Smithstonian report was a Hoax!

Other Early Sightings

1927: in the 1870s Alfred Aloysius Smith while working for a British trading company in Gabon hears native tales from the natives of a strange beast called the "jago-nini" or "amali". The creature was said to be very large, leave three clawed footprints, and would surge out of the water to devour people. Smith speculated that it was responsible for the dead elephants occasionally encountered with shattered tusks. He published this in his Trader Horn in 1927.

1932: Ivan T. Sanderson claimed that, while in Cameroon in 1932, he and zoologist Gerald Russel was looking at some waterlogged caverns in the river bank when they heard animal noises. Suddenly a large back surfaced before almost immediately submerging. They latter encountered hippo-like tracks. The natives said there were no hippos in the area and that the animal they saw was called "m'koo m'bemboo". Sanderson latter joked that “The head alone was nearly the size of a hippo”, something later cryptozoologist have taken seriously.

1938: Leo von Boxberger mounted an expedition to investigate the Mokèlé-mbèmbé reports. He supposedly collected much information from natives, but his notes and sketches had to be abandoned during a conflagration with local tribesmen.

1939:  the German Colonial Gazette (of Angola) published a letter by Frau Ilse von Nolde, who asserted that she had heard of the animal called the "coye ya menia" ("water lion") from both natives and settlers.  It was a hippo sized, long necked creature that lived in the rivers. It was known to attack hippos but never ate them.


So the early history of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is nothing but recordings of native folklore, a single possible sighting, and a hoax. Note how none of these early reports are anything like a brontosaurus. If anything they seem to be describing a new form of rhinoceros. Only a few reports mention a long neck but even they have mention three toed rhino-like tracks and a horn on the nose. In addition the neck could be long only in comparison to a hippo or elephant, so still be short by modern standards. Besides several extinct rhinoceri had rather lengthy necks such as this hyracodon: 


If the neck truly is long and the tail is indeed heavy and reptilian than the result still does not resemble a sauropod. Sauropods did not have three claws on all four feet. The front prints resembled nail less horseshoes, though early groups had a single thumb claw.

Another nice piece of Apatosaur clipart, this one showing acurate foot anatomy!

If anything the result sounds more like the dragon on the Ishtar Gate. The Dragon on the gate has often been linked to the “Congo dragon”. The Babylonian dragon or Mushushu (Sumerian for "Adorned or Glamorous Serpents" which were also called Sirrush by the Akkadians) was a common symbol in the Middle East and was considered a sacred beast. Most identify it as a monitor lizard but the bird-like feet and single horn of the animal on the Ishtar Gate caused early archeologists to compare it with the Iguanodon. And so the dragon was linked to living dinosaurs and still used by creationists to ‘prove” that dinosaurs lived with man. 

Mushushu of the Ishtar Gate
 Unfortunately for creationists the Iguanodon of the 18th century was a giant rhino-like lizard that never existed. Better fossils showed that the Iguanodon was actually a rather horse-like animal with a spike on the thumb not the nose.

In addition other images of mushushu exist that clearly show that the animal had two horns. In addition the animal is clearly the ancestor of the Serpopard (stylized snake-necked lions that have also been claimed to be sauropods by creationists) and ultimately of the questing beast of King Arthur. 

 Today, despite comparisons by some cryptozoologists to sea serpents, the mushushu is considered to be a monitor lizard wearing a crown to show it’s sacred and kingly status. Some papers even indicate that it was the source of the sacred oil used during biblical times. In all it probably was the Nile Monitor and its only link with the Mokèlé-mbèmbé is that some of the latter reports may also be of monitors.

Well that’s long enough for this post. Maybe later reports will be more dinosaurian, or maybe not. Next time a look at the alleged cave paintings of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé

Carroll, Robert T. "mokele-mbembe". The Skeptic's Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved 28 December 2011.

Drinnon, Dale. “Ancient Babylonian and Assyrian Dragons are also Euryapsids”. Frontiers of Zoology.

Drinnon, Dale. “More Gargoyle Dragons but out of Africa by Rome”. Frontiers of Zoology.

Gardener, Laurence. Realm of the Ring Lords;  Fair Winds Press. 2003

Gibbons, William J., Missionaries And Monsters; Coachwhip Publications, 2006

Ley, Willy (1966). Exotic Zoology. New York: Capricorn Books.

Mackal, Roy P. (1987). A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. E.J. Brill.

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