Many will be familiar with tales of the sasquatch of North America and the Yeti of the Himalayas, but have you heard of the Bigfoot of the Amazon? The vast Amazonian jungles of western Brazil and eastern Peru are said to harbor a huge monster that is wrapped in mystery and local legend.
Reputed to be the wildest, rarest, most mysterious, and terrifying denizen of the rainforest, nearly every Indian tribe in these regions has a word for the creature, which can usually be translated as “the roaring animal” or “the fetid animal”. Its most common name is the mapinguari, but it is also known as the capé-lobo (wolf’s cape), mão de pilão (pestle hand), pé de garrafa (bottle foot), juma or simply bicho (beast).
Descriptions of the beast also vary wildly. The body of a giant bear; the backward-turned clawed feet like those of a giant armadillo; the face appears monkey or even human-like; trailing a cloud of flying beetles, and a roar like endless thunder. In some areas, the creature is said to have two eyes, while other accounts talk of it having only one, like the Cyclops of Greek mythology. Some versions mention a gaping, stinking mouth in the monster’s belly through which it consumes humans unfortunate enough to cross its path. Some legends even attribute it to the powers of the supernatural and even speech. Classic stories describe it as a werewolf-like Indian shaman who discovered the secret of immortality but paid for it by being transformed into a horrible monster. To see it is to come face-to-face with the devil himself!
But all accounts agree that the creature is tall – two meters, or about seven feet, its upright bulk disconcertingly human-like when it stands on two legs; that it emits a strong, extremely nauseating and disabling smell, like garlic and fetid peccary; and that has thick, matted red or black fur covering a hard exoskeleton that makes it all but impervious to bullets and arrows.
Though the physical descriptions of the mapinguari may resemble the sasquatch of North America or the yeti of Himalayan lore, the comparisons stop there. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere, the creature does not flee human contact, but aggressively hunts down the hunter, turning the tables on those who do not respect the jungle’s unwritten rules and limits.
“Often, the mapinguari 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 and often draws on Amazon history and folklore in his works.
The folklore here is full of tales of close encounters with this Bigfoot of the Amazon, stories so widespread and so consistent in their details that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find it.
One, in particular, David Oren, a Harvard and Yale-trained biologist, and ornithologist, thinks the fabled monster is not only real but actually a living species of giant ground sloth believed extinct for 8,000 years.
This giant sloth, or megatherium, was once one of the largest mammals to walk the earth, bigger than an elephant. These ground sloths were members of the South American group the Xenarthra, which contains modern tree sloths, anteaters, and armadillos. Fossil evidence is abundant and widespread in South America, having been found as far south as Chile, and as far north as Florida.
“It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguari is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,” said Oren, 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.”
Oren is not the first scientist to reach this conclusion. In the late 1800s, an Argentinean paleontologist named Florentino Ameghino took an eyewitness story of a strange creature seen in southern Patagonia to also be an indication of a living ground sloth.
Indeed it wouldn’t be the first time a creature previously assumed extinct by scientists, yet familiar to locals, was found alive and kicking. About 25 years ago the Chacoan peccary was a seemingly mythical animal, thought to have gone extinct within the last few hundred years, but against all odds, this very large species of South American peccary was discovered alive in Paraguay. Indeed an even larger and hence so-called Giant Peccary was discovered in Brazil in 2000. New species are being discovered in this part of the world with great frequency, so much so that no less than ten species of monkeys were discovered in the Amazon in the last decade.
Given that a lot of the Amazon, the greatest expanse of rainforest in the world, remains unexplored, especially one that is rich in ground sloth fossils, is it so hard to believe that such beasts could still live there, unknown to science?
The basis for Oren’s hypothesis is largely down to first-hand accounts from “a couple of hundred people” who claim to have seen the mapinguari and a handful who say they have had direct contact. Amazon dwellers year after year described stories of mothers with offspring, their seasonal movements to find water, and even what their feces looked like.
Geovaldo Karitiana, a 27-year-old Indian, says there is no doubt that the mapinguari is real. He 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 mapinguari. “It was coming towards the village 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. That’s when the bad smell made me dizzy and tired. I fainted, and when I came to, the mapinguari was gone.” Karitiana’s father, Lucas, confirmed the 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.”
Another 70-year old Joao Batista Azevedo, says he saw a Mapinguari 20 years ago after a 45-day canoe ride from the nearest village. “I was working by the river when I heard a scream, a horrible scream. Suddenly something looking like a man came out of the forest, all covered in hair. He was walking on two legs and thank God he did not come toward us. I will always remember that day.”
But it is not just anecdotal evidence he has collected. Oren has taken video footage of clawed trees, taped what he believes are the creature’s minute-long thunderous roars, and made molds of large round footprints with backward-facing claws. He also collected hair and 22 pounds of feces, which are undergoing analysis, and is hoping the DNA in the hair can be compared to DNA from the blood of living sloths.
Others point to the fact that nearly every Indian tribe in the Amazon, including those who have had no contact with each other, have a word for the creature and that their descriptions are so remarkably similar that it cannot be a coincidence. Indeed, Glenn Shepard Jr., an American ethnobiologist and anthropologist based in Manaus in the central Amazon, said he had been among the skeptics who considered the mapinguari “a rural legend” until 1997, when he was doing research among the Machiguenga people of the far western Amazon, in Peru. Tribal members he questioned there about local wildlife all mentioned a fearsome sloth-like creature that inhabited a hilly, forested area in their territory.
Shepard said “the clincher that really blew me away” came when a member of the tribe said as a matter of fact that he had also seen a mapinguari at the natural history museum in Lima.
Upon checking, Shepard found that the man was referring to a diorama with a model of a 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. “This was a very precise description of an animal and its habits, not some supernatural thing, which the Machiguenga also have in their cosmology. There’s still an awful lot of room out there for a large sloth to be roaming around,” he said.
The skeptics say the mapinguari is nothing more than a legend. After all, Amazon folklore is full of fanciful creatures, such as the boto and chullachaqui, that are used to explain unwelcome or embarrassing phenomena.
Marcos Vinicius Neves, the director of the government’s department of historical and cultural patrimony in the state of Acre, where a statue of a mapinguari has been erected in a public plaza, says “If you’re a rubber tapper and you’re returning to camp empty-handed, you’d better have a pretty good explanation for your boss and the mapinguari is the best excuse you could possibly imagine!”
Márcio Souza, the aforementioned novelist, also counts himself among those who believe the mapinguari is just 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.”
Zoologists don’t deny that fossil evidence of the megatherium is abundant and widespread in South America, but point to the fact that the scientific trail stops cold thousands of years ago. “When you travel in the Amazon, you are constantly hearing about this animal, especially when you are in contact with indigenous peoples,” said Peter Toledo, an expert on sloths at the Goeldi institute. “But the convincing scientific proof, in the form of even vestiges of bones, blood or excrement, is always lacking.”
Whether a legend, true Amazon Bigfoot, or living megatherium, to this day the mere mention of the mapinguari is enough to send shivers down the spines of almost all who dwell in the world’s largest rainforest. This fear has even been known to recently cause some villages on the upper Purus River to up sticks and completely change their location after allegedly finding tracks of the mapinguari near their homes.
The prospect of finding megafauna like this, however, after several thousand years without being discovered, is unlikely. On the other hand, should Oren be right and the megatherium exists, it would be the largest land mammal in South America and would be powerful evidence of the kind of mysteries the still largely unexplored Amazon basin holds.
To be on the safe side, just in case you do come across a mapinguari on your Amazon vacation, take heed of some advice from Domingos Parintintin, a tribal leader in the state of Amazonas:
“The only way you can kill a mapinguari is by shooting at its head, but that is hard to do because it has powers that can make you dizzy and turn day into night. So the best thing to do if you see one is to climb a tree and hide.”
…and while you are up there be sure to take some photos. We advise against using guns or trying to collect samples of blood, or any other kind!
Recommended viewing: Recently released Attack of the Brazilian Mapinguari documentary on National Geographic
Further reading: Discover Magazine’s Beasts In The Mist article
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