Misreading of the Mokele-Mbembe (the Mokele-Mbembe, part 1)

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Regular readers of Tet Zoo will know that I have written – many times – about cryptozoology (the hunt for creatures known only by anecdotal evidence and which the majority of scientists don’t think they really expect to be discovered as ‘valid zoological entities). And I’ve written about various specific cryptids – the mysterious beasts that are alleged targets of cryptozoological investigations – on a number of occasions as well.

Cover of the paper version of Hunting monsters (Naish 2017).

But for all this, I’m surprised to find – even after more than 12 years of blogging – that there are a large number of cryptozoological topics that I have never dealt with at all at the Tet Zoo. Purely because I have never spoken much about it before, I want to speak here of the mokele-mbembe, the so-called “living sauropod” of the Congo. This text is taken from the appropriate section of my book 2017 Hunting monsters (a 2016 ebook version also exists) but is slightly modified and includes references that could not be cited in the book itself (Birth 2017). This brief article is not a definitive story of mokele-mbembe and everything related to it, but simply part of the story.

The classic idea of ​​the mokele-mbembe: an aquatic sauropod living in swamps, as illustrated here by David Miller for Roy Mackal’s 1987 book on the subject. Mackal’s book also includes a reconstructed version of mokele-mbembe as a giant monitor lizard – an interesting speculation I’ll have to cover in the future. Credit: Mackal 1987

By far the best known of the alleged mysterious beasts of tropical Africa is the Congo mokele-mbembe, an elephant-sized aquatic beast believed to be a long-necked, long-tailed herbivorous creature that lurks in the deep forest swamps and lakes bordered by forests. It looks a lot like a sauropod dinosaur – or, more accurately, an amphibious, fat-bodied, thick-limbed, mid-20th-century sauropod of the genre so prevalent in ancient and inaccurate works of art – and the idea that this is exactly what it is has been approved and discussed in numerous cryptozoology books and articles.

Cover of one of the few non-creationist books written on mokele-mbembe (Mackal 1987). Credit: EJ Brill

The idea that the Likouala-aux-Herbes region of the Republic of Congo might harbor such a beast has been popular and persistent since the early 1900s. The great animal dealer and showman Carl Hagenbeck was among the first to promote the concept of living dinosaur-like reptiles in Africa, and its claim (made in his 1909 book Beasts and men) immediately aroused worldwide interest. It became a dominant idea, publicized and promoted by the “father of cryptozoology” Bernard Heuvelmans and his supporters from the 1950s. Heuvelmans wrote a book on these creatures, published in French in 1978 under the title The Last Dragons of Africa – and not yet translated into English (although republished in 2003). Roy Mackal also wrote about them and his volume 1987 A living dinosaur? In search of Mokele-Mbembe (which has a preface by Heuvelmans) is a cryptozoological classic (Mackal 1987).

The cover of the reissued edition of Bernard Heuvelmans The Last Dragons of Africa, not yet translated into English. I love the covers made for these volumes: the paintings are by Alika Lindbergh. Note the presence of the gargantuan snake and the beast resembling a pterosaur in addition to the sauropod. Credit: Amazon

The cryptozoological perspective primarily argues that Hagenbeck’s stories arose out of actual eyewitness encounters with unknown animals. However, there is another cultural and sociological perspective. Hagenbeck was almost certainly profiting from an early 20th-century dinosaur craze sweeping the world at the time. Thanks to paleontological discoveries made in the western interior of the United States in the late 1800s, museums of the time were in a rush to obtain and install complete skeletons of Diplodocus, Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus and their loved ones. Much fanfare and public interest surrounded the display of these dinosaurs (Brinkman 2010), the very first of which were shown in New York and London in 1905. Interest in fossil sauropods fueled interest and enthusiasm for the living – it was not the first time that such pattern of association was occurring (it has been claimed that the discovery of fossil plesiosaurs inspired sightings of long-necked sea monsters… an idea I will come back to shortly), and hardly the last. It should be added that African legends and stories of giant monsters of course existed long before that time. However, none of the stories describe animals that look a lot like sauropods.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, museums in Europe and North America experienced a “second Jurassic dinosaur rush.” Among the remains from the time is this specimen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York (AMNH 460, a long-mentioned specimen Apatosaurus but currently of undetermined status. His skull is an essentially imaginary model). Credit: Public domain, WikiMedia

What many proponents of the “living sauropod” idea seem to have missed is that the half-spread notion of surviving African sauropods originally had nothing to do with the Congo region, but actually concerned actually Rhodesia – now known as Zimbabwe. Zambia, also located in the far south of the continent, is believed to be home to sauropod-like beasts in the early 1900s, as was the edge of the Sahara Desert and South Africa (Loxton & Prothero 2013).

The Carnegie is a key sauropod specimen like the “Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush” Diplodocus, whose casts have been sent all over the world and to the great museums of London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Bologna, St. Petersburg, La Plata and elsewhere. This, of course, is the London specimen, which was on display in 1905 (but not in the main hall as shown here). At the moment (June 2018), the specimen is currently on tour in the UK. Credit: Darren Naish

Indeed, people clung to the idea that any African wilderness could be home to living relatives of Brontosaurus Where Diplodocus. The sauropod-like monsters were not special inhabitants of the Congo region alone, but examples of a sort of lazy and naive view common in Europe and North America that all of Africa was imagined as one. homogeneous dark continent stuck in the Stone Age, inhabited entirely by jungle dwellers wielding spears, and where little had happened since the Mesozoic era. Indeed, a phrase often repeated about the idea of ​​the survival of the sauropods is that “Africa has not changed much since the days of the dinosaurs”. Even the most cursory examination of the fossil, geological or tectonic history of Africa will show this to be completely inaccurate. The dynamic phases of mountain formation, continental rifting and desertification have had enormous impacts on African animal life (e.g. Kingdom 1990), and many places on the continent have acted as so-called ‘species pumps’ – areas where large numbers of new species have evolved and from which they have dispersed. Lines of mammals as successful as elephants, humans, porcupine-like and cavy-like rodents and spiral-horned antelopes originate in Africa, often extending from the continent to colonize regions elsewhere. Even the large rainforests of Central and West Africa fluctuated wildly in size and position, so much so that they were largely replaced by savannah during the last Ice Age (Malhi et al. 2013). Tropical rainforest vertebrate species are new to the Cenozoic, not relics of the Mesozoic (Plana 2004). Disclaimer: there are groups of tropical African arthropods – such as tick beetles – which indeed appear to be Mesozoic relics (Murienne et al. 2013), but they are tiny arthropods, not giant vertebrates. All of this mocks the idea – popular in cryptozoological literature – that Africa has been a static and stable refuge for several million years, inhabited by unchanged Mesozoic-level animals.

The African vertebrate fauna absolutely contradicts the idea that the animal assemblage of Africa can be imagined as a sort of swamp, a lost world or – to use current biogeographic terminology – a “museum” of lineages. These illustrations come from my volume in preparation on the fossil record of vertebrates, which one to go on here. Credit: Darren Naish

In short, the concept of the mokele-mbembe as a living sauropod appears to stem both from a craze for “dinomania” that swept the world in the early 1900s, and from crude and mistaken stereotypes of biological history. African – a view of Africa as somehow more “prehistoric” than the rest of the world.

I need not say that the prevailing opinion about the mokele-mbembe – that it is an amphibious, fat-limbed beast living in swamps with multiple claws and distinct numbers – is very obviously an exact mirror of inaccurate reconstructions of sauropods as described in the late 1800s and early and mid-decades of the 20th century. Today we know that sauropods weren’t like that. This scene shows the diplodocoid of the Morrison Formation Diplodocus, a Stegosaurus to the left. This image was produced before the discovery in 1992 of backbones in diplodocoids. Credit: Darren Naish

For those who are disappointed that this article does not assess the evidence put forward to support the existence of mokele-mbembe, the rest of the book’s chapter discusses this evidence (Birth 2017). I may come back to the subject of mokele-mbembe in time …

For previous articles from the Tet zoo on cryptozoology and Hunting monsters, see…

And for articles on real sauropods, see …

Refs – –

Brinkman, P. 2010. The second Jurassic dinosaur rush. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kingdon, J. 1990. Island Africa: the evolution of rare African animals and plants. Collins, London.

Loxton, D. & Prothero, DR 2013. Abominable sciences! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie and other famous cryptids. Columbia University Press, New York.

Mackal, RP 1987. A living dinosaur? In search of Mokele-Mbembe. EJ Brill, Leiden.

Malhi, Y., Adu-Bredu, S., Asare, RA, Lewis, SL & Mayaux, P. 2013. African tropical forests: past, present and future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368, 20120312.

Murienne, J., Benavides, LR, Prendini, L., Hormiga, G. & Giribet, G. 2013. Forest refuges in West and Central Africa as “museums” of Mesozoic biodiversity. Biology letters 9 (1), 20120932.

Naish, D. 2017. Monster Hunting: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, London.

Plana V. 2004. Mechanisms and rate of evolution in the African Guinean-Congolese tropical forest. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B 359, 1585-159410.


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