This post was written by ScIU Undergraduate Intern, Leecy Davis.
Cryptozoology is the “study of the unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated.” It was made a field of study in 1955, however, cryptozoology has been around since the 15th century BC. There’s significant misinformation concerning the field, with the majority of individuals not understanding what cryptozoology is or it’s beginnings. Cryptozoology isn’t people running around trying to catch vampires and werewolves, but rather one where scientists analyze both folklore and biological data to understand the phenomena of our world. It’s important to know our history, whether it be our personal, cultural, or the history of our world. When it comes to cryptozoology, the best way to explain its purpose is to know its history. There are several events that span over thousands of years that were instrumental in the creation of cryptozoology. It all begins in the 15th century BC, which is where we’ll begin.
In the 15th century BC, Egypt was under the rule of the female Egyptian pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut. The Red Sea was completely uncharted but provided a gateway to Punt (the uncharted regions of Central Africa), a necessity for trading. During her reign as a pharaoh, ships would cross the Red Sea and bring back animals unknown to the Egyptians. Some of these animals included the long-necked dragon, or as we know a giraffe, parrots, and the “African unicorn” better known as the Okapi. These animals all provide some of the earliest examples of how animals we know today were unknown to some cultures in ancient times.
Valmiki, a poet of Sanskrit literature, wrote the Ramayana around the 2nd and 4th centuries BC. A character in the Ramayana is the Vanaras, a group of monkey-like humanoids with human intelligence. There are many Sanskrit epics of Southeast Asia that mention the Vanaras. Some Indians believe the Vanaras to be the Asian bigfoots. Many versions of these tales exist across different Asian countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, China, and the Philippines.
Pliny the Elder was a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher who wrote the Naturalis Historia in AD 77. After his journeys across East Africa and India, Pliny told people about seeing giant grasshoppers, Cynocephalus, mancats (leopards), killing flies (tsetse flies), fire breathing basilisk, and numerous insects that were at the time unknown by anyone in Rome. This is one of the earliest examples of cryptozoology and of anyone thinking beyond the accepted science in their time period.
Conrad Gesner, a Swiss naturalist and biographer, was the founder of modern zoology. From 1551-1558 he wrote the five-volume Historiae animalium considered to be the beginning of modern zoology. Not only was it the first bibliography of natural writing histories, but it also became the first to describe all known animals of a time period. The five volumes are over 4,500 pages and consist of a few cryptids: prehistoric fossils, unicorns, hellcats, sea monsters, sky serpents, dragons, mermaids, and the Kraken.
David Thompson, the “greatest land geographer that ever lived”, was the first person to scientifically document a sasquatch and it’s footprints in 1811. While he was busy mapping regions of Canada and the United States, he became well connected with the Spokane Tribe of Washington State. The Spokane tribe mentioned giants that lived in a mountain range west of their lands. These giants would come down and steal salmon and people while they slept. It’s believed the mountains they were referring to were the Cascades.
Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans was a specialist in arcalogy, the study of mites and ticks, however, he is best known for his studies on sea monsters and even the dodo bird. His most well-known study was on “The Great Sea Serpent” in 1892. He is considered the scholarly origin for the field of cryptozoology.
In 1995 Bernard Heuvelmans, a Belgian-French scientist, explorer, and writer, invented the term “cryptozoology”. He along with Scottish-American biologist, Ivan T. Sanderson, are considered the founding figures in cryptozoology. Mr. Heuvelmans and Mr. Sanderson argued that cryptozoology should be undertaken with scientific rigor, but with an open-minded interdisciplinary approach. They believed attention should be placed on local, urban, folkloric sources regarding cryptids. While these sources can have many fantastical and unbelievable elements, many are based on truth and can help people learn more about undiscovered organisms.
The study of cryptozoology is one that has spanned thousands of years and has continued to grow. Every legend, myth, and folklore you know that describes creatures beyond our wildest imaginations is a form of cryptozoology. While the field can be bashed as a pseudoscience, it’s important to remember that many creatures we know today as species were once considered cryptids. This may be difficult to process, seeing as how we know these animals to be “real”. Put yourself in the shoes of the Egyptians, Pliny the Elder, or David Thompson and think how would you feel if you saw a baboon and didn’t know what it was. I imagine you’d feel a mix of wonderment, fear while running away screaming “monster!” How quick we are as humans to discredit the existence of things that scare us. Look how scared we are of bigfoot, chupacabras, and the jersey devil. We’d prefer to write them off as imagination then accept there’s so much we don’t know or understand. There will always be people, like myself, who will never ignore the unexplained. One day, many years from now, our hard work will pay off.
- Alberta Sasquatch. “David Thompson’s Story.” Alberta Sasquatch, https://sasquatchalberta.com/classic-encounters/david-thompsons-story/
- Ancient India. “Vanara-The monkey like people in Ramayan.” Ancient India, http://theancientindia.blogspot.com/2014/02/vanara-monkey-like-people.html
- The Bigfoot Portal. “Bernard Heuvelmans.” The Bigfoot Portal, https://www.thebigfootportal.com/bernard-heuvelmans/
- Cryptid Wiki. “History of Cryptozoology Timeline.” Cryptid Wiki, https://cryptidz.fandom.com/wiki/History_of_Cryptozoology_Timeline
- Das, Subhamoy. “Valmiki Was a Great Sage and Author of the Ramayana.” Learn Religions, 2019, https://www.learnreligions.com/maharshi-valmiki-1770351
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “David Thompson.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/David-Thompson-English-explorer
- Encyclopedia Brittanica. “Natural History.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Natural-History-encyclopedic-scientific-by-Pliny-the-Elder
- Grigonis, Richard. “A Tribute to Ivan T. Sanderson.” Richard Grigonis, http://www.richardgrigonis.com/Ch01%20Prologue%20and%20On%20the%20Trail%20of%20Ivan%20Sanderson.html
- Historical Anatomies on the Web. “Conrad Gesner.” National Library of Medicine, https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/gesner_home.html
- Oudemans, Anthonie Cornelis. “Anthonie Cornelis Oudemans.” Library of Congress, https://id.loc.gov/authorities/names/nr00017240.html
- Stannard, Jerry. “Pliny the Edler.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pliny-the-Elder
- Strange Science. “Rocky Road: Conrad Gesner.” Strange Science, https://www.strangescience.net/gesner.htm
- Wang, Arthur W. “Bernard Heuvelmans.” Beinecke Library, http://brbl-archive.library.yale.edu/exhibitions/arthurwangphotos/popups/alpha/heuvelmans.html
- Ward, Cheryl. “Queen Hatshepsut’s Ships.” Discovering Egypt, https://discoveringegypt.com/newsletter-53-queen-hatshepsuts-ships/
- Western Washington University. “Research in Cryptozoology.” Western Washington University, https://libguides.wwu.edu/cryptozoology