Here’s a photo of Mono Grande, photographed by Swiss oil geologist Francois de Loys in 1920. He claims the primate was 1.57 meters tall (spider monkeys are about 1 meter tall). It’s widely considered a hoax, scientists criticizing Loys’s claim with the argument that what’s pictured here is a spider monkey. (It’s dead, and the stick beneath the chin is propping it up.) The species, Ameranthropoides loysi, has received most of its notoriety from the field of cryptozoology. I stumbled across this photo while looking for images and maps of Peru in the era that Pedros de Cieza de Leon was traveling there (mid-1500’s), and came across this:
Cieza de Leon, in his Cronicas del Peru, mentioned reports of large hairy creatures in remote areas of the country. The Indians, he wrote, mated with the female, and their offspring grew tall and hairy, with features. they could not speak a language, but they wailed and howled. (excerpted from Pino Turolla’s book at this website.)
Unfortunately, Turolla, at least not as excerpted here, didn’t provide which of the four parts of Cieza’s chronicles this passage is from, nor of which book (some parts contain several volumes), and I’ve yet to come across anything of this sort in what I’ve read of Cieza’s accounts. Even if Cieza did write this, we know enough by now what to make of Catholic crusaders’ views on natural history. Whereas I do find Cieza one of the first immersion journalists of the New World, his accounts perhaps the most exhaustively detailed and reliable accounts, at least from the European point of view, of what was happening in South America in the years following Pizarro’s take down of the Incan king Atahualpa. War journalist, yes; science writer, probably not.
Regardless, this brings me to something I’ve been fascinated with for some time–other people’s fascination with species that hover between real and fantasy. I’ve always wondered why the natural world as described by scientists isn’t fascinating enough. The need for cryptozoology seems superfluous to me. Yet, I also appreciate people’s refusal to accept scientific truth as the only truth. Therefore, where I don’t believe in the species cryptozoologists’ (and aren’t they, really, just another form of “scientist”?) species designations–among them bigfoot, yeti, sea serpents, chupacabra, I do believe in the role that the belief in these species plays. (And I would be neglectful if I didn’t mention that sometimes cryptids such as mountain gorillas and giant squid end up being real). Here’s how I describe that belief in my essay “Conerning couguar,” forthcoming from Terrain.org. The essay discusses sightings of eastern mountain lions, and in it I share an experience seeing a jaguar in the Peruvian Amazon.
In Peru, as if puma and jaguar, tapir and tamandua, coatamundi and jaguarundi are not enough, there is Chullachaki. Chullachaki is small, maybe the size of a leprechaun (although I’ve never seen either one, so I don’t know for sure). He has a human face, albeit an ugly one, and he wears red pants and a blue shirt. Yet there’s something peculiar about his feet. They’re jaguar feet. Or sometimes he has one human foot and one goat foot. A limp gives him away. He appears through thick foliage when you’re alone in the jungle, and if you’re not careful, he’ll lead you into the thicket and disappear. Chullachaki shapeshifts—he can take on the likeness of any human, and sometimes when you’re in a room alone with a person you begin to question if it’s really Chullachaki in there talking to you. Later, your friend might say I have no idea what you’re talking about or I didn’t say that. I don’t remember. You start to feel insane. You start to carry a machete and life starts to feel like a malarial-drug dream—a Larium-induced hallucination, except there is no malaria along the banks of the Tambopata, and you quit taking those pills months ago. You see jaguar tracks and you start to follow them—you have it in mind that you’d like to confront Chullachaki. But you lose sight of the trail, you stumble into unfamiliar territory; a small child emerges from the jungle and takes you by the hand; he will show you the way back to the lodge. But you are only led deeper and deeper into the growth, and the child’s hand slips from yours; he is gone. You are lost. Chullachaki, you yell into a tangle of liana vines, into the branches of a kapok tree. What do you want with me? But Chullachaki is not rational, cannot be talked to. He appears to you, or he doesn’t. You are lucky, or you’re not. In your wild frenzy you elbow your way deeper into the vegetation. Vines seem to wrap around your ankles. Foliage withers at your touch. Monkeys leer and birds fall dead from their perches. Swampy ground sucks at your shoes and threatens to pull you below the murk.
For the unexplained along the banks of the Tambopata, there’s Chullachaki. In my rational, skeptical way, I can accept Chullachaki not so much as a being, but as a presence, a state of mind, a reason for why other things happen. In this way, I begin to understand the existence of Puma concolor couguar—people catch a glimpse, but then it becomes a Great Dane sitting in someone’s backyard, a large house cat slipping through the grass, a late night trick of the eye with headlights and shadows. To declare it extinct is to chop away that part of the imagination that is healthy, that part which resides in possibility, perhaps the part that makes us fantasize about the unlikely—but it also resides in respect, with a nod to there being something greater, fiercer, more mysterious than we are. This isn’t about people believing deeply in their hearts that mountain lions exist; it’s not spiritual or in any way religious. I’m still a skeptic about most things, UFO’s, Chullacki, God—but mountain lions? A living, breathing species being seen by other living, breathing species? Might it be appropriate to dwell in the murk here?