Hunting the Mokele-Mbembe
Does a species of sauropod dinosaur still exist in the wilds of Africa? Some believe that it might. Today we call this cryptid the mokéle-mbêmbe, a local name for the beast, said to frequent the rivers and lakes of various parts of Africa, to live on vegetation, and to fiercely defend its privacy against human and animal intruders alike. Books are published on it, television programs chronicle the expeditions of investigators searching for it. Today we're going to find out how belief in dinosaurs living in Africa has become — if not mainstream — at least not so far out on the fringe as we might expect.
Sauropods were the large, elephant-sized long-necked dinosaurs, a Brontosaurus being one familiar example. The mokéle-mbêmbe is said to hide in the rivers and lakes of the Congo Basin and other places throughout Africa. In 1992, one Japanese film crew flying over a lake took some footage of something leaving a wide, V-shaped wake as it moves across the surface of a lake. Though it was much too far away to make out any detail in the blurry SD video, it's often shown freeze-framed on a shot that shows what appears to be a long neck sticking out of the water ahead of a large blob. Most people who watch it feels it looks more like two people in a canoe. One strike against this as being a sauropod is that we now know they couldn't have spent time with their bodies submerged, as water pressure would have made it impossible for them to expand their lungs to breathe. Nevertheless, relict sauropods are nearly universally given as the identity of the mokéle-mbêmbe, hiding underwater in rivers and lakes.
Yet, as noted, it is widely promoted as plausible, if not proven. Famous cryptozoologists have devoted volumes to attempting to prove this as fact. Expeditions to this day continue; and of course, mokéle-mbêmbe's greatest boost came from a 2009 episode of the TV show MonsterQuest which presented a team of people, described as scientists, who went to prove its reality. As the result of all this attention, there are two basic points that the average person on the street (who has heard of dinosaurs in Africa) knows about it:
The average person — who is unfamiliar with the skeptical process and innocently watches TV science channels in good faith — can be easily forgiven for accepting both of these points. However, I would argue that there's an enormous red flag warning that a heavy dose of skepticism is warranted: You will not find mokéle-mbêmbe chewing on some plants in a pond at the zoo, and you will not find its bones mounted and labeled at your local natural history museum. African rangers do not encounter its carcass as they do elephants and rhinos. You will not even find it in any taxonomical reference of all the Earth's animals. The only other creatures of which these are true are Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Thus, I would suggest that it's perfectly fair to go back and scrutinize our two points: First, that science has dedicated trained professionals to finding the creature, and second, that it's well known to the local populations and has a long history there. Let's start with this point.
The first thing we learn is that mokéle-mbêmbe is only one specific name in a vast, incredibly vague field. Africa is big and enormously culturally diverse; the number of local legends throughout the continent is too large to count. For any creature you can imagine, a local legend somewhere matches it. In a land where real giants like hippos and elephants exist, of course there are going to be innumerable legends of other large beasts. Mokéle-mbêmbe is just one, one whose name happens to have trickled down into Western literature and become known to Western cryptozoologists. But like all the others, no evidence supports its existence; it is, really, just another story.
Tracking down the origin of the actual name mokéle-mbêmbe turns out to require quite a bit of detective work. The history is tied closely to Germany, as part of Africa was a German colony at the turn of the 20th century. In 1907, actual sauropod bones were discovered there, and that discovery is basically what triggered all the interest in potential relict dinosaurs still surviving. This notion was first put to paper in 1909 by Carl Hagenbeck, a German zookeeper, collector of exotic animals, and circus operator. In his book Beasts and Men, he proposed that dinosaurs might still exist in Africa, and gave some vague anecdotes about having heard something about it, but he didn't give the name. That came a few years later, from the man who appears to be the original source for mokéle-mbêmbe. He was Capt. Ludwig Freiherr von Stein zu Lausnitz, a German officer with the then-German colony of Cameroon. In 1913, he was sent in command of a geographic expedition, and on that expedition, he first heard stories of the mokéle-mbêmbe. His account was not published due to the outbreak of World War I, but he did write the manuscript, which (so far as anyone knows) survives today only as quoted snippets given by later authors. The earliest I could find was from 1929, in the German language book Dragons: Legend and Science by popular science author Wilhelm Bölsche. In Bölsche's book, Von Stein said the natives called the creature the mokéle-mbêmbe and gave the following description:
However, there's one very important point that Bölsche also included in his book, and that was Von Stein's belief that this was nothing more than local folklore and did not represent any actual animal. Bölsche was clear that Von Stein wrote very cautiously that the creature probably existed only in the local residents' minds.
Another German author, rocketry specialist Willy Ley, wrote a series of articles in German publications over the next couple of years (Arbeiterwille, 1930; Reichspost, 1931; probably others) repeating Von Stein's description of mokéle-mbêmbe. In 1935, Ley fled Germany to escape Nazism and resumed writing in English in the United States. In 1941 he wrote his first full-length book on cryptozoology, The Lungfish and the Unicorn: An Excursion into Romantic Zoology, and this time he also included the same caution that Bölsche gave — even using some of Bölsche's own language, Bölsche having died in the intervening years — that Von Stein did not believe mokéle-mbêmbe was a real animal.
Von Stein's account hit the big time in 1955 with the French publication (followed by the 1958 English publication) of famed cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans' magnum opus On the Track of Unknown Animals. Heuvelmans, who (having been born in France and raised in Belgium) was probably unaware of Bölsche, credited Willy Ley with providing Von Stein's quotation, and also included a number of accounts from other German colonists in Cameroon who had been contemporaries of Von Stein. Heuvelmans' chapter on mokéle-mbêmbe — including variations on the name such as mbokälemuembe and mbulu-eM'bembe given by various authors — is the main source from which virtually all later English language lore exists regarding the mokéle-mbêmbe. The one key point Heuvelmans chose to omit, however, was Bölsche's extended inclusion of Von Stein's belief that it was probably just local legend, and not a description of an actual animal. Therefore, all modern authors who have relied on Heuvelmans as the primary source — and he is widely regarded as such — have missed out on the critical point. Pick up Heuvelmans or any other later book on mokéle-mbêmbe, and you'll get the impression Von Stein thought the creature was real. It's a good reminder to always go back and fact check original sources.
So although we can safely say that there's no reason to suspect any local legends about mokéle-mbêmbe are any more real than any others, one thing you'll often see or hear is a researcher showing a picture of a dinosaur to a local, and that local responding that yes, they're very familiar with it. Sounds pretty convincing. But even William Gibbons, one of the mokéle-mbêmbe believers featured on MonsterQuest, pointed out that contaminated testimony is a problem — as pictures of sauropods have been circulated by Westerners throughout Africa for more than a century. He noted on one expedition that they rolled into a village with their camera crew and were greeted with "These must be the people looking for the dinosaur," and when a picture of one was shown to a young man who readily recognized it, he explained that as an intelligent person in the world, he knows what a dinosaur is. The idea that a large number of Africans are somehow out of touch with the modern world is both racist and painfully out of date.
But the actual name mokéle-mbêmbe should be another matter. In the 1970s, reptile specialist James H. Powell, Jr. took some time during one of his trips to do some investigating on the side, in the same general area where Von Stein collected his original account. When Powell showed illustrations of a sauropod to the Cameroon locals, they did not recognize it as a local animal; and when he asked them about the name mokéle-mbêmbe, they had not heard of it. A local linguistic specialist offered some slight variations of the name, though, which could be taken to mean mundane things like "to bathe" or "to cry".
Taken as a whole, the idea of a local legend serving as evidence that mokéle-mbêmbe is real pretty much fails all the tests. So what about our other point, that actual scientists regard it as real enough to mount expensive research trips hunting for it?
This does not appear to be the case either. I find no academic papers written on the question, and no record of any research grants. What we do find, however, is a large body of literature written by young Earth creationists. In fact, both personalities featured on MonsterQuest — William Gibbons and Robert Mullin — were young Earth creationists, and neither had any scientific credentials at all. Some Young Earthers feel that if they could prove dinosaurs still exist, it would bolster their narrative that all of Earth's history took place within just the past 6000 years. Anyone hunting through Africa searching for mokéle-mbêmbe today is far more likely to be a creationist — or even just a fan of cryptozoology — than a scientist.
Stories like the mokéle-mbêmbe are part of what make life fun. They offer the promise of something magnificent, something incredible, something truly paradigm shifting. The idea of pushing aside some foliage to reveal a prehistoric monster foraging is enough to make your heart race; it's little wonder that such a story would generate web clicks and prompt a TV network to make a show. Even digging through these century-old books to research this felt like an adventure. My encouragement to all who feel as I do, and who value stories like this, is to enjoy the legend as much as you can. You must be careful to avoid the obvious pitfall, which is to mistake it for a fact — a fact which, inevitably, must fail to meet expectations and thus lose its magic. Stories are stories, not facts; and keeping that firmly in mind is how we give them the greatest freedom to flourish.
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