African cryptid dinosaurs. This simple phrase packs a host of problems. Several mythical creatures from various Sub-Saharan African cultures have been described as “dinosaurs” and later sighted as cryptids. This by itself is not unusual. I’ve mentioned several mythical creatures that became cryptids in the modern era. However, these specific “dinosaurs” are tied to outdated and even harmful ideas about the African continent and the people who live there. Worse, they are popular enough that the cryptid image tends to obscure the original mythical version. It’s time we take a good hard look at why people are still looking for dinosaurs in Africa.
Satellite image of the Congo River Basin, home to many of dinosaur-like cryptids in Africa. Lake Tele, associated with Mokele Mbembe, may be the blue dot. Photograph from Encyclopædia Britannica ImageQuest. Accessed Aug 21, 2020.
The Creatures in Question
Every time I research cryptid dinosaurs, I seem to find more, but an exhaustive list is not necessary. They can be divided into four rough types, so I’ll start with an example of each.
Verified Mythical: These creatures are linked to clearly mythical aspects. Mokele-Mbembe is the most famous example. Its name means “one who stops the flow of rivers” in the Bantu language Lingala.1 The legend centers around Lake Tele and belongs to the Mbenga people. Though a flower-chowing herbivore,2 Mokele-Mbembe kills any who approach. Its meat sickens people and speaking of it can bring death.3 Features may include brownish-gray skin, a long neck with a small head, a single long horn or tooth, a frill or chicken-like comb, and a long tail.4 It may also be called Emela-Ntouka, meaning “killer of elephants” in Bomitaba,5 but cryptid hunters prefer to treat this as a separate, short-necked creature.
Possibly Mythical: Most cryptid dinosaurs are described with only hints at local legends behind them. For instance, Mbielu-Mbielu-Mbielu is known mainly from Roy MacKal’s 1987 book A Living Dinosaur?: In Search of Mokele-Mbembe. MacKal says its name means “animal with planks growing out of its back” in Lingala and reports several tales of it from the Bounila region of the Congo.6 He implies these stories were generations old, indicating a possible mythical past. However, he focuses on physical details like plates, a mossy back, and swimming with only the back exposed. Despite admitting no reports of a head, legs, or tail, MacKal sees this swimmer as a stegosaurus.
Pure Cryptids: A few dinosaur-like creatures are known based on sightings by Westerners alone and have no connection to any mythology. Take Muhuru, a large “lizard” with triangular spikes on its back.7 It was sighted in Kenya by Cal Bombay in 1963, possibly near the Muhuru Bay from which it likely takes its name.
Hoaxes: I only know for sure of the Kasai Rex for this category. Described as a T-Rex-like creature stalking the Kasai Valley, its main hobby is eating rhinos and explorers. It is generally considered a hoax since the three photos of it were all fake.8
As you can see, not all cryptid dinosaurs have mythological origins. Yet many are affected by problems that began in the earliest reports of African dinosaurs and have evolved little since then.
One of the first people to specifically identify an African cryptid as a dinosaur was Carl Hagenbeck, a German hunter and animal collector for zoos. Hagenbeck’s short entry in his 1910 book Beasts and Men displays almost every problem that continues to haunt the search for dinosaurs in Africa, so I will share a selection here.
Carl Hagenbeck (1844-1913). Image by Atelier Theod. Reimers, Hamburg / Public domain
“The natives, it seemed, had told both my informants that in the depth of the great swamps there dwelt a huge monster, half elephant, half dragon. This, however, is not the only evidence for the existence of the animal. It is now several decades ago since Menges, who is of course perfectly reliable, heard a precisely similar story from the negroes; and, still more remarkable, on the walls of certain caverns in Central Africa there are to be found actual drawings of this strange creature. From what I have heard of the animal, it seems to me that it can only be some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to the brontosaurus.”9
The full entry includes some blatantly racist language, which is telling, but I want to focus on the subtler problems that still appear in modern sources.
Sources Unclear or Reinterpreted: Who are these “perfectly reliable” sources of Hagenbeck’s third-hand information? MacKal, citing Hagenbeck, identifies the non-native informants as Joseph Menges and Hans Schomburgk. MacKal himself treats all three as key authorities on African dinosaurs, despite revealing that Menges left no writing on the topic.10 Meanwhile, Schomburgk says of his Zambia creature that he “regarded the story as a fairy tale and obtained little exact information” until after talking to Hagenbeck.11
Then there’s the question of which group of”natives” is the original source of the tale. Hagenbeck gives no name, only pointing to Rhodesia, modern Zambia and Zimbabwe. Yet a local zoologist of the time remarked, “nothing has been heard of it before through local native sources.”12 A creature called Chipekwe might fit the bill, but Hagenbeck’s passage is usually treated as referring to Mokele-Mbembe, which hails from across the continent in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Generalization: The geographic confusion around this passage is symptomatic of the tendency to treat all of Africa as a unified whole. You can see the same thing in Toto singing that “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”13 (it doesn’t) or MacKal discussing the creature “known among the Africans as Mokele-mbembe.”14 More recent sources usually do a better job of acknowledging Africa’s diversity by mentioning specific places and cultures, but some still refer to “the natives.” Even skeptics sometimes fall into the generalization trap, such as James S. Powell, Jr. In the 1970s, he showed sauropod pictures to “Cameroon locals” and was told no one had heard of a matching creature called Mokele-Mbembe.15 Maybe that’s because he was nowhere near Lake Tele and the Mbenga people who live in the interior of neighboring Congo!
Overwriting: “Dragon” is a term that conjures images and associations from European mythology, but Hagenbeck applies it here to a legend from an unspecified African culture. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Westerners talking about Africa. I’ve mentioned how the Japanese word “yokai” is often rendered as “demon” in English. Similarly, Japanese uses “kuruma (車)” for both modern cars and ancient ox-carriages. However, Hagenbeck completely crowds out any objective details his sources might have passed by slapping labels from his own cultural background over the original. He then identifies this creature he has never seen as a dinosaur, implying he knows more than the people who have supposedly lived in its presence.
This trend of imposing Western expectations on local tales is common in stories of “new” dinosaur cryptids. In 2006, John Kirk described an expedition to Cameroon that recorded tales of Ngoubou. He mentions showing “the pygmies,” as he refers to several informants, and some Bantu residents of Langoue a binder with pictures of “living and extinct animals,” including a triceratops. 16 Showing native people illustrations of dinosaurs is often used as evidence of cryptid dinosaurs,17 yet offering such images steers the response toward a dinosaur. Imagine trying to explain chicken fried steak to someone with a picture menu, except the pictures were all of Japanese dishes. Whose fault is it if you point to the pork katsu? Kirk was told that Ngoubou only looked similar to the triceratops.18 Yet he concludes later, while looking through a book of dinosaurs, that Ngoubou is a styracosaurus.
The “Primitive” Label: The tendency to treat Africa as “primitive” has caused damage and erasure for African peoples throughout colonization by Europeans. Consider the denial of Great Zimbabwe as the work of the local people because they weren’t seen as “an advanced culture.”19 Moving away from such attitudes is still an ongoing process, and expeditions looking for literal prehistoric creatures in Africa don’t help. MacKal talks about the Congo basin as a “primeval forest” that has changed little since prehistoric times.20 Even the number of reports that call native sources “pygmies,”21 a questionable term today, smacks of an othering and belittling attitude. The African continent is and always has been dynamic in culture, biodiversity, and geography. If looking for dinosaurs is getting in the way of remembering that, maybe we need to reconsider that search.
Is This a Dinosaur?
This is not to say that all cryptid dinosaurs in Africa are necessarily phantoms from outdated attitudes. People have reported many sightings, though even relatively local eyewitnesses seem to be separate from “the natives.”22 Nor is Africa the only locale where dinosaur-like cryptids are reported. People have reported raptor and even T-Rex lookalikes in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma of the U.S.23 And of course there’s the Loch Ness Monster, said to resemble a plesiosaur cousin of dinosaurs. Yet there’s still a far larger number of creatures labeled as dinosaurs in “wilder” regions in Africa and Papua New Guinea.
The Tarasque, a French dragon that no one is launching expeditions to look for. Left: Sculpture of a Tarasque, King René Castle, Tarascon, France. Photo by Daniel*D / CC BY-SA. Right: Ankylosaurus statue in DinoPark, Praha. Photo by DinoTeam / CC BY-SA
I love cryptids and I love dinosaurs, so I once loved cryptid dinosaurs. However, my knowledge of dinosaurs also let me see one more flaw: Their science is outdated. Back when Hagenbeck was talking about a brontosaurus relic in Zimbabwe, sauropods were imagined as sluggish, mostly aquatic swamp creatures. Mokele-Mbembe fits this image, yet paleontologists now largely agree sauropods were terrible in water. One paper concludes they would have floated but ended up sideways,24 probably drowning. Those American raptors are also problematic because they are described as scaly or as “a Jurassic Park flashback.”25 Current fossil evidence suggests that most—possibly all—dinosaurs had feathers, especially raptors and their relatives.26 Movies tend to ignore the evidence for feathers to keep their dinosaurs scarier. Understandable, but if these cryptids are better matches for human imagination than the fossil record, I hesitate to call them true dinosaurs.
Just to be clear, I am not saying anyone who has written about or reported sightings of cryptid dinosaurs is necessarily deluded or lying. However, it’s easy to see what we expect, especially when those expectations are built on layers of bias that have been reinforced over the years. As of 2011, over 50 expeditions have searched for Mokele-Mbembe with the aim of proving or disproving a dinosaur in Africa,27 and Genesis Park had one planned for 2020.28 Isn’t it time the question became why are people looking for a dinosaur, and what might be covered up in the process? Instead of sending expeditions to hunt for sauropods, maybe we could work on creating more spaces where the people who own these tales can share their take on them.
At the Movies
Of course, most of us have little say over such expeditions or the creation of more equal information-sharing spaces. There is, however, a way that we can participate in this reconsideration of cryptid dinosaurs: through our response to media about them.
Dinosaurs remain a popular media feature, though usually not under the names of cryptids. The main exception is the 1985 Disney-Touchstone film Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. The story follows Susan and her husband George as they travel to the Congo and discover a family of Mokele-Mbembe. Ironically, the film’s villain, Eric Kiviat, was likely based on Roy MacKal.29 Yet Susan also echoes MacKal and Hagenbeck when she sees a stick drawing of Mokele-Mbembe and murmurs, “Looks like a brontosaurus.”30 This scene has the only nod to the mythical side of what is otherwise portrayed as a sauropod. Susan and George arrive at a village to find many people sick or dead because they ate the meat of a Mokele-Mbembe. Even this way of including the mythical side is problematic since these dead villagers should have known what would happen if they ate the meat.
Even without clear cryptid references, many movies with modern-day dinos come with baggage from the cryptozoology scene. Consider the various King Kong films. The primeval jungle is moved to an unknown island, but there’s still uncomfortable hints of Africa. The original 1933 film shows Skull Island populated by dinosaurs alongside dark-skinned natives who appear patterned after stereotypical Africans. Oh, and a giant gorilla. Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake again places dinosaurs and dark-skinned natives together, this time modeled on Australian Aborigines and reduced to a shrieking horde with no speech or sense of culture. We finally get a break from this pattern in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s 2017 Kong: Skull Island. The native Iwi are no longer antagonists and appear cast to resemble Southeast Asians, more appropriate for the South Pacific setting. Yet they still don’t really speak for themselves. Perhaps this is a lingering fossil of those outdated attitudes, much like the single triceratops skull that indicates this Skull Island also had dinosaurs.
I’ve been nervous about writing this post. Cryptid dinosaurs are enough of a fringe interest that many people have probably never heard of them. And in a time when movements like Black Lives Matter are calling on us to face harsh truths about race and inequality, such old fossils seem trivial. However, it concerns me how well these fossils have preserved some troubling attitudes, especially since I’ve seen them resurface in academic papers and blockbusters. What do you think? Is this even worth talking about with so many more urgent issues at hand? Or is even this little fragment something we should consider as part of the larger picture?
1. “Lake Tele,” Wondermondo, July 11, 2013, accessed Aug. 9, 2020, https://www.wondermondo.com/lake-tele/.
2. Loxton, Daniel, and Donald R. Prothero, Abominable Science : Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and other Famous Cryptids (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 275. Accessed through Google Books Aug. 10, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/Abominable_Science.html?id=UV2sAgAAQBAJ.
4. “Mokele-mbembe,” A Book of Creatures, posted Apr. 10, 2020, accessed Aug. 9, 2020, https://abookofcreatures.com/2020/04/10/mokele-mbembe/.
6. MacKal, Roy, A Living Dinosaur?: In Search of Mokele-Mbembe (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987), 250. Accessed through Google Books Aug. 9, 2020, https://books.google.com/books/about/A_Living_Dinosaur.html?id=rdQUAAAAIAAJ.
7. “Muhuru,” Encyclopaedia of Cryptozoology, accessed Aug. 10, 2020, https://cryptidarchives.fandom.com/wiki/Muhuru.
8. “Kasai Rex,” Cryptid Wiki, accessed Aug. 10, 2020, https://cryptidz.fandom.com/wiki/Kasai_Rex.
9. Hagenbeck, Karl, Beasts and Men (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910), 96. Accessed through Internet Archive Apr. 5, 2020, https://archive.org/details/cu31924029937020/mode/2up.
13. Paich, David, and Jeff Porcaro, “Africa,” AZ Lyrics, accessed Aug. 12, 2020, https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/toto/africa.html.
15. Dunning, Brian, “Hunting the Mokele-Mbembe,” Skeptoid with Brian Dunning, transcript of podcast #727, May 12, 2010, accessed June 22, 2020, https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4727.
16. Kirk, John, “The Ngoubou,” Cryptomundo, posted Apr. 9, 2006, accessed June 22, 2020, http://cryptomundo.com/cryptotourism/ngoubou/.
19. “Great Zimbabwe,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed Aug. 12, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/place/Great-Zimbabwe.
21. Roch, Kat, “Cryptids: In Search of Dinosaurs III,” Unreadable Disk Error, posted Apr. 4, 2013, accessed June 16, 2020, https://katapultrocha.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/cryptids-in-search-of-dinosaurs-iii/.
22. Hebblethwaite, Cordelia, “The Hunt for Mokele-mbembe: Congo’s Loch Ness Monster,” BBC News, Dec. 28, 2011, accessed Aug. 12, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-16306902.
23. Leclaire, Lance David, “10 Bizarre Prehistoric Cryptid Sightings,” Listverse, Apr. 16, 2014, accessed June 16, 2020, https://listverse.com/2014/04/16/10-bizarre-prehistoric-cryptid-sightings/.
24. Henderson, Donald M., “Tipsy Punters: Sauropod Dinosaur Pneumaticity, Buoyancy and Aquatic Habits,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biology 271, suppl. 4 (May 7, 2004): S180-S183. PubMed (DOI 10.1098/rsbl.2003.0136). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1810024/pdf/15252977.pdf.
26. Black, Riley, “Did All Dinosaurs Have Feathers?,” Smithsonian Magazine, July 5, 2012, accessed Aug. 12, 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/did-all-dinosaurs-have-feathers-719742/.
28. “Upcoming Expeditions,” Genesis Park, accessed Aug. 18, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/exhibits/expeditions/upcoming/.
29. Coleman, Loren, “Loch Ness Monster & Mokele-Mbembe Researcher, Cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal Has Died,” Cryptozoonews, Dec. 15, 2013, accessed Aug. 13, 2020, http://www.cryptozoonews.com/mackal-obit/.