Archive for the ‘cryptozoology’ Category

Link – Griffins were not Dinosaurs

June 7, 2016

I don’t normally post links or reblog, but this was so good (and my latest effort so held up by external factors I won’t bore anyone with) that I had to post it. I’ve always been sceptical about claims that Dragon mythology is based on Dinosaur fossils, and this post by Mark Witton roundly debunks one of these – that the Griffin of Ancient Greece was inspired by real Protoceratops fossils. This is reminiscent of similar attempts to explain away folklore using modern science, like the specious link between the disease porphyria and vampirism. Science can explain big chunks of folklore, like the ‘old hag’ or ‘night mare’ (indeed vampires too) being explicable by means of sleep paralysis. But people in the past, indeed people now, are more than capable of inventing things from whole cloth, and we still need to apply critical thought to convenient explanations like the Dinosaur/Griffin.

Bigfoot BS

January 2, 2012

A ‘yeti’ finger in the Hunterian museum collection turns out to be genetically human. No surprise there. The chap who collected it claims that it used to be the real thing and got replaced by the chap who donated it to the Hunterian. An alternative explanation is that the donor knew damn well (or at least suspected) that it was a human finger, and so saw no harm in replacing it with the real thing. In any case, another lesson that unless it’s been properly researched (which many museums simply don’t have the time or resources to do),  just being in a museum collection isn’t enough to authenticate an object.

Figment of Imagination enquiries

April 18, 2011

What an actual Welsh zombie looks like – see this superb BBC documentary series…

The always excellent Zed Word blog has reported some interesting supernatural-related enquiries made under the UK Freedom of Information Act to Dyfed-Powys police in Wales. You can read the various disclosure reports here (page over to the 2010 content for most reports – alternatively I’ve linked most of them below).

Before we have too big a laugh at the expense of others, I should point out that tragically, if inevitably, many calls/reports (and possibly even FOI enquiries) have been made by those with mental health problems. Others are obvious nuisance/time-wasting calls. The zombie incidents make for particularly disappointing reading even for a hardened sceptic;

Unknown 04.11.2006 A phone call made with strange noises and sounded like someone saying zombie.

Haverfordwest 31.10.2008 Report of a person acting suspiciously wearing a zombie mask and dressed all in black.

Pembrey 14.12.2009 Reporting that they are filming a horror in the park about zombies.

Not really in the spirit of the enquiry, I would suggest. More of a keyword search data-dump. Can’t really blame the Fuzz for that though; I’m pretty sure they have other jobs to be getting on with.
Other, slightly more interesting reports just from this constabulary include phantom cats (lots), witches (some) and werewolves (none). Relatively few suggest even a legitimate claim of a supernatural sighting, let alone any subsequent earth-shattering investigation that provided any evidence of one. A handful of ‘actual’ sightings of ghosts is, amusingly, outweighed in the same report by complaints of ghosthunters causing annoyance or alarm. And of course, there are the UFOs, none of which were followed up using police resources, clearly indicating a massive cover-up…or some common sense, depending upon your point of view. Equally encouragingly, it’s clear that in common with virtually all police departments worldwide, the services of psychics are NOT called upon (another denial here).

Some disclosures contain no information as the enquirer has phrased things such that to provide a proper answer would take too much time and money – one of the exemption criteria. Frustratingly, one of these relates again to the activities of amateur (is there any other kind?) ghosthunters. Had they been more specific we might have discovered more about the ‘supernatural’ denizens of Wales, or at least the loons who go looking for them…

I’ll have to see which other UK police services and perhaps even local authorities might have published similar data online – without submitting my own frivolous FOI enquiry, of course!

The Truth Behind Zombies

November 10, 2010

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.

Rosslyn and the Loch Ness Monster

March 9, 2008

rosslynnessier.jpg

Nessie and Rosslyn – closer together than you might think…

No, I haven’t lost the plot. I’m just looking to coin a new expression; the ‘Nessie Effect’. This is when a heritage site embraces unsupported speculation in order to pay the bills. At Loch Ness it’s a real boost to the local economy. In the ’90s, it was on the order of $36 million dollars a year (rather less now admittedly). The downside is (arguably) that this level of focus on a piece of mythology (represented as plausible fact) distracts from the real treasures of the region and the country. But this isn’t really about Nessie. For that, you’d best head here or back to Google. No, I’m suggesting that the same phenomenon applies to many sites in Britain, but specifically Rosslyn Chapel (subject of many of my past posts).

I may spend a fair bit of time criticising unfounded claims about the past, but I recognise that they can bring in a lot of money that can benefit important sites like Rosslyn Chapel. It’s an ethical dilemma really. As a custodian of a cultural or historic thing, do you steadfastly stick to the known facts and struggle to get by? Or do you “sell out” by entertaining alternative history in order to keep the money rolling in?

I think the answer is to strike a balance. The Rosslyn Chapel Trust stock both serious and speculative books in the gift shop, and of course fiction like the Da Vinci Code. This does allow visitors to make up their own minds, and makes money from different audiences at the same time. Unfortunately, they go further and allow events like the live performances of the so-called Rosslyn Motet. You could argue that this is little different than a museum hosting a corporate event within its galleries, but the difference is that the latter do not passively endorse dubious claims about its exhibits.

For me, the Rosslyn approach is simply too uncritical, too laissez-faire. But from their perspective – why bite the hand that feeds? I really can’t blame them for it. But what does it say about your attitude to your visitors when you do this? Aren’t you casting them as gullible punters to be herded in, harvested for money, and sent on their way none the wiser? I for one would rather visitor centres strive toward fact-based interpretation as accredited museums are obliged to do.

But I’m just an armchair commentator. It’s not easy running a site like Rosslyn without significant external funding. And it’s clear that their approach has worked as far as increased visitor numbers and income, as this Scotsman article details. It remains to be seen whether this is used to its fullest potential.

Besides, let’s not forget the media’s role in peddling the pseudohistory that places like Rosslyn take advantage of. On that score, I was pleased to see from the linked article that the Scotsman has moderated its tone regarding the musical cubes ‘discovery’ that it reported on rather uncritically in 2005. The following year it even suggested that when the music was played, it might unlock a lost secret. I wrote a series of posts debunking these claims – see also Jeff Nisbett’s definitive article. Pleasingly, the latest media mention as linked above, is this:

Among Rosslyn’s many intricate carvings are a sequence of 213 cubes or boxes protruding from pillars and arches with a selection of patterns on them. It is unknown whether these have any particular meaning.

Many people have attempted to find information coded into them, but as yet no interpretation has proven conclusive.

Now that’s how to report speculative history. I wish more of those in charge of the UK’s cultural landmarks were so circumspect.

Native American myth/tradition supports Bigfoot? A critical look.

January 30, 2008

bigfoot.jpg

Because it’s very much in the spirit of this blog, I thought I’d reproduce a piece by JREF forum poster “kitakaze” on the validity of claims about the Native American evidence for Bigfoot. It’s an interesting reminder of how history can be more easily co-opted to suit certain agendas by taking advantage of ignorance – ignorance of the past and of cultures and traditions alien to our own. Spurious claims are much more plausible when the audience has no frame of reference, and especially if they recognise that indigenous cultures are important to world history. This case, that Native Americans had Bigfoot myths, or even lived side-by-side with such creatures, reminded me of the Welsh Prince-Finds-America post I wrote a while ago. It sounds plausible, but once you start to do some research, or even just ask somebody who’s already done some, the names, places and people are shown to be just handy labels for some seriously wishful thinking. See what you think, and check the original thread for some comments:

It is my assertion that Native American traditions do not support the existence of bigfoot and that what is put forth by bigfoot enthusiasts as evidence for the existence of bigfoot has been cherry-picked and misrepresented. In my opinion this at best amounts to a collection of boogeyman tales not significantly different than that of countless other cultures.

A good example of this is the lengthy discussion in the ‘Simple Challenge for Bigfoot Supporters‘ thread on the JREF Forums regarding kushtaka (kû’cta-qa), a mythical being in the traditions of the Tlingit people of northwestern North America. We were told that kushtaka was a well-known and supported term for bigfoot and after much discussion and examination by skeptics the claim was dropped after the ‘Land Otter Man’ nature of the myth was established.

More recently we were told of the bukwus of the Kwakiutl people of Northern Vancouver Island:

One tribe dresses as animals and all the animals are known creatures except the sasquatch or buk’wus as they call them. They just consider it another primate and think nothing strange about its existence.

This poster was apparently unaware of the legendary Thunderbird and its place in Kwakiutl mythology. As for the supposed sasquatch/bukwus, again, critical examination reveals…

From the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture:

Like the Dzoonokwa, Bukwus is a wild creature of the woods. Described as a “chief of the ghosts”, he tempts travellers to eat his food, which transforms them into wild spirits like himself. The Bukwus dance is performed during the Tlasula.

From northwestcoastnativeartists.com:

Bukwus, the wild man of the woods, is a supernatural ghost like figure. He is associated with the spirits of people who have drowned. He lives in an invisible house in the forest and attracts the spirits of those who have drowned to his home.

Bukwus also tries to persuade humans to eat ghost food so that they will become like him. The Bukwus was a significant character for the Kwakiutl people.

One of the main proponents of correlations between Native traditions/mythology and bigfoot existence is a lady we’ve enjoyed much discussion with on the subject in the past here, US Forest Service Archaeologist Kathy Moskowitz Strain. Kathy is a bright women with a fine sense of humour who has over the years invested much study on the matter. She has a book on the subject forthcoming that is due to be released sometime this year IIRC. Kathy is a well-known bigfoot proponent/researcher who has appeared on the History Channel series Monster Quest a number of times. She posts here under the handle ‘Hairyman’.

Here is a youtube clip of her speaking on Native myths/traditions and bigfoot on the ‘Gigantopithecus: The Real King Kong’ episode of Monster Quest:

http://youtube.com/watch?v=vUThgEGxjEM

I find myself in disagreement with some key ideas of Kathy’s on the subject and think some can be illustrated by her comments in the above Monster Quest clip. For example, the statement “…as a scientist and archaeologist it doesn’t make sense to me that tribes would give names to imaginary creatures.” I find it difficult following Strain’s reasoning here. It seems to presuppose the idea that Native American cultures did not have mythical creatures when, as is clear with the example of the ubiquitous Thunderbird, we know this to not be the case.

She also states in the clip “that Native Americans have literally a hundred names for these creatures and I’m still discovering them.” Interestingly she then lists a few and includes the word ‘sasquatch’ which we have often been told to be a native word. Once again, upon further examination the word turns out to be a neologism coined in the 20’s by a British Colombian school teacher, J.W. Burns:

Formal use of “Sasquatch” can be traced to the 1920s, when the term was coined by J.W. Burns, a school teacher at the Chehalis, British Columbia Indian Reserve, on the Harrison River about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver. Burns collected Native American accounts of large, hairy creatures said to live in the wild. Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark wrote that Burns’s “Native American informants called these beasts by various names, including ‘sokqueatl’ and ‘soss-q’tal'” (Coleman and Clark, p. 215). Burns noted the phonetically similar names for the creatures and decided to invent one term for them all.

Over time, Burns’s neologism “Sasquatch” came to be used by others, primarily in the Pacific Northwest. In 1929, Maclean’s published one of Burns’s articles, “Introducing British Columbia’s Hairy Giants,” which called the large creatures by this term.

Here is a partial list (from here) of tradtional Native names from the eastern United States provided by Strain that are supposed to represent bigfoot:

The list is not all there is, just what picked out quickly from a list of several hundred:

Tribe – Traditional Name – Translation

Alabama-Coushatta – Eeyachuba – Wild man
Algonkian – Yeahoh– Wild man
Caddo – Ha’yacatsi – Lost giants
Cherokee – Kecleh-Kudleh – Hairy savage
Cherokee – Nun’ Yunu’ Wi – Stone man
Chickasaw – Lofa – Smelly, hairy being that could speak
Chippewa – Djeneta` – Giant
Choctaw – Kashehotapalo – Cannibal man
Choctaw – Nalusa Falaya – Big giant
Choctaw – Shampe – Giant monster
Comanche – Mu pitz – Cannibal monster
Comanche – Piamupits – Cannibal monster
Creeks – Honka – Hairy man
Iroquois – Ot ne yar heh – Stonish giant
Iroquois – Tarhuhyiawahku – Giant monster
Iroquois/Seneca – Ge no sqwa – Stone giants
Menomini – Manabai’wok – The Giants
Micmac – Chenoo – Devil cannibal
Mosopelea – Yeahoh – Monster
Ojibwa – Manito – Wild man
Seminole – Esti capcaki -Tall man
Seminole – Ssti capcaki – Tall hairy man
Seneca – Ge no’sgwa – Stone giants

Here’s another list of Native American names alledged to correlate to bigfoot compiled by Kyle Mizokami, Henry Franzoni, Jeff Glickman. Some examples of some of the more ambiguous entries:

Name>Tribe>Translation

Skanicum – Colville Indians – “Stick Indians”

Steta’l – Puyallup/Nisqually Indian – “Spirt Spear”

Qui yihahs – Yakama/Klickitat Indian – “The Five Brothers”

Kushtaka – Tlingit Indian – “Otter Man”

Tah tah kle’ ah – Yakama/Shasta Indian – “Owl Woman Monster”

Gilyuk – Nelchina Plateau Indian – “Big Man with little hat”

Ge no’sgwa – Seneca Indian – “Stone Coats”

Atahsaia – Zuni Indian – “The Cannibal Demon”

Misinghalikun – Lenni Lenape Indian – “Living Solid Face”

Wsinkhoalican – Lenni Lenape Indian – “The Game Keeper”

Hecaitomixw – Quinault Indians – “Dangerous Being”

Yé’iitsoh – Navajo Indians – “Big God ”

It’s nice that they have a great big list put together but one wonders how they established a link to bigfoot or if it just ‘felt right’.

One of the prime examples that I have seen put forward by bigfoot enthusiasts countless time is Dsonoqua, The Wild Woman of the Woods. A classic boogeyman type figure, she is a mythical being of the Kwakiutl people of the northern tip of Vancouver Island and the adjacent BC coast who is said to be a stealer of children.

One thing that is a bit frustrating is the wide variation of spellings of Dsonoqua when rendered in the Roman alphabet. Here is a link to the Kwakiutl Tales Index collected and translated by Franz Boas circa 1910, which contains this entry entitled “The Dzô’noqwa”.

The tale is somewhat reminiscent of The Brothers Grimm’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

This is from reknowned Canadian artist Emily Carr’s book ‘Klee Wyck’ (1941) entitled ‘D’Sonoqua’, and below are some images [- see whether you think Dzô’noqwa/D’Sonoqua, or any other claimed Native American depictions of “bigfeet”, objectively fit with the Sasquatch/Bigfoot myth, or whether they are part of a rich mythological tradition in its own right – bshistorian].
totem_dzunukwa.jpgdson.jpgtsonoquad.jpgaa265a.jpg

I think what you have here is the classic case of footers highjacking a native myth and trying to wrench it into bigfoot evidence. It seems clear from all that I’ve seen so far that dsonoqua was held by the Kwakiutl to be a boogeyman type figure and not the representation of a species of 8ft giant bipedal primate that they shared their land with. I will look further into this.

Thank you for those observations, kitakaze – needless to say (and for what it’s worth!), I agree. Anyone stumbling across this piece should check out the JREF forum for further and future discussion of these claims about the “bigfeet”, and more besides.