Restoration of Palaeopropithecus ingens
in life (Markus Bühler)
The fourth largest island in the world, Madagascar is a veritable miniature continent, brimming with extraordinary animals found nowhere else in the world, including such exotic avifauna as vangas and neodrepanidids, remarkable reptiles that include boas more closely-related to counterparts in South America than to any Old Word snakes plus the world’s greatest diversity of chameleons, and, most famous of all, its wonderful assemblage of lemurs and exotic striped civets. Yet as if all of these were not exciting enough, only a few centuries ago in some cases this zoological treasure trove of endemics also boasted some truly astonishing animals – and none more so than its impressive number of giant lemurs far bigger than anything known to exist today. Today, of course, these creatures are long gone – or are they? Read this investigation of Madagascar’s most astonishing mystery beasts – and decide for yourself.
In 1658, after having resided in Madagascar for a number of years as its governor, French explorer Admiral Étienne de Flacourt published a major tome, Histoire de la Grande Isle de Madagascar, which documented his experiences and discoveries here. It contains a wealth of zoological information, some of which is also of cryptozoological interest, including the following passage:
"Trétrétrétré [or tratratratra in English] is an animal as big as a two-year-old calf, with a round head and a man’s face; the forefeet are like an ape’s, and so are the hindfeet. It has frizzy hair, a short tail and ears like a man’s…One has been seen near the Lipomani lagoon in the neighbourhood of which it lives. It is a very solitary animal, the people of the country are very frightened of it and run from it as it does from them."
At the time, this report was dismissed by European naturalists as nothing more than native folklore. Also discounted were the description and accompanying sketch of what appears to have been the same or at least a very similar unidentified species, but in this instance called the thanacth, documented by André Thévet in his Cosmographie Universelle (1575); the creature in question had been brought to him, while based on the Red Sea, as a curiosity to see by natives from an unspecified eastern land that some authorities now believe may have been Madagascar.
A few centuries later, however, palaeontologists in Madagascar began unearthing fossilised remains of enormous lemurs, which, when dated, proved in some cases to be from creatures that had only died out a few hundred years earlier. Moreover, reconstructions of the likely appearance in life of certain of these animals seemed more than a little reminiscent of the mystifying tratratratra.
Consequently, in his seminal cryptozoological book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), Dr Bernard Heuvelmans boldly proposed that this latter mystery beast may indeed have been a surviving representative of the sloth lemur Palaeopropithecus ingens, a giant lemur shown from radiocarbon dating of subfossil remains to have existed until at least the 1500s. As big as a chimpanzee, somewhat sloth-like when in trees but probably at least partly terrestrial due to its large size and weight, Palaeopropithecus would have appeared very spectacular and somewhat awe-inspiring to the native people - hence, if indeed synonymous with the tratratratra, their fear of it.
However, it is now known that Palaeopropithecus had a very pronounced snout, which contrasts with the man-like (and thus presumably flattened) face described by de Flacourt for the tratratratra. Conversely, a second identity offered for it by Heuvelmans, the large extinct lemur Hadropithecus, did have a relatively flattened, ape-like or humanoid face (in stark contrast to the decidedly long-muzzled, canine faces of most known modern-day lemurs), and is known to have existed until around 1000 years ago.
Model of Palaeopropithecus
by Markus Bühler (image courtesy of Markus Bühler)
It has lately been confirmed that the giant lemurs were hunted – quite probably into extinction - by humans (who first reached Madagascar around 2000 years BP - Before Present). In April 2002, at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, a team of scientists from Massachusetts University and Oxford’s Natural History Museum revealed that some remains of Palaeopropithecus ingens and Megaladapis (another extinct giant lemur, see below) from Taolambiby (a subfossil site in southwestern Madagascar), which were originally collected back in 1911 but only lately studied, showed classic signs of butchering. As the scientists pointed out, the characteristics of the tool-induced bone alterations (sharp cuts near joints, spiral fractures, and percussion striae) suggested dismembering, skinning, and filleting.
Moreover, the giant lemurs also suffered from habitat destruction via extensive deforestation. Nevertheless, there are still areas of dense, remote Madagascan forest little-visited by humankind even today, where reports of bizarre beasts continue to emerge from time to time. One of the most pertinent of these reports relative to the tratratratra controversy was published in Jane Wilson’s fascinating book Lemurs of the Lost World (1990). After mentioning de Flacourt’s account of this cryptid, she notes:
"Although this description may be distorted, it is the last accepted sighting of the now extinct giant lemurs. A few may have survived until the 1930s, however, when a French forester came face to face with an animal sitting four feet high and described it as being unlike other lemurs he had seen. It did not have a muzzle but was like a gorilla with ‘the face of one of my ancestors’."
Or the face of the last tratratratra, perhaps? Although unlikely, it is not impossible that a very small, relict population of at least one species of giant lemur does still persist in Madagascar, highly elusive, nocturnal, and actively avoiding humans whenever possible.
ON THE TRACK OF THE TOKANDIA
In earlier works, the tratratratra was often synonymised with another giant Madagascan lemur, the so-called koala lemur Megaladapis edwardsi. Like Palaeopropithecus, this species is now known from dated subfossil remains to have still existed as recently as 1500, and may well have met its demise at the hands – and weapons – of humans. It derives its common name from the outward similarity of its general body form to that of Australia’s familiar koala – but a koala on a gigantic scale, as this tree-dwelling lemur sported a skull the size of a gorilla’s, and weighed a massive 75 kg or so. It had proportionately long forearms, extraordinarily cow-like jaws, a very elongate face, huge grasping hands and feet, and quite possibly a short tapir-like nasal trunk. Although clearly adapted for life in the trees, its huge size indicated that this monstrous lemur may well have spent quite a lot of time on the ground.
The extended shape of its face and heavy bovine jaws clearly argue against Megaladapis being one and the same as the tratratratra, and in later publications this identification has indeed been discounted in favour of Palaeopropithecus or Hadropithecus, as already discussed here. However, there is another Madagascan mystery beast that Megaladapis does compare well with – a huge, largely terrestrial mammal known as the tokandia. Just like modern-day sifakas and certain other lemurs, the tokandia is said to move on the ground via a series of bounds or leaps, but also jumps into trees, where it spends time too. Moreover, unlike the tratratratra, the face of the tokandia is claimed by the locals not to be man-like, but its cries are allegedly very like those of humans. Accordingly, Dr Heuvelmans and other cryptozoologists have identified the tokandia with Megaladapis. Whether it still exists today, conversely, is another matter entirely, as there do not seem to be any modern-day accounts of the tokandia. Also, even in the least-accessible surviving forests of Madagascar, a koala-shaped lemur the size of a bear would surely be somewhat difficult to overlook.
reconstruction from 1902.
NO KIDDING, IT WAS A KIDOKY
Having said that, there is tantalising evidence that some other form of very large, still-undiscovered species of lemur does still exist in this insular mini-continent. During late July and early August 1995, Fordham University biologist Dr David A. Burney and Madagascan archaeologist Ramilisonina conducted ethnographical research at three remote southwestern Madagascan coastal villages, in particular Belo-sur-mer. Here, interviewing the local people, they collected testimony from eyewitnesses describing three different mysterious beasts, two of which may well be species still unknown to science. One of these creatures was referred to as the kidoky, and according to consistent local descriptions (obtained by interviewing the eyewitnesses completely independently of one another) it apparently resembles those relatively large, principally tree-dwelling lemurs known as sifakas. However, in terms of overall size the kidoky was said to be much larger.
One such animal was reputedly sighted as recently as 1952, by an educated villager called Jean Noelson Pascou. When interviewed by the two scientists, Pascou was adamant about what he had seen, and stated that the kidoky had dark fur, but with a white spot below its mouth and another one upon its brow.
When on the ground, sifakas move via a very characteristic series of sideways bipedal bounds and if threatened will flee up into the trees. In contrast, the kidoky allegedly flees by running away in a series of short, forward leaps reminiscent of a baboon’s mode of locomotion, and usually remains on the ground, rather than taking to the trees. Its face is quite round and man-like, but its loud whooping call is more similar to that of the decidedly dog-headed indri (currently the largest known species of living lemur).
As noted by the two scientists, in terms of overall morphology and lifestyle the kidoky brings to mind two officially extinct genera of giant lemur – Archaeolemur
, both of which exhibited terrestrial adaptations and were the closest equivalents in lemur terms to the baboons. Like other giant lemurs, however, they are assumed to have died out several centuries ago – but if the testimony of Pascou and other Belo-sur-mer villagers are to be believed, this assumption may well be premature.THE HABÉBY – A LEMUR IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING?
One of the most mystifying of all Madagascan cryptids is the habéby. Also called the fotsiaondré, it is likened both in size and in overall appearance to a large white sheep, with long furry ears, and a long muzzle, whose coat is dappled with brown or black, and whose feet are reputedly cloven. The Betsileo tribe aver that it inhabits the wastelands of the Isalo range, and that it can sometimes be seen on moonlit nights. For – bizarrely for any sheep – the habéby is claimed to be strictly nocturnal, which presumably explains why it is also said to have very large staring eyes, another very unsheep-like characteristic. Equally odd, if it is indeed a sheep, is that there has never been any report or any tradition of horned habébys, i.e. habéby rams.
Faced with these disconcerting inconsistencies with any typical ovine identity, it is little wonder that zoologists have considered it much more feasible that the habéby is (or was) an elusive species of very large terrestrial lemur, which would explain its night-time activity and associated large eyes. Of course, lemurs are not cloven-footed, but perhaps a predominantly terrestrial, giant form may have evolved superficially hoof-like claws to assist its locomotion on the ground.
MAKING AN ASS OF THE MANGARSAHOC
Equally unexpected in Madagascar are reports of a mysterious white ass with huge ears that almost cover its face. This unlikely-sounding beast is referred to as the mangarsahoc, and, like the tratratratra, was briefly documented by Admiral de Flacourt in his great tome:
"Mangarsahoc is a very large beast, which has a round foot like a horse’s and very long ears; when it comes down a mountain it can hardly see before it, because its ears hide its eyes; it makes a loud cry in the manner of an ass. I think it may be a wild ass."
In 1770, this strange creature was also reported by the Comte de Modave, who claimed that it lived some 10 leagues from Fort Dauphin, and that the local tribespeople were terrified of it:
"[Yet] at bottom it is but a wild ass; many are found in this part of the island, but you must look for them in the woods, for they never leave these lonely places and are hard to approach."
Intriguingly, tracks of hooves said to be from the mangarsahoc have actually been found, and several sightings have been reported in the Ankaizinana forests as well as in the Bealanana and Manirenjy districts, according to Heuvelmans. Yet no specimen has ever been obtained, and, as with the habéby, Heuvelmans was more inclined to deem this evanescent creature a giant lemur than a hoofed, ungulate mammal. Tellingly, it has a vile reputation among the native people, who firmly believe that the mere sight of it will bring bad luck. This seems an unusual superstition to become attached to a wild horse, yet is of the very same kind often associated with some of the more striking, nocturnal lemurs – in particular, for instance, the rather eerie-looking (albeit entirely harmless, inoffensive) aye-aye.
So could the mangarsahoc once again be an undiscovered species of very large, terrestrial, pseudo-hoofed lemur? Or might it instead be a non-existent composite beast, engendered by confusion between Madagascar’s extra-large lemurine cryptids and a very different mystery beast, the tongue-twistingly-named kilopilopitsofy?
KALANORO – MADAGASCAR’S LITTLEFOOT
Perhaps it is only fitting that on such a cryptozoologically paradoxical island as Madagascar, where there are alleged sightings of giant lemurs, elephant birds, and dwarf hippos, there should also be reports not of a bigfoot-type man-beast comparable to those reported from many other regions of the world, but rather a littlefoot – an elusive hairy ape-man, yet of only very short height. Known as the kalanoro, many accounts of it exist, including the following detailed example, published in 1886 by G. Herbert Smith within the Antananarivo Annual:
"We next come to the forest, and from there we get endless stories of the Kalanoro, a sort of wild-man-of-the-woods, represented as very short of stature, covered with hair, with flowing beard, in the case of the male, and with an amiable weakness for the warmth of a fire. An eye-witness related that once, when spending a night in the heart of the forest, he lay awake watching the fire, which had died down to red embers, when suddenly he became aware of a figure answering to the above description warming himself at the fire, and apparently enjoying it immensely. According to his story, he put a summary end to the gentleman’s enjoyment by stealing down his hand, grasping a stick, and sending a shower of red-hot embers on to his unclothed visitor, who immediately, and most naturally, fled with a shriek. Another tells how, on a similar occasion, the male appeared first, and after inspecting the premises and finding, as well as a fire, some rice left in the pot, summoned his better half; the pair squatted in front of the fire and – touching picture of conjugal affection – proceeded to feed one another!
"One must confess that the creature described looks suspiciously like one of the larger sorts of lemur; but in a village near Mahanoro, and on the verge of the forest, the inhabitants say that very frequently these wild people come foraging in their houses for remnants of food, and may be heard calling to one another in the street. "
Back in the 1930s, French palaeontologist Prof. Charles Lamberton speculated that perhaps the kalanoro was based upon folk memories of the last Hadropithecus, the large extinct lemur mentioned earlier in this feature that had a remarkably human profile. However, I am not convinced by a lemur identity for this cryptid, and I certainly disagree with Smith in his view that the kalanoro as described by him in his reports resembles a large lemur. On the contrary, it seems much more humanoid than lemurine, and nowhere was there any mention of a tail. Yet with the exception of the largest officially-living lemur, the near-tailless indri, lemurs generally have very lengthy, noticeable tails. So unless there is a completely unknown, dramatically different species of lemur out there whose evolution has yielded a veritable human counterpart, tailless and bipedal, it seems much more likely that if the kalanoro is more than just a Madagascan counterpart of the Western world’s Little People or fairy folk (or even mermaid – some kalanoro accounts claim that it is amphibious and female!), it may well be a primitive form of human.
Certainly, it bears more than a passing resemblance to reports of Sumatra’s elusive orang pendek or ‘short man’, which in turn has been associated lately with the startling discovery on the nearby Indonesian island of Flores of a dwarf fossil species of human, Homo floresiensis. Could the kalanoro be something similar? Tragically, we may never know, for although it was clearly once a well-known entity on Madagascar, the days when it would visit people’s fires and forage in their houses for food seem long gone - just like, apparently, the kalanoro itself.
In his book’s coverage of Madagascan creatures of cryptozoology back in 1958, Dr Bernard Heuvelmans wrote:
"In Madagascar fortunate circumstances have almost enabled us to watch the extinction of the giant fauna of the past, but we have missed our opportunity."
Judging from the reports presented here before you, it is not entirely beyond hope that small numbers of one or more species of giant lemur may still linger in the most inaccessible, least visited regions of this extraordinary island.