Cropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi – one of the most controversial cryptozoological images of all time (public domain)
There will never be a more appropriate time than right now to document the following case here on ShukerNature, because this year, 2017, is its centennial – the hundredth anniversary of one of the most contentious zoological events in modern times. Namely, the alleged discovery of a hitherto-unrecognised species of ape in South America - a continent not known to possess any ape forms. This enigmatic episode thereafter remained a unique controversy in the annals of zoology for many decades before finally being resolved only in recent years. I have not previously documented on ShukerNature what became known as Ameranthropoides loysi, Loys's South American ape, so here's my take on it.
But let us begin at the very beginning of this truly exceptional case, by first of all presenting herewith its 'official' version of events, which was faithfully reiterated time and time again by cryptozoological chroniclers and commentators for many decades before the true but very different version eventually emerged.
From 1917 to 1920, Swiss geologist Dr François de Loys (1892-1935) and a team of colleagues had supposedly been conducting a scientific expedition through a little-explored forest-covered range of mountains called the Sierra de Perijá, straddling the border between Venezuela's Zulia State and Colombia's Cesar Department. It was said to be a forbidding, inhospitable region, with the hapless party reputedly beset by virulent tropical diseases, threatened by all manner of venomous fauna, and perpetually in fear of the hostile Motilone Indians with their deadly poison-tipped arrows.
Yet even when de Loys and his party returned to civilisation in 1920, however, their ordeal was far from over. Before the close of the 1920s, the expedition, and de Loys in particular, would be accused by many of perpetrating a deliberate, elaborate hoax - and all because of one very remarkable photograph.
According to an article written by de Loys that was published on 15 June 1929 by the Illustrated London News, in an unspecified year (but later revealed to have been 1917) his party had been exploring previously untrodden forests along the Tarra River, a tributary of the Rio Catatumbo, in southwestern Lake Maracaibo, Zulia State, Venezuela. Suddenly, near a bend in one of the Tarra's own, western tributaries, two strange creatures strode into view just ahead, resembling tall, hairy, tailless apes walking on their hind legs.
De Loys's Illustrated London News article for 15 June 1929 - click image to enlarge it for reading purposes (public domain)
Approaching the party, they became increasingly violent, screaming wildly and ripping branches and foliage off nearby vegetation in anger. As a further gesture of their barely contained fury, they even defaecated into their hands and threw their excrement at the explorers - who by then were not only astonished at the sight of such totally unfamiliar creatures, but were also thoroughly alarmed, fearing for their own safety. Consequently, when what seemed to be the male member of the pair, leading its mate towards them, drew even closer, de Loys and party opened fire at it with their guns. Just as they did so, however, the male moved to one side, in order for his mate to approach alongside him. As a result, he escaped the majority of the shots, which hit the female instead, killing her instantly - whereupon the male turned and fled.
The female's body was closely examined by the explorers, who were all completely mystified by its singular appearance. So, once back at camp, they sat the body upright on a packing case in their possession there, keeping it erect by propping it up with a long stick placed underneath its chin, then they measured it, and photographed it from the front (but seemingly not from the back - a critical component of this saga). According to de Loys, most of those b/w photographs were tragically lost a little later, when their boat capsized in a river, but one superb photograph was saved. This is reproduced here, not only in its well known background-cropped form that opens this present two-part ShukerNature article, but also in its less familiar uncropped form, reproduced below, because the latter version contains a key feature whose immense significance was entirely unnoticed by scientists for several decades (as will be revealed later in this article of mine).
The uncropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi (public domain)
The surviving photograph plus the measurements recorded by de Loys implied a truly extraordinary creature. Fundamentally, it was most similar to the Ateles spider monkeys, possessing a number of features characterising these familiar South American primates.
For example: each of its eyes was encircled by a prominent ridge of bone; its genital organs were very large; its thumbs were extremely small; its hands and feet were shaped like those of spider monkeys; the triangular patch of pale pigment on its forehead compared closely with that of the long-haired or white-bellied spider monkey Ateles belzebuth (a species itself known from the Rio Tarra valley, and referred to locally as the marimonda); and, like all New World primates, not just spider monkeys, its nostrils opened sideways and were separated from one another by a thick division of cartilage (the platyrrhine - 'flat-nosed' - condition). Also, its clitoris was very large, yet another spider monkey characteristic, but one that has fooled quite a few people down through the years into mistakenly assuming that it was a male.
Marimonda spider monkey (© Ewa-Flickr/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0 licence)
Yet in stark contrast to spider monkeys, the largest of which never attain a total height much in excess of 3.5 ft, de Loys's paradoxical primate allegedly measured a mighty 5 ft 1.75 in - equalling all but the loftiest of chimpanzees. Also, its limbs appeared sturdier than those of spider monkeys - species specifically famed, and named, for their limbs' noticeably gracile, arachnine appearance. Similarly, its body seemed stockier, with broader shoulders. In his classic book On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958), veteran cryptozoologist Dr Bernard Heuvelmans opined that its thorax also seemed longer and flatter, more like that of an Old World ape than like that of a New World spider monkey. Most significant of all: according to de Loys's testimony, it was tailless (unlike any known species of South American primate), and only possessed 32 teeth (all known South American primates have 36, occasionally more).
Following his return to Europe, de Loys consulted Swiss-born French zoologist Prof. George Montandon, and provided him with much information concerning his party's baffling discovery, plus the precious photograph, but was unable to offer any physical remains - although this is not as surprising as it may initially seem. After all, the appalling conditions that the expedition had supposedly faced during its jungle forays had been more than enough to deal with, surely, without the additional problems that would have been posed by attempting to transport a hulking 5 ft carcase all too soon to transform into a stinking mass of putrefaction. Allegedly, they did salvage the skull, but their party's cook ill-advisedly used it as a salt container. As a result it had completely disintegrated before their departure for Europe. (And a comparably regrettable fate reputedly befell the specimen's skin of greyish-brown fur too.)
Nevertheless, de Loys's testimony and the striking photograph sufficiently convinced Montandon that the creature had been something totally new and significant for him to publish a formal paper in the renowned French scientific journal Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences on 11 March 1929, introducing it to the scientific world. Moreover, so certain was Montandon that it represented a South American counterpart to the Old World apes, i.e. a New World species of comparable evolutionary status to the gibbons, gorillas, orang utans, and chimpanzees, that he named its species Ameranthropoides loysi - 'Loys's American ape'. Thus ends the 'official' version of events surrounding the discovery and scientific description of this anomalous entity (as will be seen later, however, the real, true version turned out to be very different indeed...).
Scientists throughout the world were astounded - the concept of a New World ape seemed so alien to zoological tradition (in which apes were strictly confined to the Old World) that most found it impossible to accept. So it was not long before a variety of published opposition to Montandon's views materialised. Among these was the uncompromising contribution by British primatologist Sir Arthur Keith, who sternly pronounced in August 1929 within the periodical Man that Ameranthropoides was nothing more than an ordinary spider monkey (he personally favoured Ateles paniscus, the black spider monkey). Keith was particularly sceptical about its alleged absence of tail, great size, and depauperate dentition. Consequently, he felt that at most it should merely have been named Ateles loysi, thereby allying it with the spider monkeys, and flatly rejecting Montandon's views that it was the Americas' answer to an ape.
Sir Arthur Keith (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)
Similar and sometimes even stronger views were expressed by many other zoologists too. One aspect that again attracted much adverse criticism and suspicion was the supposed taillessness of de Loys's 'ape'. Some authorities clearly felt that it appeared tailless in the photograph only because its tail had been deliberately cut off, or hidden from view. Certain others, like Francis Ashley-Montague, writing in Scientific Monthly in September 1929, seemed willing to accept that its taillessness was genuine, but suggested that this may not have been a natural feature. Instead, it could have resulted from an accident at early infancy (adult male monkeys have often been known to bite off the tails of their offspring).
Also engendering much heated discussion and dissension was the creature's impressive height. Once again, some suspected a hoax. And certainly, Montandon noticeably changed his mind several times between various publications before finally claiming that the standard size for petrol crates of the type supporting its body in the photograph was 18 in. If true, this would provide a standard measurement that could be used to estimate accurately the creature's total height from the photograph alone (i.e. independent of de Loys's measurements taken directly from the creature itself).
Montandon's assistant sitting on what Montandon claimed to be a similar type of crate to the one in the Ameranthropoides photo – but was it? (public domain)
Using this method and Montandon's claimed dimension for the crate, a total height of 5 ft was obtained for the creature, which agreed very closely with de Loys's statement. To emphasise further the notable size of Ameranthropoides, and using what he claimed to be equivalent crates to the example in de Loys's picture, Montandon even published a series of comparative photographs that showed a man (his assistant) and a spider monkey sitting on the crates in the same pose as that of Ameranthropoides in the original photo. His critics, however, remained unconvinced - and ultimately they won the day.
In 1930, as a final attempt to silence and satisfy his opponents, Montandon's full scientific treatment of the ambiguous Ameranthropoides was published, in the journal Archivio Zoologico Italiano, complete with a formidable list of pertinent references. It certainly silenced them, after a fashion - because it attracted no response at all. Instead, Ameranthropoides was summarily dismissed as at best a monster of misidentification, based upon a specimen of the marimonda (which is the most robust species of spider monkey), or at worst as assuredly a fraud (even though no actual evidence for this proposal had been offered up for examination at that time).
Ivan T. Sanderson's classic book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come To Life (© Chilton Book Company, Philadelphia – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
In the opinion of renowned American cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson (who was also, like Heuvelmans, a qualified zoologist), which he outlined tersely in his book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come To Life (1961), the creature's very burly form was not the product of anatomical design at all. Instead, this was the outcome of advanced decomposition inside its carcase - which had correspondingly swollen or 'blown' to yield a bloated body that would bear little resemblance to its form in the living state. Sanderson did not believe that it was naturally tailless either, and he revealed that the type of petrol crate upon which it had been sat propped up and then photographed was not 18 in high, but only 15.5 in, thereby decreasing the creature's estimated height to within the marimonda spider monkey's range.
Primate researcher Don Cousins also questioned the crate's size, and in an April 1982 article published by the British monthly magazine Wildlife he too selected the marimonda as the likeliest identity for Ameranthropoides. Indeed, he even included a photograph of one that had been killed in the Tarra River region by American engineer/geologist A. James Durlacher while working there with the Shell Oil Company in 1927, and had then been posed in an upright sitting position to be photographed. Had its long tail not been readily visible, one might well be forgiven for assuming that this creature was a second Ameranthropoides specimen, so similar to the latter does it look, as seen here in Durlacher's 1936-published photo of it. (Incidentally, please keep Durlacher in mind, because he reappears in a very significant manner within Part 2 of this ShukerNature article.)
A. James Durlacher's 1936-published photograph of the dead marimonda spider monkey, posed in an upright sitting position (public domain)
Even so, as recently as 1981 Heuvelmans did not agree with Sanderson concerning this subject, still favouring instead the absolute authenticity of Ameranthropoides, as revealed in the following never-before-published passage excerpted from a letter concerning several different cryptids that Heuvelmans had written on 30 November of that year to English cryptozoological enthusiast Michael Playfair:
LOYS' [sic] APE; All I can is that Ivan is wrong. The calculations by M. Cintract are undoubtedly accurate. Loys' [sic] ape is possibly not an unknown ape, but certainly a gigantic spider monkey, possibly an over-sized specimen, but much more probably a representative of an unknown species.
Mr Cintract was a photographer whose attempts to calculate the likely height of the Ameranthropoides specimen, which he ultimately estimated to be between 5 ft and 5 ft 3 in, were cited by Montandon in his Comptes Rendus paper of 11 March 1929.
Painting from 1867 of a marimonda spider monkey, seen from the side and therefore readily revealing its long tail (public domain)
Conversely, in subsequent years a very sinister, previously-unpublicised ulterior motive for Montandon's desire to acquire scientific recognition for Ameranthropoides as a bona fide South American ape came to light, courtesy of research by American cryptozoologist Loren Coleman and French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal. In a revelatory article, published by The Anomalist in autumn 1996, they brought to attention that Montandon had proposed and actively promoted an extreme, racist theory of human evolution called hologenesis.
Put simply, his theory claimed that instead of the modern-day multi-racial human species Homo sapiens having arisen from a single common ancestor, its various races had sprung up simultaneously but independently of one another. Montandon claimed that white races had evolved from Cro-Magnon man but that non-white races had evolved from various different species of ape.
Front cover of The Anomalist #4, containing the Coleman-Raynal paper concerning Montandon and the Ameranthropoides photograph (© The Anomalist)
For example, Montandon believed that Africa's black nations had arisen from the gorilla, whereas Asia's oriental nations had arisen from the orang utan. However, a major flaw for him was that he could offer no suitable ape ancestor for the Native American nations – until, that is, Ameranthropoides had come along. Suddenly, Montandon had been presented with an opportunity to plug what for him had hitherto been a gaping hole in his hologenesis theory, thus explaining why he was so insistent in supporting the claim of Ameranthropoides as a legitimate ape rather than a mere monkey (and also why he had therefore increased his claim regarding the crate's dimensions – namely, to ensure that Ameranthropoides was physically big enough to be accommodated within his hologenesis theory).
Towards the end of World War II, however, Montandon was apparently shot by the French as a traitor, and, with him, his objectionable, ludicrous theory of hologenesis died too. The controversy regarding the zoological identity of Ameranthropoides, conversely, persisted – until 2007, when Michel Raynal made a remarkable announcement via Loren Coleman on the website Cryptomundo. Namely, he had discovered to his amazement that the true nature of Ameranthropoides – that in reality it was a blatant, deliberate hoax – had actually been made public as far back as the early 1960s. Moreover, it had been publicly reiterated three decades later too - but, incredibly, none of these crucial revelations had previously attracted any attention from either the cryptozoological community or the mainstream zoological world!
In Part 2 of this ShukerNature article, I shall be unfurling the vital yet long-overlooked information that unequivocally exposed the entire Ameranthropoides episode as a blatant, deliberate hoax. Don't miss it - click here!
Having read the above article concerning Ameranthropoides loysi and viewed its iconic photograph snapped in 1917, does this intriguing illustration from 1758 look in any way familiar to you...? (public domain) – Find out more in Part 2 - click here on ShukerNature!