Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Friday, 24 April 2020


The skull of a common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, revealing just how huge its lower canine and incisor teeth are in proportion to the rest of it (public domain)

During the past three-and-a-half decades, I have investigated countless previously unexplained or unexamined cryptozoological mysteries, and more often than not I have sooner or later succeeded in solving the riddles posed by them. Every now and then, however, I have encountered one that has defied all of my attempts to elucidate it, and the hitherto-obscure case presented below on ShukerNature is a prime example. I've been intermittently seeking information concerning it for well over 20 years now, yet all to no avail – but by duly revealing its sparse details here, I am fervently hoping that these will trigger memories with, and/or elicit information from, my readers that will at last enable its mystery to be conclusively resolved. In the meantime, I shall present my own thoughts regarding this enigmatic entity, and then await, gentle readers, your own.

During the 1990s, Fortean writer/researcher Janet Bord (who has co-authored with her husband Colin numerous classic, bestselling books on mysteries of Britain and also overseas) kindly sent me some photocopied pages of cryptozoological content from a short but exceedingly hard-to-find book written by famous British mysteries author Harold T. Wilkins and published in 1947. For a book of only 30 pages, it had a disproportionately long (albeit comprehensive) title – Monsters and Mysteries of America, the Jungles, the Tropics, and the Arctic Wastes – and contained some fascinating reports of mystery beasts that were previously unknown to me.

Harold T. Wilkins (public domain)

These reports included the following example, whose all-too-brief relevant portion I am quoting here in full:

Another reminder of strange and unknown monsters which ancient Africa once possessed…was the discovery in May, 1935, by the Egyptian professor, Selim Hassan, of "day and night boats" used by the ancient Pharaohs in rites connected with the Egyptian underworld of the dead, or solar ceremonialism. Close to the pyramid of Chephren, Professor Selim Hassan found a boat in which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth. Its identity has not been established. The boat was found buried north of the temple of the ancient pyramid.

Intrigued by this report, and owning several other books authored by Wilkins, I carefully checked through all of them, and found the following, very similar snippet in Secret Cities of Old South America (1952):

Again, in 1935, Professor Selim Hassan, when excavating round the pyramid of Chephren, found some ancient boats in one of which was the head of a gigantic animal with huge teeth, whose identity no one could establish.

Also known as the Pyramid of Khafre or Khafra, the Pyramid of Chephren is the second-tallest pyramid of the famous ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza, and constitutes the tomb of the Fourth-Dynasty pharaoh Chephren (aka Khafre/Khafra), who ruled c.2558-2532 BC. Prof. Selim Hassan (1886-1961) was a leading Egyptologist, who supervised the excavation of many ancient Egyptian tombs on behalf of Cairo University. He was also the author of the definitive 16-volume Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. And solar boats were boats constructed as representations of the mythical day boat that according to traditional ancient Egyptian lore the sun god Amen-Ra navigated through the sky and also through the underworld, which were buried with deceased kings to enable them to do the same. So far, so good.

The Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre and the Great Sphinx at Giza (© Hamish2k/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

After deciding to seek out further information concerning the body-bereft head of this mystifying Beast in the Boat (which is what I shall be calling it hereafter for ease of reference purposes), my first action was to check whether there were any source references to it in the respective bibliographies of Wilkins's two above-cited books. Unfortunately, however, the first, short book did not contain a bibliography at all, and although the second, longer book did have one, it did not contain any references that seemed likely to be the source(s) of this case.

With the coming of the internet and its ever-expanding content, however, I was eventually able to conduct online a far more comprehensive search for Wilkins's source material than I'd ever have been able to do in physical libraries, and it was not long before I uncovered a publication that I felt certain would contain the precious information that I'd been looking for. Published in 1946 by the Government Press in Cairo, and written by Prof. Hassan, the 341-page treatise in question was entitled Excavations at Giza: The Solar-Boats of Khafra, Their Origin and Development, together with the Mythology of the Universe which they are supposed to traverse. Vol. VI – Part 1: 1934-1935.

Prof. Selim Hassan (© Mikerin/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Yes indeed, if the information concerning the giant animal head found inside a solar-boat by Hassan in 1935 near the pyramid of Chephren/Khafra was to be contained anywhere, surely it would be contained in this publication. And so I painstakingly scanned through it, read through it, and used likely search words to seek out the required details – but found nothing, not even the barest, briefest of mentions of such a find anywhere within this extensive, immensely comprehensive  document  - a document, moreover, that was concerned specifically with not only the precise location and the precise year but also the precise structures (solar boats) and the precise researcher included in Wilkins's report. In other words, if this treatise didn't contain anything of relevance to the Beast in the Boat (which it didn't), then what publication ever would? And indeed, despite several subsequent online searches spaced out across the 23 years since I first went online way back in 1997, and taking into account the enormous and continuing expansion of information that has been added to the Net during that extremely long time period, I have still not found any data relating to this most mystifying report in Wilkins's books.

In the absence of such material, therefore, all that I can do is speculate on what the bodiless Beast in the Boat may have been, based upon the minimal morphological details of its head as provided by Wilkins – and always assuming, of course, that his report was both genuine and accurate. Four very different identities, but all sharing toothy infamy, come readily to mind – the Nile crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius, the African bush elephant Loxodonta africana, and any one in a wide taxonomic range of large fossil species with very sizeable teeth.

Artistic representation of Sebek, ancient Egypt's crocodile-headed god of fertility and military might (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

In ancient Egyptian times, the Nile crocodile was very common in this country, frequenting the River Nile from Upper Egypt and the Delta northward to the Mediterranean coast. It was also venerated - among the extensive pantheon of animal-headed deities worshipped in ancient Egypt was the crocodile-headed god Sebek (=Sobek), associated with fertility, power, and military strength, and invoked to provide protection from the dangers of the Nile itself. Many mummified crocodiles dedicated to Sebek have been unearthed during excavations of ancient Egyptian temples and other sites. Yet in spite of its exalted position in this ancient culture, the Nile crocodile was also extensively hunted, millennium after millennium, until by the 1950s it was virtually extinct in Egypt, nowadays existing in this country only within Lake Nasser and the lands directly to the south of it, having been exterminated in Lower Egypt following the building of the Aswan Dam during the 1960s.

The Nile crocodile typically measures 11-12 ft long in total, but exceptional specimens more than 19 ft long have been documented, and the largest Nile crocodile skulls on record are up to 27 in long, with a mandibular (lower jaw) length of up to 34 in. Yet if just the head of one were discovered, entirely without body, would the size of the entire animal if estimated by extrapolating from just the head really be big enough to warrant being described as gigantic? I'm by no means convinced that it would. Equally, by no stretch of the imagination can a Nile crocodile's teeth, which number 60-64, be described as huge – big, certainly, but huge? Personally, I don't think so.

Nile crocodile's head (© Leigh Bedford/Wikipedia – CC  BY 2.0 licence)

The second identity on offer here is the common hippopotamus. Just like the Nile crocodile, this massively large aquatic mammal was very common in ancient Egypt, was represented in the pantheon of animal-headed deities – this time by Taueret, the ferocious hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth – and was also extensively hunted. Apparently, this species could still be found along the Damietta branch (an eastern tributary of the Nile Delta) after the Arab conquest in 639 AD, but eventually it became entirely extinct in Egypt.

Exceeded in overall stature only by the elephants and white rhinoceros among modern-day mammals, the common hippopotamus attains a total length of up to 17 ft, and a head length of 3-4 ft (with an amazing 4-5-ft vertical mouth gape!). Most spectacular of all, however, are its teeth, particularly its greatly enlarged lower canines (tusks) and lower incisors, the former measuring as much as 20 in and the latter as much as 16 in.

A pair of common hippopotamus tusks (lower canines) (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Consequently, in my opinion the preserved head or skull of a sizeable hippopotamus specimen containing such huge teeth as these provides a very plausible identity for the big-toothed mystery beast head found by Hassan in an ancient Egyptian solar boat. And because the hippopotamus was a species venerated in this culture, the presence of such a specimen in such a boat would by no means be inexplicable or even unexpected. Indeed, the only mystifying aspect that is not readily explained by such a solution is why the specimen's identity as the head – or skull – of a creature as zoologically familiar in modern times as the hippopotamus was not swiftly established. But perhaps it was, unbeknownst to Wilkins?

Incidentally, the reason why I have included here the alternative possibility that what Wilkins described as a head was in reality merely a skull is that if it were truly a head, how had it been preserved so as to survive intact for more than four millennia? There is no mention of it being mummified. To my mind, therefore, it makes far more sense for this specimen to have been a skull, which, with no covering of skin, would also fully expose its teeth and therefore make them look even more dramatic, especially if the skull were that of a common hippo.

Artistic representation of Taueret – ancient Egypt's hippo-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth (© Jeff Dahl/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Moving on to the third identity contender, I wonder if the head (or skull) might conceivably be from some exotic, non-Egyptian species, perhaps a gift from a wealthy visiting potentate in ancient times, explaining why it had been preserved and clearly deemed significant enough to have been placed inside one of the solar boats. The skull of an African bush elephant Loxodonta africana with tusks retained, possibly? Having said that, this species did actually exist in ancient Egypt as a native species some 6000 years ago, during pre-dynastic times, before being hunted to extinction there, after which specimens were imported for military purposes and as exotic pets. Such a skull could certainly lend itself to yielding via extrapolation a complete animal fully deserving of being described (accurately) as gigantic, and its tusks described as huge teeth.

Moreover, as publicly revealed in January 2019, skull fragments from a young elephant were found in a rubbish dump within a 2300-year-old Egyptian fortress on the Red Sea coast. This confirms that such creatures were being maintained in Egypt at least two millennia after the time of Chephren. Equally, within the ancient cemetery of Hierakonpolis, dating back over 5000 years and therefore preceding the time of Chephren, excavations made public in 2015 revealed the skeletons of several exotic animal specimens, including two elephants. These twin discoveries in turn lend support to the prospect of elephants being kept in Egypt during Chephren's reign. Once again, however, if the Beast in the Boat head/skull had truly been that of an elephant, in the 1930s such a specimen – most especially one that possessed tusks – would surely have been swiftly identified, more so even than a hippo skull, in fact.

African bush elephant skull (© JimJones1971/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The fourth – but in my view the least likely – of the four identity contenders proffered here for consideration is a fossil skull from some large to very large prehistoric mammal or reptile that sported sizeable teeth, e.g. some species of mammoth or other long-vanished proboscidean, a mosasaur, a theropod dinosaur. There are some notable precedents for such specimens having attracted significant attention in bygone times, as documented by me in a number of my previous writings. Created in 1590, the famous lindworm-shaped fountain in Klagenfurt, Austria, for instance, was based upon a supposed dragon skull, but when scientifically examined in modern times it proved to be the fossilized skull of an Ice Age woolly rhinoceros. An ancient Corinthian vase depicting the Homeric legend of Greek hero Heracles rescuing Hesione from a giant sea beast dubbed the Monster of Troy seemingly used a skull of the prehistoric giraffid Samotherium as a model for the monster's head. And from an illustration prepared of it in 1673 by Johannes Hain, an alleged dragon skull discovered in a cave in eastern Europe's Carpathian Mountains is readily identifiable as that of the extinct cave bear Ursus spelaeus.

Consequently, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a fossilized skull of some such beast was gifted to Chephren on the assumption that it was from a mighty monster, and was subsequently retained for posterity by being placed in a solar boat. Moreover, as prehistoric animal species are by no means as easy to identify by non-specialists as are modern-day ones, if the head was a skull from a somewhat obscure fossil creature this could even explain why its zoological identity allegedly had not been established following Hassan's discovery of the head in the solar boat during 1935.

Klagenfurt lindworm fountain (© Winfried Weithofer/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

How I wish that I could trace some additional documentation of the Beast in the Boat head, and even, perhaps, its current location, as I naturally assume that it was preserved after having been uncovered by Hassan. Yet if so, why does his definitive account of his excavations in the very same location where (and also in the very same year when) Wilkins stated this tantalizingly elusive specimen was found contain not the merest mention of it?

As I said at the beginning of the present ShukerNature article, perhaps someone reading this has information concerning the specimen that they are willing to share with me, and, in so doing, enable me at last to get ahead (pun intended!) with this mystery. Over to you – or, to put it another way (and speaking figuratively here, not literally, obviously) – bring me the head of the Beast in the Boat!

Alongside a statue of a common hippopotamus at Marwell Zoo in Hampshire, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Please feel free to post any thoughts, information, etc concerning this crypto-case in the comments section below this ShukerNature blog article, or email them to me directly. Many thanks indeed!

Meanwhile, and as is true with all cryptozoological cases based solely upon anecdotal evidence, especially when only a single source currently appears to exist concerning it, there is always the sad possibility that this one is a hoax, an invention on Wilkins's part, with little or no substance to it - hence my "always assuming" caveat included earlier. However, as Wilkins specifically named a real, and very notable, person, i.e. the highly-renowned Egyptologist Prof. Selim Hassan, within his report, and included that report in two separate books, at a time when Hassan was still very much alive and working upon precisely the same subjects, Pyramid of Chephren-sited solar boats, in precisely the same year, 1935, as given in that selfsame report, Wilkins would have been taking a great risk of exposing himself to claims of libel by Hassan if his report had been false. If, conversely, Wilkins had not named any real, still-living person in his report, I would have been much more inclined to deem its claims as being false - but he did name a real, still-living person, Hassan! Tragically, however, as both Wilkins and Hassan are now deceased, we may never know the truth - unless there is someone out there reading this article of mine who can prove me wrong!

Mom and I in Giza, 2006, with the Great Sphinx and (partly visible behind it) the Pyramid of Chephren aka Khafre (© Dr Karl Shuker)


  1. Boy howdy do hippopotamus skulls look weird! I can very much believe that someone who found it but had never seen a live specimen, or for that matter could connect it to what a hippopotamus looked like when alive, would conclude the skull belonged to a dragon or some other monstrous creature.

    On a related note: Have you seen those illustrations humourously poking fun at how future palaeontologists might get reconstruction of modern day fauna horribly wrong? One includes a hippopotamus reconstructed as some terrible fanged reptilian dragon-like creature...

    1. Hi Simon, Yes I've seen them, very intriguing and instructive too, and you certainly have a point as to how a hippo skull looks very different from what you'd expect it to look like if basing youe expectation solely upon the external appearance of a hippo's head.

  2. I wondered if it might be in another volume, but I see Hassan only titled one part after the solar boats. Once upon a time, I might have enjoyed reading the whole work to find out, but I'm too tired and confused these days.
    I ought to look up more of the illustrations Simon mentions. A hippo skull is indeed quite horrific—how (asks the future paleontologist) can it not belong to a violent monster? :D Of course, hippos do kill more people than lions...

  3. I recently saw a picture in a historical magazine of a Roman fresco depicting the Nile river and animals/wildlife living there. Somehow I wondered if there could be some cryptid material. Some of the animals might have roamed the historical Egypt Nile area in Roman times but diappeared some I could not identify (iam a layman) even the creatures had been relatively depicted accurate.

    1. Interesting! Do you recall what the magazine was called and which issue the picture was in? I'd be intrigued to see the picture.

  4. Wouldn’t a crocodile skull have been identified right away?

    1. I'd expect so, but in view of its pertinent size, toothiness, and presence in this area, it was necessary to include the crocodile here for the sake of comprehensiveness.