Down through the years, I've investigated a number of mystifying animal artworks, depicting species before they were officially discovered by science, or in locations far removed from where they are officially known to exist. Examples from the former category include various anachronistic representations of kangaroos (one of which I documented in my book The Unexplained, 1996); and the following case is a prime example (but one hitherto undocumented by me) from the latter category. So I am greatly indebted to correspondent Cristian Nahuel Rojas Mendoza for very kindly bringing it to my attention, on 17 December 2022, and which I lost no time in subsequently investigating – thanks, Cristian!
The work of art containing the portrayed out-of-place animal in question is a magnificent yet surprisingly little-known pictorial encyclopaedia in the form of a spectacular mural, entitled Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geografica del Reyno del Peru ('Painting of the Natural, Civil and Geographical History of the Kingdom of Peru'), or QHNCGRP for convenience hereafter in this present ShukerNature blog article of mine. Consisting of numerous miniature oil paintings and accompanying text on a wood panel, it measures a very impressive 128 x 45.25 inches (325 x 115 cm).
QHNCGRP was authored by Basque-born but (for three decades) Peru-based scholar José Ignacio Lequanda, who commissioned French artist Louis Thiébaut to produce the paintings illustrating it, and it was completed in Madrid in 1799 (click here for an extensive article by Daniela Bleichmar documenting its history and contents).
Today, this unique creation is held and displayed at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain (constituting Spain's national museum of natural history), which has produced an exquisite, lavishly-illustrated website devoted specifically to it (click here to visit the website). I strongly recommend that you access this site while reading my article here, in order to appreciate fully the nature, context, content, and visual beauty of this truly extraordinary, combined work of art and scholarship, and in particular the two items from it under consideration here.
Containing a grand total of 194 individual images, QHNCGRP presents a picture-driven history of the peoples, animals, and plants of Peru (or, in a few cases, Peru's South American environs). At its centre there is an annotated map of the country, depicting, describing, and delineating its various administrative divisions in different colours, as well as a picture of the mine of Hualgayoc or Chota, emphasizing the significance of mining to Peru at that time.
Constituting the outermost border or frame of QHNCGRP is a series of 88 miniature paintings, each depicting a different Peruvian bird and plant, plus four corner miniatures portraying Peruvian insects and reptiles. And running horizontally directly below the uppermost edge of this ornithologically-themed border is a row of 32 miniatures portraying various human forms, including indigenous peoples and Western couples in various costumes.
Below these, and forming a second, internal frame, is a series of numerous compartments containing Lequanda's tiny but voluminous handwritten text (he also added a descriptive label beneath each animal miniature, and considerable text around the mine picture). Within this second frame are not only four large and four smaller pictures depicting Peruvian aquatic animals but also (split into a left-hand block and a right-hand block of 30 each) a series of 60 miniature paintings, again depicting Peruvian animals. Well, 59 of them are…
As for the 60th: This is the creature portrayed in the miniature present at the right-hand end of the top row in the right-hand block of 30 animal pictures. It seems to have been painted with especial precision by Thiébaut in comparison with certain other of the animals portrayed by him in QHNCGRP, and was labeled here by Lequanda as a mountain-abounding 'Dominican monkey'.
In reality, however, as anyone even remotely versed in mammalian identification will readily confirm, this particular creature, its distinctive monochrome form being both instantly recognizable and wholly unmistakable, is actually a black-and-white ruffed lemur Varecia variegata, the species depicted in the photograph opening this ShukerNature article, and which is of course endemic to Madagascar! No lemurs of any kind occur anywhere in the New World.
So why is there a portrait of a Madagascan lemur in QHNCGRP, which is exclusively devoted to Neotropical natural history and culture?
The most reasonable explanation, indicated by Lequanda's accompanying text (and also noted by Bleichmar in her afore-mentioned article), stems from his great familiarity with the contents of Madrid's prestigious – and exceedingly prodigious – Royal Natural History Cabinet, which was founded in 1771 and opened to the public in 1776. For within its collection of zoological specimens was none other than a preserved example of the black-and-white ruffed lemur. As this collection would have been consulted by both Lequanda and Thiébaut during their joint preparation of QHNCGRP, one or both of them presumably assumed mistakenly that the lemur specimen was of South American origin, and thus its striking appearance was incorporated accordingly within QHNCGRP. But that is not all.
There is a second animal miniature in QHNCGRP that also attracted my interest and attention when perusing the latter's artworks. If you want to seek out this picture in QHNCGRP, it's the second miniature along in the fourth row within the right-hand block of 30 animal miniatures. Or, to make things simpler, here it is:
According to Lequanda's accompanying text, the Nonga lives on the banks of the River Huallaga (whose source is in central Peru), and is a nocturnal creature greatly feared by the Indians, but which according to Lequansda seems to be a forest spirit rather than a real entity.
When I first looked at this creature, I thought straight away that it resembled a tree sloth in basic outward morphology. But tree sloths do not stand upright, nor are they greatly feared by natives, and far from being forest spirits they are very familiar members of the corporeal animal community throughout the Neotropical zone.
However, their extinct relatives the ground sloths did stand upright, might well be greatly feared by natives due to their very large size and huge claws, especially if they happened to be ill-tempered creatures, readily becoming aggressive if threatened, and, like many other belligerent beasts, may indeed be deemed by their human neighbours to be supernatural spirits as much as flesh-and-blood animals.
So could this miniature by Thiébaut be a depiction of a modern-day, scientifically-undiscovered ground sloth? Certain South American cryptids, such as the ellengassen and (especially) the mapinguary, are already looked upon by some cryptozoologists and zoologists as potentially constituting surviving ground sloths.
Unfortunately for such romantic speculation, however, the depicted creature's tiny tail is much more comparable with that of a three-toed tree sloth (two-toed tree sloths are tailless) than with the fairly long and very sturdy caudal appendage exhibited by bona fide ground sloths, which they used for support and balance when squatting upright.
Consequently, my personal opinion is that this mystifying miniature painting was based upon a preserved three-toed tree sloth, but whose normal behaviour of hanging upside-down from tree branches was not known to Liébaut, so he portrayed it incorrectly as a bipedal beast instead, thereby inadvertently recalling its officially extinct terrestrial relatives.
Nor are a misplaced Madagascan lemur and a suspect sloth of the terrestrial variety the only zoological oddities to be found in QHNCGRP – click here for a continuation of this investigation, in which I reveal all manner of additional animals of the decidedly anomalous kind lurking incognito within its miniature masterpieces!