Stinky, Hairy and Mean – Amazonian Bigfoot?

Posted by: Craig Woolheater on June 30th, 2007


A statue of the Mapinguari, an Amazon legend, in the Chico Mendes Park in the city of Rio Branco, Acre.
(Lalo de Almeida FOR THE NYT)

It’s stinky, hairy and mean – but is Amazon Big Foot real?

RIO BRANCO, Brazil: Perhaps it is nothing more than a legend, as skeptics say. Or maybe it is real, as those who claim to have seen it avow. But the mere mention of the mapinguary, the giant sloth-like monster of the Amazon, is enough to send shivers down the spines of almost all who dwell in the world’s largest rain forest.

The folklore here is full of tales of close encounters with this Big Foot of the Amazon, stories so widespread and so consistent in their details that in recent years a few scientists have organized expeditions to try to find the mapinguary (pronounced MA-ping-war-E). They have not succeeded yet.

“It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,” said David Oren, former director of research at the Goeldi institute in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River. “We know that extinct species can survive as legends for hundreds of years. But whether such an animal still exists or not is another question, one we can’t answer.”

Oren said he has talked to “a couple of hundred people” who claim to have seen the mapinguary in the most remote parts of the Amazon and a handful who say they have had direct contact. Nearly every Indian tribe in the Amazon, including those who have had no contact with each other, have a word for the creature, which can usually be translated as “the roaring animal” or “the fetid animal.”

In some areas, the creature is said to have two eyes, while other accounts talk of it having only one, like the Cyclops of Greek mythology. Some versions also talk of a gaping, stinking mouth in the monster’s belly through which it consumes humans unfortunate enough to cross its path.

But all accounts agree that the creature is tall – two meters, or about seven feet, when it stands on two legs – that it emits a strong, extremely disagreeable odor, and that is has thick, matted fur covering a carapace that makes it all but impervious to bullets and arrows.

“The only way you can kill a mapinguary is by shooting at its head,” said Domingos Parintintin, a tribal leader in the state of Amazonas. “But that is hard to do because it has powers that can make you dizzy and turn day into night. So the best thing to do if you see one is climb a tree and hide.”

Geovaldo Karitiana, a 27-year-old Indian, says there is no doubt that the mapinguary is real. He claims to have seen one about three years ago, as he was hunting in the jungle near an area that his tribe calls “the cave of the mapinguary.”

“It was coming toward the village and was making a big noise,” he said in a recent interview on the tribe’s reservation in the western Amazon. “It stopped when it got near me, and that’s when the bad smell made me dizzy and tired. I fainted, and when I came to, the mapinguary was gone.”

Karitiana’s father, Lucas, confirmed the account. He said that when his son took him back to the site of the encounter, he saw a cleared pathway where the creature had departed, “as if a boulder had rolled through and knocked down all the trees and vines.”

Though the descriptions of the mapinguary may resemble the sasquatch of North America or the yeti of Himalayan lore, the comparisons stop there. Unlike its counterparts elsewhere, the creature does not flee human contact, but aggressively hunts down the hunter, turning the tables on those who do not respect the jungle’s unwritten rules and limits.

“Often, the mapinguary gets revenge on people who transgress, who go where they shouldn’t go or harvest more animals or plants than they can consume, or set cruel traps,” said Márcio Souza, a prominent Brazilian novelist and playwright who lives in Manaus and often draws on Amazon history and folklore in his works. “There is clearly an ecological function involved.”

Amazon folklore, in fact, is full of fanciful creatures that are used to explain unwelcome or embarrassing phenomena. The boto, for example, is a type of dolphin that transforms itself into human form, wears a white hat to cover its air spout, and then seduces and impregnates impressionable young virgins.

When a hunter or woodsman gets lost in the jungle, blame is often placed on the curupira, a mischievous red-haired pixie who has feet that face backward and takes delight in making trails that lead travelers astray. And when an experienced navigator drowns in calm waters, he is usually said to have fallen victim to the iara, a cross between a siren and a mermaid.

“If you’re a rubber tapper and you’re returning to camp empty-handed, you’d better have a pretty good explanation for your boss,” said Marcos Vinicius Neves, director of the government’s department of historical and cultural patrimony in the state of Acre, where a statue of a mapinguary has been erected at a public plaza here in the capital. “The mapinguary is the best excuse you could possible imagine.”

Souza, the novelist, counts himself among those who believe the mapinguary is just a myth. The deforestation of the Amazon has accelerated so rapidly over the last generation, he argues, that if the creature really existed, “there would have been some sort of close encounter of the third kind by now.”

Partly for that reason, most zoologists scoff at the notion the mapinguary could be real. The giant sloth, or Megatherium, was once one of the largest mammals to walk the earth, bigger than an elephant. Fossil evidence is abundant and widespread, having been found as far south as Chile, and as far north as Florida. But the trail inevitably stops cold thousands of years ago.

“When you travel in the Amazon, you are constantly hearing about this animal, especially when you are in contact with indigenous peoples,” said Peter Toledo, an expert on sloths at the Goeldi institute. “But convincing scientific proof, in the form of even vestiges of bones, blood or excrement, is always lacking.”

Glenn Shepard Jr., an American ethnobiologist and anthropologist based in Manaus in the central Amazon, said he had been among the skeptics who considered the mapinguary “a rural legend” until 1997, when he was doing research among the Machiguenga people of the far western Amazon, in Peru. Tribal members he questioned there about local wildlife all mentioned a fearsome sloth-like creature that inhabited a hilly, forested area in their territory.

Shepard said “the clincher that really blew me away” came when a member of the tribe said as a matter of fact that he had also seen a mapinguary at the natural history museum in Lima. Upon checking, Shepard found that the man was referring to a diorama with a model of a giant, prehistoric ground sloth.

“At the very least, what we have here is an ancient remembrance of a giant sloth, like those found in Chile recently, that humans have come into contact with,” he said. “This was a very precise description of an animal and its habits, not some supernatural thing, which the Machiguenga also have in their cosmology.”

But for now, the mystery of the mapinguary is likely to continue, as is the search. “There’s still an awful lot of room out there for a large sloth to be roaming around,” he said.Larry Rohter
International Herald Tribune

About Craig Woolheater
Co-founder of Cryptomundo in 2005. I have appeared in or contributed to the following TV programs, documentaries and films: OLN's Mysterious Encounters: "Caddo Critter", Southern Fried Bigfoot, Travel Channel's Weird Travels: "Bigfoot", History Channel's MonsterQuest: "Swamp Stalker", The Wild Man of the Navidad, Destination America's Monsters and Mysteries in America: Texas Terror - Lake Worth Monster, Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot: Return to Boggy Creek and Beast of the Bayou.

9 Responses to “Stinky, Hairy and Mean – Amazonian Bigfoot?”

  1. PhotoExpert responds:

    I think this is probably a case of tribal stories being passed down about a real creatures (the giant sloth) mixed in with a little myth. The past and it’s stories being mixed in with the reality of the life of the tribal descendents living there today.

    If you have ever visited the remote areas of the Brazilian Amazon, one would soon discover that their are many creatures found there that can not be found anywhere else in the world. The living conditions are brutal. And the rain forest covers thousands of square miles. You can fly over it for hundreds of miles and never see a road or even one home. There are some descendents of tribal people and head hunting tribes that live in the Amazon. However, one would have to take their first hand accounts as eyewitnesses with a grain of salt.

    From my interaction with these native people, I can give you a few examples of what I mean. I fish quite a bit and do it all over the world. Some of these fishing trips take me to remote regions of the world. One of the most remote regions on the face of the earth is the Brazilian Amazon. I have been to the city mentioned above, Manaus, and it is not what we would consider a modern city. I’ll give you an example, the big fishmarket in Manaus, is near where the Amazon meets the Black River. The fish were laid out without ice and flies hovering and landing about the fish. You could smell the fish before you saw the market. Most reading this would consider Manaus a bit remote and antiquated but when compared to other areas of Brazil, it is a bustling city.

    Now a couple of examples on the native people living in the jungles of Brazil. One of my fishing trips was cancelled there one year because a group of fishermen on the week preceding my trip had been taken hostage by a headhunting tribe that originally gave permission for the fisherman to fish a tribal area. The chief changed his mind. But since their are no phones in the jungle and he probably signed the contract and government permit with an “X”, it would be difficult to maintain that the chief even understood the written word of the paper he “signed”. Eventually the fisherman were released or rescued. But translaters had to be called in since the tribal language is much different than Brazilian Portugese. These tribal people live off the land. Their history is verbal. And we have all played that childhood game of whispering a story to the person next to you. By the time it makes the circle in ten minutes, the entire story is different than the original. Imagine doing this for generations.

    When I was there, the fisherman would trade fishhooks for blow darts and spears. Our camps would sometimes be raided and the only thing that was missing were the pull tabs from soda cans. Upon trading with the natives the next day, they were wearing necklaces made of crocodile teeth and soda can pull tabs. Metal was a foreign entity to them and apparently, highly prized. I did a few magic tricks for the children who were intrigued but it actually scared the adults. I had to reveal the trick because they were that so scared by it, they thought I was not a human being but perhaps a spiritual being. My fishing partner went to trade one day with the tribal people. Upon coming out of the jungle to trade, they saw him and went running back in to hide. Odd, because they had traded with him the day before. What was different this time? They thought his sunglasses which he did not wear the day before, were actually the eyes on this white godlike creature who was probably a demon. At least that is what our guide explained to us. Upon removing the sunglasses, the tribal people eventually returned from the jungle. Parts of Peru are like this too.

    What I am trying to relate to the readers by my first hand account here, is that the perceptions of the native people are not always the reality we live in. I am sure that if a hunter returned from a bad hunt, he might blame it on Brazilian bigfoot. But I also think that there is some truth to the tribal stories. If you read the account above, it mentions matted fur. Sloths have matted fur don’t they? And they do smell because they are so slow moving that plant life actually grows on them. So that would explain the odor. And things can get quite big in the Amazon such as the giant river otters. I am sure the first reports of them by even credible people who encountered them were not believed or chalked up to stories or an active imagination.

    I think what is happening here is exactly as this post by Craig states. I believe it is a little reality, from the point of view or perception of the native people, weaved in with a few “stories” passed down for generations. Sometimes the distant past meshes with the current day as far as these tribal stories are concerned.

    But who knows? The jungle is so big and vast, that it is definitely possible for a creature such as the Brazilian BF to exist. There are many undiscovered species living in the jungle. And the uniqueness of those creatures creates the distinct possibility that some creature like this may exist today in the Brazilian rain forest. If the North American BF exists, certainly, the isolated and vast amount of jungle in Brazil could certainly hold a Brazilian BF population. And the food sources are abundant. They could live off the land without a problem. During their rainy season or winters, a BF population would have to move away from the river and it’s tributaries because the water level could rise over 50 feet. But this is just a minor inconvenience if BF populations are migratory to begin with.

    In my opinion, the possibility exists. However, in all probability, these are just stories mixed with a little fact. But one can be hopeful, can’t he? Giant river otters, boto, howler monkies, and about 30 other species of monkey live in the Amazon along with many other unique animals found only there.

    The good news is, we probably won’t have any photos of blobsquatches coming soon from the Amazon or Brazil.

  2. sschaper responds:

    Why pick the less likely explanation? We know that the ground sloth lived in South America, probably more recently than the article states. That doesn’t rule out other possibilities, but wouldn’t it make sense to go for the most likely option until we know more?

  3. bill green responds:

    hey craig & everyone very informative new article about the amazon sasquatch or primates . very interesting indeed. thanks bill green

  4. Rillo777 responds:

    There’s no evidence of course at this time that the ground sloth survives but intuitively speaking there’s no reason a small group might not still exist. I don’t know anything about sloths, but I wonder does the modern sloth make noise described like that above or have a rancous odor?

    It would seem that if the modern sloth had a strong odor, it would lend some continuity to the story.

    I do remember there was a documentary on cable some time ago that explained that natives of the area not only were familiar with the giant sloth at one time but may have even kept them in a corral in a cave in the area of Patagonia.

    Also, there was a giant sloth that was about 12 ft. tall and another that was close to 20 ft. tall.

    It is said that the native arrows could not penetrate the tough hair and skin.

  5. mystery_man responds:

    PhotoExpert- Fascinating stories about your experiences, thank you for sharing that with us. This is an intriguing topic for me because living in Japan and being a fan of Japanese folklore, I see exactly the same kind of situation, with old stories passed down from generation to generation. The culture here is imbued with all sorts of myths and legends and this is particularly interesting to me because I study the indigenous animals here as well as cryptids and see first hand how these intertwine with folklore.

    What really fascinates me is the question of where the myth ends and fact begins, something I do not think is always so easy. I can accept that local myths have exaggerated certain creatures above and beyond what they are really capable of, but that still does not mean there is not a creature there. The Japanese wolf , for example, was (is? One can hope.) a real creature. Yet if you were to hear all of the powers and legends associated with it, you would be inclined to think that is was pure myth when in fact it is a very real animal. Many Japanese animals would sound like folklore if you were to listen to just the old stories. I am sure the gorilla was the same way before it was discovered and indeed it does still have legends attributed to it. The same can be said for a lot of indigenous people’s accounts of known animals throughout the world and the same thing applies to the Amozonians, I feel. A lot of ethno known animals have been proven to be real even if all of the powers associated with them weren’t. Fantastic stories do not mean that nothing is there.

    For this reason, I am generally careful not to discount tales by natives too much because it is likely that a real animal lies behind the stories. In the story about the guide’s sunglasses scaring the locals, their magical reasons for being scared do not change the fact that the sunglasses themselves were real. So when I hear these mysterious stories coming out of the Amazon, while I do appreciate there is an addition of folkloric elements, I still want to find out what is behind the stories to begin with. Who knows, maybe it isn’t invulnerable, or have any supernatural powers, but maybe this things exists? Something to think about.

  6. PhotoExpert responds:

    mystery man–hello and great to see you posting here as always. As I can see by your post, you and I think very much alike. Well, exactly alike is more accurate. lol

    Yes, the japanese wolf is the real deal and an amazing story. I remember your input on that thread a while back. Fascinating stuff there. I always appreciate first hand accounts from people I am acquainted with as well. I am glad you enjoyed my first hand account of the stories I shared from my experiences there.

    I definitely think there are going to be several new species of animals found in the amazon, most definitely. I also think it is more probable than possible that there is a Brazilian sasquatch, but I think it is going to be smaller in size than the north American bf, more like the skunk ape of Florida. I think in this particular instance, it is more of cultural stories intertwined with a real animal of the past.

    I say this because the jungle is so dense in the amazon. Seriously, you need a machete to just go a couple of feet in most parts of the jungle. It’s brutal. If the locals were out hunting, it would be in the jungle and probably not near the riverbank. The only creatures you will find near the riverbank are amazonian caimens and the amazonian black crocodile. The native people consider them, the boto, and the anaconda, all sacred animals. So the only exception to thick jungle is along the river and it’s tributaries. So if a Brazilian bf was in the jungle, it could easily hide with no problem. It would here the hunters coming and hide a long time before they got there. If it were seen, it would be along the river where they typically do not hunt. So if the story involved a fisherman seeing one, it would hold more credence for me. I believe that is where anyone would have the best chance of seeing one without alerting it. I know I had my camera by my side the entire time. I always have it handy, just in case. One never knows when they can photograph a cryptid creature. You have to be a believer. A skeptic would not bring a camera. lol

    But I am with you 100 percent. The stories can not be discounted in general. generally speaking, there is some truth behind the stories. I just think in this particular case, the realistic part of the story pertains to a sloth and not a amazonian bf.

    If I heard a story of a smaller ape like creature near the river banks in the amazon, witnessed by local tribesmen that were fishing–i would say that we have ourselves an amazonian bf sighting.

    I am holding out hope that one of the fishing parties that visits the amazon during the dry season will capture an image of a cryptid or new species. I don’t mean new plant or insect species but those of the reptilian or mammal variety. The mean income for the Brazilian people living outside a city, is at or below poverty level. A camera is just not an option for them. Any photos coming out of the amazon will be by foreigners with cameras or perhaps federal officials patrolling the remote regions. That’s the best chance.

    Keep an eye out for the Japanese wolf and I will keep an eye out for the Brazilian bf or to other rain forest creatures outside of Brazil. I had no luck in the ‘el yunque’ rain forest in Puerto Rico either.

  7. mystery_man responds:

    PhotoExpert- Again, fascinating information about the Amazon. It is a place that I truly hope to make the journey to someday. I’m glad you enjoyed my info on the Japanese wolf. I’ve been out in the field to look for it as well, but no luck here either, just some eyewitness accounts by locals. I’m going to keep trying, to be sure.

    The Amazon is a huge, richly biodiverse ecosystem and I am also certain that we are not done with seeing all of its surprises yet. I think it is a prime location for new species discoveries simply because of its vastness and scarcely penetrable jungle, as well as plentiful resources and numerous biological niches. It is simply teeming with life and I think it is not far fetched at all to think that a large animal could be out there awaiting discovery. I think along with Africa, South America in general is a potential treasure trove of new animal discoveries, and I keep an eye on any news coming out of the region in regards this. It must be exciting for you to have been down there, regardless of whether you saw any cryptids or not!

    I completely agree with your view on the creature being sighted by the riverside and think that this would make sense as being an area where it would be more probably seen. A fisherman would be a prime candidate for someone to see one, although as you said, cameras are probably not an option for a native. This lack of cameras is one reason why I think the native stories and oral traditions play such a big part here. So I feel what is basically going to have to happen is that one of the alleged creatures is going to have to make an appearance in the open, out of the dense foliage, to a foreigner with a camera. Wonder what the chances are of that happening?

    I also find myself speculating on what it could be. I am totally with you in that it is not necessarily a hominid of any sort, but rather could be a large sloth. This makes a lot of sense in this area, and a sloth could easily be seen to be humanoid in appearance, especially if seen through the eyes of superstition. Look at the other thread about pygmy hippos and you’ll see that the natives were describing them as “black pigs”. The native accounts may not be totally accurate, but they still describe a large creature that could very well be a giant sloth of some sort. It could be a regular sloth too, but this hypothesis is entirely feasible, and even if it is not a Bigfoot, a new type of giant sloth would still be a fascinating find. I also think that if it is a Bigfoot, it makes sense that it may be smaller in order to be better adapted at moving through dense foliage. This is one of the theories why the Japanese wolf was so small.

    I’m still on the fence as to whether there actually is any Amazonian Bigfoot out there, but I will say that the habitat could definitely support them and the native stories are intriguing. Very interesting to speculate about and I am hoping that some interesting things will come out of the Amazon in the future. Keep that camera handy! 🙂

  8. shumway10973 responds:

    Hey, let’s get us some hounds down there. If nothing else they will find the smell. I do find it interesting that some are suppose to have only one eye. What is it about a cyclops that terrifies humans? Sounds like it has closer relations to the biped in Africa I read about not long ago. They are willing to attack, for reaction purposes only, then if no reaction is given they seem to wander off as to say, “Darn, we need to find someone that will run. It’s funner that way.” Obviously, that accounts above, yes, it attacked, but then went away. The stink is right there with sasquatch. Although, I have no idea what a sloth smells like. Besides, why do they think the ground sloth would be any faster? That is what makes a sloth a sloth–the only animal with moss growing on its fur.

  9. Tengu responds:

    How would a creature remain unknown for long if it was so noisy?

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