Detour: Mapinguari - South America Bigfoot, Cryptid Sloth, or Rainforest Guard? TAP TO GET PODCAST
The dense jungle of the Amazon Rainforest may possibly be home to a colossal land sloth that’s rumored to have survived and thrived since the dawn of the ice age. But if you plan on visiting any time soon, be sure to bring a pair of nose plugs; this thing has an odor that will knock you off your feet, literally.
I’m Cody, and you’re touring Cryptids Across the Atlas.
He knew he should have chosen another area, but he decided to go anyways. Geovaldo Karitiana had spent the better part of the day hunting outside of his village located in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon was home for Geovaldo. He had lived all 24 of his years in this tropical live well. He knew the vegetation, the game, the terrain, and above all, he knew the threats that lie around every new corner. He was as familiar with this area as he was with the back of his own hand. Which is exactly why he knew better than to go hunting anywhere near that specific section of forest.
A moderate hike away from his village, carved into the edge of an embankment, lies a cave that had earned itself a sizable reputation. For as long as his people had shared stories of the forest they called home, they told tales of how under no circumstances should one ever venture too close to the cave of the Mapinguari. But as Geovaldo trekked through the rainforest on the prowl for tonight’s dinner, he heard a sound that both intrigued him and shook him to his core. It sounded as if it was working its way toward his village. Overcome with nervous curiosity, he drew closer and closer to the low, rumbling noise until he found himself right at the mouth of that legendary cave and face to face with the monster in which the cavernous dwelling was named. But before his eyes could take it all in, an acrid smell overwhelmed his senses, and as if someone placed a rag of chloroform across his face, he quickly became dizzy and passed out. When he awoke, the “Fetid Beast” was gone.
Across the Brazilian and Venezuelan Amazon rainforest, you will find numerous tribal accounts of run-ins with a creature that invokes a revered fear in the native locals. Some have named this beast the owhuama, while others know it as the segamai, but most call it the Mapinguari.
The Mapinguari is said to be large mammal-like monsters, covered in brown, shaggy fur and standing anywhere from 6 ½ to over 10 feet tall, depending on who you ask. This colossal giant is said to vaguely resemble the North American Sasquatch, except instead of an ape face, it has a more elongated snout that, to me, more resembles the head of a capybara. It is said to travel on all fours through the forest but has many times been seen rising up and clumsily lumbering about in a bipedal manner leaving behind footprints that resemble humans, only they are curled under and face backward as if it walks on its knuckles. But above all, the most interesting and intimidating characteristic of the Mapinguari is the large claws that hang from its front hands, which gives it the resemblance of a giant sloth. When one comes in contact with the Mapinguari, often they find themselves of course, terrified, but soon the overwhelming stench supposedly leaves even the strongest and most brave soul knocked completely unconscious.
The Mapinguari is an interesting case for cryptozoologists. On one hand, there are hundreds of first-hand accounts, all depicting more or less the same thing. Tribes that have never had contact with one another each have their own stories of the same giant sloth-like carnivore that roams the rainforest.
And on the other hand, folkloric retellings speak of the monster in a less literal tone. Some tales claim that when it rises up on its hind legs, it reveals a second, gaping mouth large enough to swallow a human whole. Other strange variants depict it as a cyclops-like monster. Its lack of depth perception is made especially obvious in the way it staggers about when it stands up. Others claim it is an ecological entity that protects the forest by hunting down those who kill more than they can eat or who harm the Amazon jungle through deforestation.
Like the North American Sasquatch, the South American Mapinguari are an interesting mix of actual, tangible sightings, fleeting evidence, and fantastical folklore. Like humans do so well, embellishments most certainly have been added over the years to further the narrative. But when you sweep away all the hearsay, we are still left with numerous accounts across dozens of unconnected groups of people all saying the same thing: That a giant sloth-like smelly creature lumbers through the Amazon rainforest (And occasionally shows up in town to snatch a cow or two). So what could the Mapinguari be?
Early cryptozoologists like Bernard Heuvelmans and Ivan T. Sanderson theorized that due to its similarities, it could be a relative to our Bigfoot, but due to the differences in the description, that theory has since become defunct amongst modern investigators.
Dr. David Oren, the former director of research at the Goeldi Institute, caught wind of the many sightings and led an expedition to South America to see what he could unearth, but according to his interview with The New York Times in 2007, he came back more skeptical than before. He stated, “It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguari is based on human contact with the last of the (giant) ground sloths. 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.”
The Giant Ground Sloths Dr. Oren was referencing are the Megatherium americanum. The Megatherium americanum were a race of Elephant sized, sloth-like mammals that grew up to 20 feet in length and were estimated to weigh over 4 tons. Like the Mapinguari, typically, the Megatherium were quadrupeds, but fossilized bipedal remnants of its tracks have been found suggesting that when needed, it could walk upright using its massive tail for added support.
The first fossils of the Megatherium Americanum were discovered in 1788 by Manuel Torres in Argentina. Soon, fossils of a close relative of the Megatherium, named the Eremotherium, were found further north in the more forest parts of South America. This large, sloth-like mammal preferred the South American Jungles as opposed to the grasslands the Megatherium preferred to inhabit.
But these creatures went extinct around 11,000 years ago. So is this really what people are seeing? Well, In 1997, anthropologist Glenn Shepard Jr. traveled to the Amazon Rainforest for himself He had the opportunity to interview the Machiguenga tribe, an indigenous people who live in the Amazon Basin jungle in southeastern Peru. When he asked if the Mapinguari could possibly be something more identifiable, like a South American spectacled bear (aptly named for the circles around its eyes that resemble glasses), One of the Tribesmen who had spent time studying in Peru bluntly stated, no. There’s no way. But, he went on to state that the Lima Natural History Museum has a mapinguari on display! When Shepard left the tribe, he paid a visit to the museum and followed the directions he was given to navigate to the exhibit the tribesman spoke of, and standing there on display, was a Diorama of the Eremotherium, that ancient giant land sloth that had supposedly went extinct over 11 millenniums ago.
Humans are intelligent enough. In our modern societies, long gone are the days of strict verbal accounts. We have science. We have tools. We have camcorders and the internet! Yet still, many of these tricks of modern living have failed to provide substantial evidence to validate these cryptids we love to learn about. Does that mean they aren’t real? No. Not at all. To claim something does or does not exist simply for lack of evidence is against science. Personal experience, after all, does stand for something. Sure, many cryptid sightings have possible explanations outside of our individual biases. And even so, that does not invalidate the pursuit to learn about these experiences and the nugget of truth they hold.
Even in these pocket tribes of Amazonian natives, we still see signs of people branching out to learn new knowledge and bring it back to share. The truth is out there, so they say. Sometimes that truth might be stuck in a pond that looks like a sea serpent. Sometimes the truth is that giant squids really did attack ships and those drunk pirates weren’t as crazy as everyone thought. Heck, there’s a chance that a giant land sloth from the Pleistocene era could still be walking around the amazon rainforest. Or maybe it’s just a verbal story captured through time from when our ancestors walked along side these colossal giants that have long been extinct. (Which is still pretty freaking cool!)
With all the destruction done to the Amazon rainforests in our time, scholars have a hard time believing we wouldn’t have unearthed some form of more modern, tangible evidence of the mapinguari if it really was out there. But convincing the locals that it doesn’t exist will be an uphill battle. Once you’ve encountered something like this, there’s no going back. It’s the timeless battle of skeptics and believers. One side argues that senses alone are not to be trusted… until it is their senses that perceive the supernatural and their world opens to a whole new realm of possibilities.
If you were to ask Geovaldo or any of the Karitiana tribe their thoughts on if they really believe in the mapinguari, they would, without doubt, shake their head yes, absolutely. They might even muster up the careless bravery needed to go show you its cave, show you where Geovaldo saw the monster that day, and show you the trail of desolated trees, shredded earth, and massive tracks leading off into the forest that Geovaldo’s father found in the very spot his son had that encounter the day he rushed home to tell him of his bewildering run-in with the Mapinguari.
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.