Beyond Bigfoot

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Mysterious Ape-men Around the World

Other primates, from tiny monkeys to larger chimpanzees and gorillas, fascinate us, maybe because we see in them so much of ourselves. Primates are intelligent and often take care of one another, especially their young. But they can also be violent, attacking outsiders and even turning on friends and family. So perhaps it's not too surprising that many people around the world tell stories of creatures that appear to be half-human and half-ape. These mythic primates, like bigfoot, yeti, or even King Kong, are sometimes gentle, sometimes ferocious. Not quite human, not quite beast, these creatures hint at our other side.

Ape-Men Sightings

Around the world, people tell of mysterious beasts that are part-human, part-ape: typically large, hairy creatures that walk on two legs but always seem to stay just out of sight.

Name Location(s) Fun Facts
Almas Mountains of central Asia and the Altay Mountains and Tian Shan ranges in particular "In the Tian Shan mountains themselves live a wild people, who have nothing in common with other human beings, a pelt covers the entire body of these creatures... They run around in the hills like animals and eat foliage and grass and whatever else they can find."
--German traveler Johann Schiltberger, c. 1400
Bigfoot (sasquatch) Across North America, though the majority of reports come from the dense forests of the northwestern United States and Canada The majority of bigfoot sightings occur in the northwestern United States and Canada, but reports of the creature have come from across North America.
Some Floridians report that terrible-smelling "skunk apes" inhabit the Everglades National Park.
Chemosit East-central Kenyan forests Some witnesses say that the chemosit looks like a hyena or a bear and call it a Nandi bear after a Kenyan tribe that lives in its reported range. The Nandi people, however, consider the creature to be an enormous, ferocious primate that enjoys eating the brains of its victims.
Hibagon Japanese mountain ranges and the Hibayama mountains in Hiroshima in particular According to Japanese legends, the hibagon stands only five feet tall, shorter than most other bigfoot-like creatures. But its footprints are enormous--two or three times the size of a human's.
Mapinguari Central Brazil In 1937, a mapinguari reportedly went on a three- week rampage in central Brazil. Witnesses report that over 100 cows were found slaughtered, each with its massive tongue ripped from its body.
Orang Pendek The Kerinci-Seblat National Park in central Sumatra, Indonesia Orang pendek means "short person" in Indonesian, an appropriate name considering its supposedly short stature and humanlike face. Local folklore holds that the elusive creatures walk with backward-pointing feet to confuse anyone trying to track them.
Wild Man of Borneo Borneo Reports of "The Wild Men of Borneo" probably referred to large, hairy primates called orangutans. In Indonesian, orang hutan means "man of the forest."
Yeren Remote forests and mountains of Hubei Province, China According to Chinese legend, when the yeren encounters a human, it grabs him or her tightly by the arms and faints, overwhelmed with joy. Still holding on, it awakes and eats its victim.
Yeti The Himalayas Westerners often call the yeti "The Abominable Snowman" of Tibet.
Yowie Australia, particularly in the eastern part of the continent/south and central coastal regions of New South Wales, and Queensland's Gold Coast. Over 3,000 distinct yowie sightings have been reported in the Blue Mountain area west of Sydney in the past few decades.

Son of an Almas

According to a Mongolian legend, a man traveling through the mountains had a peculiar encounter with a female almas. Eventually, the pair had a son. The boy proved so intelligent that he was accepted to study at a prestigious monastery where he went on to become a noted scholar.

Gigantopithecus model
© D. Finnin/AMNH


Enormous apes aren't only creatures of myth: The massive creature you see reconstructed here is an extinct primate called Gigantopithecus blacki. A very distant relative of humans, this animal lived in southeast Asia for almost a million years, until about 300,000 years ago. And it is possible that small groups of these apes survived even longer. If so, early humans in the area could have encountered the creatures. More recently, people in China have collected the fossilized teeth and jaws of Gigantopithecus for their alleged healing powers. Anyone who discovered such a large jaw could have easily imagined that it came from an ape so colossal that it would dwarf a human.

What Is It?

This enormous ape is called Gigantopithecus blacki. We don't know if humans ever saw one alive—the creature probably went extinct about 300,000 years ago. But fossilized jaws and teeth from this primate may have inspired stories of large humanlike creatures in parts of Asia.

Adult male gorilla, 1866
© Mary Evans/Photo Researchers

The Power of Imagination

The human imagination shapes mythic creatures and can color our view of biological ones. When Western explorers in Africa first encountered gorillas, they were terrified, describing these typically reclusive animals as aggressive and violent. In 1847, Thomas S. Savage, an American missionary in Gabon, Africa, wrote:

"When the male gorilla is first seen he gives a terrific yell, that resonates far and wide through the forest. His under lip hangs over the chin, and his hairy ridge and scalp are contracted upon the brow, presenting an aspect of indescribable ferocity. He then approaches the hunter in great fury, pouring out his horrid cries in quick succession. The hunter waits until the animal grasps the barrel of his gun, and as he carries it to his mouth, he fires. Should the gun fail to go off, the barrel is crushed between the teeth, and the encounter soon proves fatal to the hunter."

Ape Assembly

A jawbone on display in the exhibition is from the extinct ape Gigantopithecus blacki. Few other fossils have ever been found. Nonetheless, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History have managed to learn a considerable amount from fragmentary evidence.

Experts turned to gorillas, the largest living apes, as models and observed a strong relationship between jaw and limb size for these massive, mostly ground-dwelling apes. Then, by applying that gorilla model to this Gigantopithecus jaw, they determined the approximate size of the creature reconstructed in front of you. By their estimate, this individual weighed over 350 kilograms (almost 800 pounds).