Sunday, July 8, 2007

Monster Tales

Today's NYTimes has an interesting article on a South American monster that scientists are beginning to wonder if it did in fact exist. Reading through it I found this interesting quote:

“It is quite clear to me that the legend of the mapinguary is based on human contact with the last of the ground sloths,” thousands of years ago, said David Oren, a former director of research at the Goeldi Institute in BelĂ©m, 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 yet.”
While reading it, I was struck by the parallels with the Loch Ness Monster, which many people also believe they've seen (dating back in written record to St. Columba's siting in the 6th century). Yet no one really posits that this was ever an extinct species that lives on in memory. Why not?!

Does this have something to do with a different way we treat civilizations that are further developed? Those who visit and report back about Loch Ness tend to be educated, relatively wealthy tourists with the ability to document such sightings. While the reports from the Amazon come from tribe members who describe it in terms of hunting; in other words, this monster is completely integrated into their personal lives.

The article continues by including other fanciful monsters that come from Amazonian myth (though not explicitly stated as such in the article), like the
"boto, for example, is a type of dolphin that is said to be able to transform itself into human form, wearing a white hat to cover its air spout, and seducing and impregnating impressionable young virgins."
This further highlights the distinction between our Loch Ness Monster and their mapinguary; we are more sophisticated and so our monster is a result of mirages created by physical phenomenon (i.e. the popular random gases in Loch Ness theory). Notice how the article has progressed: the Amazonians have myths which they keep alive about fabulous creatures, they go hunting (in a world that is still unfamiliar and untamed -- unlike Loch Ness which I've tour-boated on.) and they return with stories about fanciful monsters that used to exist and have been unconsciously handed down for hundreds of years. While there may be some truth that the mapinquary is in fact a great sloth (and the conclusion seems to suggest this), the article's unconscious perpetuation of stereotypes about the "uncivilized" world is a bit disturbing.

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