The uncropped version of Dr François de Loys's photograph of the supposed South American ape Ameranthropoides loysi – one of the most controversial cryptozoological images of all time (public domain)
Welcome to my 600th post on ShukerNature! Befitting of such a momentous occasion, the subject documented by me in this post is of profound cryptozoological significance – revealing how one of the most infamous mystery beast frauds of all time was finally exposed. In Part 1 (click here) of this two-part ShukerNature article, I documented the 'official' history of a truly extraordinary mystery creature - a supposedly genuine, tailless, bipedal South American ape, reputedly encountered and killed in the Venezuelan jungle almost exactly a century ago by a team of geologists led by one Dr François de Loys, and subsequently dubbed Ameranthropoides loysi ('Loys's American ape') by a radical French zoologist called Prof. George Montandon who held very extreme, controversial views concerning human evolution. Now it's time to document this creature's true history, by presenting the crucial yet all-too-long-overlooked information that conclusively exposed the entire Ameranthropoides episode as a blatant, deliberate hoax.
The 'official' history of Ameranthropoides loysi began to unravel on 16 July 1962. This was when the Caracas, Venezuela, newspaper El Universal's historian Guillermo José Schael published in the paper a telegram lately received from the village of Casigua, in the Tarra River region of Venezuela, concerning a supposed giant spider that had allegedly strangled to death a ranch worker named Juancho. Not surprisingly, this dramatic news attracted considerable interest from readers, and elicited a letter from a hunter named Jerónimo Martínez-Mendoza, which was published on 17 July by El Universal.
In it, Martínez-Mendoza suggested that the report was mistaken, that it had probably been a giant spider monkey which had attacked and killed Juancho, and he drew comparisons in his letter with the Ameranthropoides incident. This letter was in turn read by Dr Enrique Tejera Guevara (1899-1980), a Venezuelan-born friend of de Loys in the field (as well as a decorated tropical physician and pathologist, ambassador, and minister in the Venezuelan government), who lost no time in replying via a letter of his own, but which contained a truly sensational disclosure.
Enrique Tejera Guevara (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)
Published in El Universal on 19 July 1962, Dr Tejera's letter revealed that back on 11 March 1929 (mistakenly given as 1919 in the newspaper-published version of his letter) he had attended a lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Paris, France, given by Montandon concerning Ameranthropoides, but that he had been very surprised to hear Montandon's claims about the creature being a very tall, bipedal, tailless South American ape. Consequently, at the end of the lecture Tejera had stood up, and, to a hushed audience, had brusquely dismissed Montandon's claims as nonsense.
Tejera informed them that he had actually been in the company of de Loys in 1917 when the famous encounter with the two apes and the shooting of one of them had supposedly taken place – but affirmed that no such encounter or shooting had in fact occurred. Instead, the creature in the photograph was nothing more than de Loys's own normal-sized pet marimonda spider monkey, which he had dubbed 'the monkey-man', and whose tail had been amputated after it had become infected. Moreover, after his pet spider monkey had later died, and again in the presence of Tejera, de Loys had decided, as a joke, to take a photo of its body propped upright and sitting on a crate.
And as the climax of his dramatic exposé, Tejera proclaimed that it was this joke picture that had subsequently become known as the now-infamous Ameranthropoides 'ape' photograph, thanks to Montandon, and which with Frankensteinian vigour had swiftly raged out of its creator's control - until in order to preserve his reputation as a serious scientist, a highly embarrassed de Loys, seeing no way of extricating himself from this most unwelcome situation without looking very foolish indeed, had thereby found himself unable to confess the truth.
But that was not all. Far from being in an area of wild, uncharted jungle in peril from attacks by Motilone Indians at the time when the photograph was taken as claimed by de Loys, he and his party were actually in an oil exploration camp very close to civilisation. Furthermore, there was vital, conclusive proof of this statement contained in the uncropped version of the Ameranthropoides photograph, yet which had been overlooked by everyone for decades, even after Tejera's earth-shattering announcement in front of a shocked and stunned Montandon back in 1929.
The proof was the presence in this picture of a banana crop on the opposite side of the river from where the dead spider monkey was propped up and photographed. Banana trees are of Asian and Australasian origin, they are not native to the New World, having been introduced there by humans, and they can only grow near civilisation, not in the wild jungle region of South America where de Loys had averred that the photograph had been snapped. So the presence of banana trees in that picture verified that it had been snapped in the former location, not in the latter one that de Loys had alleged. This in turn also negates a claim made by him that whilst supposedly in the remote jungle, no fewer than 17 of his men had died due to the inhospitable conditions and the hostile Motilone Indians (in reality, there is no independent confirmation of this). In addition, Tejera revealed that rather than de Loys having led a single 4-year expedition to the Tarra River region as so frequently claimed in subsequent accounts of the Ameranthropoides case, he had instead led several much shorter ones (Tejera even provided their respective specific dates), and rarely beyond the perimeter of civilisation, as demonstrated, for instance, by the presence of banana trees in the Ameranthropoides photo.
Having said that, the portion of the photograph showing these trees is sufficiently blurred for their conclusive identification to be somewhat tricky. Tejera was there when the photo was taken, so obviously he could clearly discern their true nature, but the evidence for them from the photo alone is less certain. Happily, however, there is one additional aspect of this image that vindicates his statement. In the lower right quadrant of the photo, alongside the monkey in the foreground, a leafy shoot is present that is identifiable as a chopped-down but now-regenerating banana tree (I have shown this to various friends who have kept banana trees, and they have all affirmed that this shoot is indeed one). I have arrowed it in the uncropped photo reproduced below.
De Loys's full, uncropped Ameranthropoides photograph with the banana tree shoot in the foreground arrowed (public domain)
In addition, an aspect that, very surprisingly, seems not to have been considered previously is that for a creature supposedly killed by a hail of bullets, it seems in the photograph to be remarkably free of bullet holes or wounds, especially as it was supposedly shot from the front, not from the back or side. This of course is readily explained by the fact that, thanks to Tejera, we now know that the creature wasn't an attacking ape that had been shot, it was merely a pet monkey that had died of natural causes.
Equally, as the photographed 'ape' specimen was merely a marimonda spider monkey after all, de Loys's allegation that its dentition was different from that of spider monkeys was clearly yet another falsehood. And no doubt his so-convenient explanation of why the skull had not been retained for formal scientific examination (he claimed that the camp cook had converted it into a salt container and that it had then fallen apart), which of course would have readily identified its true taxonomic nature and exposed his dentition claim as false, was also a blatant lie. Little wonder, then, why de Loys was not able to escape from the web of deceit that he had spun when carrying out his joke, and which had ultimately and inextricably enveloped him.
But that was still not everything. At least two years before penning to El Universal his devastating letter outing and condemning Montandon and the entire Ameranthropoides charade, Tejera had actually revealed all of this to fellow medical practitioner Dr Raymond Fiasson, who had documented it in his book Des Indiens et des Mouches: Dans les Llanos du Vénézuela (1960). Yet this too had escaped attention from cryptozoologists and zoologists alike. So also had a section included by American primatologist Prof. Earnest Hooton in his book Man's Poor Relations (1946) – a significant but hitherto-overlooked snippet until French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal had rediscovered it in 2007 (during that same year, Michel had also been instrumental in bringing Fiasson's documentation to public notice). Prof. Hooter had revealed that in late 1932, American geologist A. James Durlacher had written to him announcing that in 1927 he had spoken to various former members of de Loys's expeditions and had learnt from them that Ameranthropoides had indeed merely been a marimonda spider monkey. Even more frustrating, in 2001 Spanish researchers Bernardo Urbani, Dr Ángel L. Viloria, and Franco Urbani had presented much of this key information in a paper published by the Spanish journal Anartia, Publicaciones Ocasionales del Museo de Biologia de La Universidad del Zulia, in which they had concluded that the Ameranthropoides saga was certainly a hoax – but yet again, this revelation had somehow evaded widespread attention! (It is even possible that Tejera's dramatic intervention at the end of Montandon's lecture back in 1929 was subsequently documented in some French newspaper(s) and/or periodical(s), but if so these too failed to attract any public notice and still await rediscovery.)
The revelatory book by Bernardo Urbani and Dr Ángel L. Viloria – Ameranthropoides loysi Montandon 1929: The History of a Primatological Fraud (© Bernardo Urbani and Dr Ángel L. Viloria/Editorial LibrosEnRed – reproduced here on a strictly educational, non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
Happily, however, their skilful detective work uncovering this hoax was at last given its long-deserved international attention when, in 2008, Bernardo Urbani and Dr Viloria published all of their findings in book form – Ameranthropoides loysi Montandon 1929: The History of a Primatological Fraud. The book's text was presented in two separate languages, English and Spanish, and was fully referenced, thus constituting the most comprehensive, and now-definitive, study and exposé of the whole sorry Ameranthropoides saga.
One final point to consider here, which I haven't seen mentioned before but which has intrigued me for some time, is whether de Loys was at least partly inspired when setting up his hoax photo by a very distinctive illustration that was still famous back then, although much less so today.
In 1758, eminent English naturalist and wildlife painter George Edwards wrote and illustrated Gleanings of Natural History, an authoritative tome that would remain a major work on that subject for well over a century. One of its illustrations was a hand-coloured copper engraving by Edwards of a young orang utan, among the first pictures ever prepared of this great ape, in which the orang utan was portrayed sitting upright on a wooden bench holding a long tall wooden stick in one hand. If this illustration is compared with the iconic Ameranthropoides photo, a number of striking similarities can be seen, including the orientation and/or form of the feet, limbs, facial expression, and even the stick (albeit utilised for different purposes).
Comparison of the Ameranthropoides loysi photograph with the George Edwards illustration of an orang utan (public domain)
Consequently, as Gleanings of Natural History was still well known during the early 20th Century, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that de Loys had seen Edwards's orang utan illustration in it and had elected to reconstruct it using the dead spider monkey, but for practical purposes had transformed the stick into a supporting prop in his photo.
Ameranthropoides loysi RIP...? Although this specific case was a fraud from beginning to end, it should be noted that mystery animal researchers are well aware that large ape-like creatures, walking bipedally and lacking tails, have been frequently reported by natives and Western explorers alike from many parts of Central and South America, where they are referred to locally and variously by such names as the sisimite (in Belize), xipe (Nicaragua), shiru (Colombia), vasitri (Venezuela), didi (Guyana), tarma (Peru), mono rey (Bolivia), caipora and curupira (Brazil), and others too. Detailed documentation of such sightings lies outside the scope of this present article, but one extremely noteworthy, representative encounter occurred as recently as 1987, so is deserving of inclusion here.
That was when New York Botanical Gardens mycologist Gary Samuels was crouching down on the forest floor in Guyana, investigating fungi. Looking up, he was very startled to see a 5-ft-tall hairy ape-man, walking by at close range on its hind legs but seemingly unaware of him as he stayed kneeling, concealed on the ground. This remarkable entity, which uttered an occasional "hoo" cry as it passed by him, was presumably a didi.
O Curupira, by Brazilian painter Manoel Santiago, produced in 1926 and depicting the mythical(?) red-haired man-beast of Brazil known as the curupira (Wikipedia CC BY 4.0 licence)
Explorer Simon Chapman's book, The Monster of the Madidi: Searching For the Giant Ape of the Bolivian Jungle (2001), documented his search in Bolivia's Madidi region for the mono rey. Although he failed to find it, his book does contain a couple of tantalising snippets that were new to me. One was his claim that until recently, a local Bolivian actually owned a pelt from a mono rey, which was then purchased by "a gringo" (European) who took it home and sent it (or samples from it) off for DNA analysis, but the results (if any) were never revealed. No details were given in his book as to who the "gringo" was, where he came from, or where he sent the pelt/samples. The other snippet, which Chapman had apparently attempted unsuccessfully to substantiate, was that a living mono rey had allegedly once been exhibited at Bolivia's Santa Cruz Zoo! (This zoo is known in full as the Santa Cruz de la Sierra Municipal Zoo to distinguish it from others.)
Also worthy of note here is the existence of centuries-old carvings and statues depicting large, tailless, ape-like beasts, found among the crumbling relics from long-gone civilisations in various South American (and also Mexican) localities. Just coincidence – or representations of genuine creatures? There is even an unequivocally ape-like mask preserved at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, which had been carved in stone by Costa Rica's Guetar Indians and dates from 1200 to 1500 AD.
At one time, a major zoological stumbling block to accepting the possibility that any such entities actually do exist today in Latin America was the absence of fossil precedents. That all changed in 1995, however, with the publication of a paper by American anthropologist Dr Walter Hartwig in the Journal of Human Evolution, which documented the remains of a very sizeable Pleistocene monkey discovered in the Lagoa Santa cave system of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. In fact, this large-bodied species had originally been described as long ago as 1838, by Danish naturalist Peter Wilhelm Lund, who had named the extinct species Protopithecus brasiliensis. However, later publications concerning it had not examined the original fossils and had underestimated this species' actual size. In his paper, however, Hartwig rectified that error, and estimated that P. brasiliensis may well have been more than twice as massive as any living New World monkey.
Just a year later, on 23 May 1996, Hartwig published a second Protopithecus paper, this time in Nature and co-authored with Brazilian palaeontologist Dr Castor Cartelle. In it, they described a near-complete skeleton, which had been found in 1992 within Pleistocene cave deposits in Brazil's 60-mile-long Toca da Boa Vista, the longest cave in the Southern Hemisphere, located in the Brazilian state of Bahia. Intriguingly, this skeleton combined a howler monkey-like vocal sac with a spider monkey-like cranium, and sported a robust body with limbs adapted for brachiation (arm-swinging locomotion), similar to both spider monkeys and woolly monkeys (and also Old World gibbons).
The giant species represented by it, which would have weighed around 50 lb, is now housed within the spider monkey subfamily, Atelinae. Moreover, after detailed studies it was considered sufficiently distinct from the earlier Protopithecus material to warrant its reclassification as a new species (and genus) in its own right, which in 2013 was formally christened Cartelles coimbrafilhoi in a Journal of Human Evolution paper written by Drs Lauren B. Halenar and Alfred L. Rosenberger.
Also found in that same cave and at the same time was a near-complete skeleton of another, hitherto-unknown, species of giant Pleistocene ateline monkey. In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA paper published on 25 June 1996, this new species was duly christened Caipora bambuiorum (after the caipora, a small, peccary-riding humanoid entity in Brazilian Tupi-Guarani mythology), and would have weighed around 45 lb in life. And in 2000, after co-leading a palaeontological expedition to Toca de Boa Vista, Hartwig announced that thousands of fossils, mostly from extinct mammals, had been unearthed there – including the skull of a 55-lb giant spider monkey, over twice the size of any species alive today.
Artistic representation of a caipora riding a peccary (© Jakared/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
So perhaps it is premature after all to dismiss entirely the prospect that the Neotropical (platyrrhine) primate lineage may indeed have evolved a larger, ape-like representative via convergent evolution, one that occupies some of the ecological niches filled in the Old World by the apes, and which still awaits formal zoological discovery and recognition.
A very exciting possibility if true, that's for sure!
Further information concerning the history of Ameranthropoides loysi (including evidence supporting the intriguing prospect that some additional photographs taken by de Loys of his spider monkey in Ameranthropoides pose may also exist) can be found in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited. It also features on its front cover a colourised version of de Loys's notorious yet never-to-be-forgotten South American 'ape' photograph – truly a cryptozoological icon, albeit for all the wrong reasons.