Like many people interested in cryptozoology (the study of animals – or alleged animals – known only from anectodal evidence), I’m of the opinion that the Australian Yowie is one of the most problematic of mystery beasts. It is, in fact, so ridiculous and inconvenient that it’s difficult to take seriously. As if sasquatch, yeti and orang pendek aren’t difficult enough*, what are we to make of antipodean reports of a hairy, bipedal, ape-like creature? Back in 2006 (oh my god, four years ago already), Tony Healy and Paul Cropper collated everything known about the Yowie for their book The Yowie: In Search of Australia’s Bigfoot (Strange Nation, Sydney, 2006).
The Yowie may, or may not, have anything to do with North America’s Bigfoot but, as the authors admit (p. 161), they had to use the word ‘bigfoot’ in the title ‘in order to make the subject of the book more easily recognisable to non-Australian readers’.
* I don’t reject the possible existence of these creatures out of hand.
While it’s all very well saying that any and all reports of an ape-like creature in the Australian bush are nonsense and that the phenomenon can hence be rejected without question, the problem is that at least some Yowie accounts really do sound extremely intriguing at the very least. Maybe all the reports represent misidentifications, hoaxes and the manifestations of cultural stereotypes or something, but even if this is so, there’s still an interesting phenomenon here that’s worthy of investigation. Those of us predominantly interested in zoology sometimes forget that cryptozoological reports might tell us more about folklore, psychology, witness perception and/or cultural transmission than anything else (see Meurger 1995, Meurger & Gagnon 1988). As a result I still think that investigation of subjects like the Yowie is worthwhile, and within the remit of science. Please remember this as you read the following: I’m nowhere near happy with the idea that the Yowie might be real, but – whatever the phenomenon represents – it’s interesting.
The three ages of Yowie
Anyway… I really enjoyed reading Healy and Cropper’s book, even though some of the material was, necessarily, repeated from their 1994 book Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia (Healy & Cropper 1994). They discuss everything that’s known about the Yowie, include virtually all relevant illustrations, and include a catalogue of the 300+ Yowie accounts of which they’re aware. An early chapter reviews Aboriginal references to the giant, hairy, man-like creatures known variously as Dulugar, Yahoo, Devil-Devil, or Jimbra. I was interested to discover that a Yowie was reportedly seen by the three girls who star in the book and movie Rabbit Proof Fence during their 1931 escape from the Moore River Native Settlement [adjacent illustration of a 'wood devil' attack represents an event that supposedly happened near the Einasleigh River, Queensland, during the 1880s].
Colonial awareness of hairy, bipedal, primate-like creatures in the Australian bush goes back to the 1820s at least, and various ‘Australian gorilla’ accounts were reported during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We’ll call this the ‘historical phase’. For the most part, these early accounts sound much like modern ones (Healy & Cropper 2006).
Yowie reports went quiet for much of the 20th century (we’ll call this the ‘quiet phase’), though we do know that people in rural areas were still aware of the creature, and apparently encountering it (as demonstrated by recently discovered and long-overlooked accounts from the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s). Healy & Cropper (2006) suggest that there might be a few reasons for this ‘quiet phase’. The Australian population became highly urbanised during this time, naturalists became less active, rural news became ignored or was deemed irrelevant by city-based newspapers, and Aborigines went through one of their most difficult periods ever and lost much of their cultural heritage.
During the 1970s, the Yowie became better known to white Australians. This was almost entirely due to the newspaper and magazine articles written by Rex Gilroy. As the authors state, Gilroy is a problematic character (search Tet Zoo for previous comments), and his contributions haven’t exactly made mystery animal research in Australia all that reputable. Nevertheless, it would be wrong not to credit his contribution, and he’s essentially responsible for getting the ‘modern phase’ up and running. Other Yowie researchers emerged soon after, and in the following decades, including Graham Joyner, Malcolm Smith, Healy and Cropper themselves, Dean Harrison, Gary Opit and Tim the Yowie Man (yes, really). You may have heard that Tim successfully fought against Cadbury’s (the confectionary company) after they tried to get him to stop using his unique moniker (at the time, Cadbury’s were marketing chocolate products called yowies: they’re hollow chocolate figures containing toy animals. I collected these toys, but was only able to do so up to series 2, as shops stopped selling them after that!) [adjacent sketch produced by Katrina Tucker following a sighting made in Acacia Hill, NT, in August 1997].
Healy and Cropper’s discussion of ‘modern phase’ eyewitness reports makes entertaining and fascinating reading. Among the most interesting accounts (for me) were Neil and Sandy Frost’s from the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney. The Frost’s accounts involve a prolonged history of sightings (many made at close range), the discovery of tracks and other field signs (namely, ‘bites’ taken out of tree bark), perceived interactions (viz, where something banged on the side of the house), and even attempts to capture the animals on film (they only succeeded in getting two photos of a humanoid face, obscured by darkness, peering in the camera’s direction). It’s fairly typical for writers to regard anecdotes as particularly impressive when the witnesses are of the ‘reliable’ sort (that is, they come from a trained background of some kind, and are somehow more trustworthy than ‘average’ witnesses). It’s been argued that such perceived reliability doesn’t count for much, and that hoaxing and misinterpretation can come from a ‘reliable’ witness as much as a ‘less reliable’ one. I know all of this, but I can’t help but be impressed by the Frost’s sincerity and credentials. In similar vein, Percy Window’s daylight encounter of 1978 seems impressive. Window was a ranger for the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, and claimed to have a prolonged, face-to-face sighting of a black, gorilla-like Yowie at a range of about 4 m.
Many other fascinating encounters are discussed in the book. Yowies have been reported by some witnesses to be unbelievably aggressive, and to pursue people with what was interpreted as predatory intent. Yowies have sometimes been reported to peer into windows, hang around the outsides of houses, and to approach cars on remote roads – all motifs that sound familiar if you’ve read the sasquatch literature. In further parallels with sasquatch, extremely bad, lingering smells have also been associated with Yowie sightings, and Yowies also seem to be good swimmers and waders.
Hoaxing has definitely played a role in the Yowie phenomenon: in fact, the earliest account on record (a 1790 handbill depicting a ‘Monstrous Giant’) was a hoax, and additional definite hoaxes have been exposed or revealed over the years. However, while I feel gullible saying it, the sincerity of many of the eyewitnesses, and the quality of their accounts, makes me think that many people have indeed experienced something.
Healy and Cropper are totally open about the fact that the ‘evidence’ for the Yowie is poor to non-existent. Obviously there are no bones, but there are also no recorded vocalisations (though people do claim to have heard loud, primate-like calls in Australia), nor are there any photos or pieces of film that are even half-decent (there are photos and pieces of film – I saw Tim the Yowie Man’s film at a meeting last year – but they’re ambiguous and of poor quality). Tracks are rare, and those that are on record don’t add much credence to the dossier (read on). One of the problems I’ve always had with the Yowie is the impression that eyewitness accounts are often vague, at best being fleeting descriptions of Chewbacca-like bipeds (some accounts describe the creatures as gorilla-like or bigfoot-like, but Chewbacca has – I kid you not – been used as a frame of reference on a few occasions) [Melba Cullen's illustration shown here; the sighting was claimed made in 1930, but this drawing was produced in 2001]. This contrasts greatly with descriptions of such mystery primates as sasquatch and the orang pendek which are sometimes highly detailed and include realistic-sounding observations on such things as facial morphology. However, my impressions aren’t entirely accurate. A number of observations – made by people who claimed to encounter Yowies at very close range (less than 4 m) – do include detailed information on such things as foot structure and the look of the head. The descriptions that are provided are weird [look at the foot drawings below, by Richard Easton. Easton got particularly good views of the feet, as he was lying on his belly at the time of the encounter].
Alleged Yowie field sign has been reported, but is very rare. Droppings have been attributed to the Yowie by some observers. Paul Compton reported the discovery of a 45 cm-long scat (20 cm in circumference) that apparently couldn’t be attributed to a human or other known animal (Healy & Cropper 2006, p. 152). Alleged ‘nests’ have also been reported: one is of particular interest because it was discovered by Major Les Hiddens (you may know him better as the ‘Bush Tucker Man’ of TV fame) while he was leading a team of scientists to a remote region near Queensland’s Russell River. The structure – a rectangular mat about a metre long and metre wide – was apparently made from plant fronds that had been chewed off from the source plant; reportedly, archaeologist John Campbell stated that ‘If I were anywhere but here in Australia, I would have to say this was a primate nest’ (Healy & Cropper 2006, p. 154) [ok, I'm not sure that an archaeologist can necessarily express a useful opinion on what might be zoological field evidence, but still].
As just mentioned, alleged Yowie tracks are rare: perhaps this could be explained away by Australian terrain and sedimentology. However, those tracks that have been reported are annoyingly variable. Some are five-toed and don’t look all that different from typical sasquatch tracks [adjacent track photographed at Barrington Tops, NSW, in 1996... looks dodgy], but others are four-toed or even narrow, three-toed, and look nothing like primate tracks at all. It’s worth noting at this point that at least some North American tracks attributed to mystery primates are also four- or three-toed: nobody really knows what these tracks ‘mean’, but it’s most convenient to ignore them and write them off as hoaxes. A couple of alleged yowie tracks were reportedly ape-like in terms of digital configuration, but with an unusual broad, squared-off heel. At least one track cast (the Springbrook cast) was analysed for dermal ridges by Jeff Meldrum (a technically qualified primatologist with a well known interest in sasquatch). No dermal ridges were found; however, the owner admitted that he’d let an estimated 10,000 people handle it (he used it as a promotional tool for his restaurant!), so this isn’t surprising. Loud, primate-like calls have been attributed to Yowies, as mentioned earlier.
If real, what the hell is it?
Good evidence that the Yowie is real is, in conclusion, pretty much absent, and Healy and Cropper don’t pretend otherwise. Because Australia’s biogeographic history is well known, the hypothesis that the Yowie might be what it looks like – an undiscovered hominid or hominoid – seems absurd. Remember, however, that Australia’s mammal fauna is not dominated by marsupials. There are lots of native placentals on the continent too. Indeed, the possibility that hominids of some sort got to Australia independently of Homo sapiens is not entirely unreasonable (H. erectus may have had a sea-faring tradition). However, Yowies (as – mostly – described by witnesses) are not advanced humans that could once have built boats: they’re long-haired, gorilla-like animals with arms that reach their knees [Richard Easton's sketches of a Yowie's feet shown here].
The idea that Yowies might be feral humans mostly fails for the same reason. The suggestion that the Yowie legend might have started when Aborigines encountered ‘dishevelled white castaways or runaway convicts’ has been made on quite a few occasions; it might seem conceivable that Yowie lore was initiated or inspired by encounters with ‘wild’ humans, but note again that this doesn’t match eyewitness reports of giant, gorilla-like animals. Having said that, there are a minority of accounts that do describe man-like creatures. Healy & Cropper (2006) discuss Gary Jones’s 1989 encounter from Glenmore Park in Sydney. Jones described a hair-covered creature that was, apparently, exactly like a tall, muscular, but normally proportioned, human.
The hypothesis that the Yowie might actually have been a diprotodontid, similar to or congeneric with Hulitherium from New Guinea (Greenwell 1994), now extinct, has always struck me as a non-starter: eyewitnesses have never described Yowies that sound at all diprotodontid-like [diprotodontid Zygomaturus shown here; Hulitherium would have been similar. Picture by Nobu Tamura, from wikipedia].
So, having read the book, I remain perplexed. The most sensible conclusion is that the Yowie represents a combination of hoaxing, hallucination and witness misinterpretation, combined with the global folklore motif of the wild hairy-man. ‘Wild man’/mystery hominid sightings and legends don’t just come from Asia and North America; believe it or don’t, there are also accounts, legends and even recent sightings of such creatures from Hawaii, New Zealand, the UK and Spain. While there’s nowhere near enough Yowie evidence to make any hard-nosed sceptic properly pause for thought, some of the eyewitness accounts do, I feel, suggest that people have had encounters with peculiar creatures of some kind. Even if this is a naïve conclusion, we still have a fascinating cultural phenomenon here, and a larger question emerges: why do people claim to see wild, hairy, man-like creatures in the Australian bush?
As a thorough and entertaining review of a very weird mystery animal phenomenon, Healy and Cropper’s book succeeds and fulfils expectations.
Most of the images used in this article were taken from yowiefile.com, a sort of online supplement to the volume. Thanks to Paul Cropper for his help.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on cryptozoology see…
- That cryptozoology conference: mystery lizards, sea monsters and whale penises, 40 years of the Patterson footage
- Monster hunting? Well, no. No.
- More on the mainstreamification of cryptozoology: former cryptids and hypothetical cryptids
- Really: photos of the Loch Ness monster
- The sad death of the Lake Khaiyr monster
- Best lake monster image ever: the Mansi photo
- A ‘lake monster’ caught on film at Lake Champlain
- The Loch Ness monster seen on land
- Won’t someone please think of the coelacanths, and other lamentations
Refs – –
Greenwell, J. R. 1994. The whatsit of Oz. BBC Wildlife 12 (2), 53.
Healy, T. & Cropper, P. 1994. Out of the Shadows: Mystery Animals of Australia. Ironbark, Chippendale, Australia.
– . & Cropper, P. 2006. The Yowie: In Search of Australia’s Bigfoot. Strange Nation, Sydney.
Meurger, M. 1995. Of skrimsls and men, Icelandic water being from folklore to speculative zoology. Fortean Studies 2, 166-176.
– . & Gagnon, C. 1988. Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Fortean Times, London.