Hunting Dinosaurs in Central Africa

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In 1901, the Zoological Society of London, at the heart of the British Empire, displayed something that was unique even in the bustling imperial metropolis: a new species of animal called the okapi, sent by Sir Harry Johnston, governor of the new colony of Uganda in Central Africa. Onlookers thought it looked like a cross between a zebra and a giraffe, but British academics declared they had discovered the legendary “African unicorn.”

Text: "Photograph of the specimen of the Okapi (Okapia erchsoni) obtained by Sir Harry Johnston near the Semliki river in Central Africa. The specimen is a female not fully grown, and is of the size of a very large donkey."

Photograph of Okapi, from the book Extinct Animals

Of course, the okapi was new only to European eyes. To people from Central Africa, the okapi had been known for millennia. But to the British, it did not exist until Europeans could see it—or at least its corpse. Even then, African facts were far less appealing than European “discoveries.” If there had been a unicorn waiting to be discovered by explorer-scholars, what else might there be? King Solomon’s Mines? Maybe even a dinosaur?

The “African unicorn” was not the first extraordinary legend to have been transformed into fact by European colonizers. For centuries, European maps had depicted monsters, particularly to the south and west of the Nile, reflecting the medieval view of that region as the “outer rim” of a Christian world that centered on Jerusalem. In 1649, Portuguese Jesuit Juan Eusebio Nieremberg complained about African slaves in Mozambique being tempted by mermaids inhabiting the Zambezi River, which provided access to the inland Mutapa state.[efn_note]Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of Being Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 35; Jorge Flores, “Distant Wonders: The Strange and the Marvelous between Mughal India and Habsburg Iberia in the Early Seventeenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49 (July 2007): 557.[/efn_note]

But just as colonialism could turn legend into fact, it could also replace fact with legend. In 1871, a pair of Germans—big-game hunter Adam Render and self-educated Bible scholar Karl Mauch—announced they had discovered than the ruins of Ophir, the gold mining outpost of the Biblical King Solomon, deep in Central Africa. But these Germans were not the first Europeans to know of this city.[efn_note]Edward Guimont, “From King Solomon to Ian Smith: Rhodesian Alternate Histories of Zimbabwe,” Tufts Historical Review 10 (Aug. 2017): 27–38.[/efn_note]

1570 Dutch map of Africa showing Great Zimbabwe.

Detail of Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 map Africae tabula nova, with Great Zimbabwe labeled Simbaoe (courtesy Boston Public Library).

When Portuguese explorers first heard of the city in the early sixteenth century, they believed it had been built by Africans from the region, in part because it had only recently been abandoned by Africans from the region. This was not Solomon’s Ophir, but Great Zimbabwe, which had most recently been the capital of the Mutapa state and the largest pre-colonial settlement in Central Africa. Arab merchants, jockeying for control in the power vacuum left by the decline of the Mutapa state, introduced the idea that Great Zimbabwe was Ophir. By the end of the sixteenth century, a new wave of Portuguese explorers readily accepted the idea that this abandoned city had been built by Israelites, as it bolstered Christian claims to the area. Three centuries later, German explorers knew they had found Ophir because, by that point, Europeans were sure that any ruined city found in Central Africa must have been built by ancient Semitic-speaking peoples.

When Cecil Rhodes’s company conquered part of the area in 1890, Rhodes sponsored a series of excavations to find proof of Great Zimbabwe’s connection to Southwest Asia, hoping to undermine the claims of preexisting African states. The initial archaeologists on Rhodes’s payroll endorsed this belief, but they were followed in 1905 by David Randall-MacIver, who determined that Great Zimbabwe had been built by Africans around the fourteenth century CE. Every subsequent professional archaeological study of the site agreed, but to the general European public—and the white settler governments of Rhodesia and South Africa—Great Zimbabwe continued to be Solomon’s Ophir. Fact had been supplanted by legend, and that legend had now become unshakeable fact in the service of white colonial power and economic exploitation.[efn_note]Guimont, “From King Solomon to Ian Smith,” 27–38.[/efn_note]

Exterior of great enclosure, Great Zimbabwe

The great enclosure at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. This photograph was taken by David Randall-MacIver in 1906.

Discovery—whether of the okapi or the lost city of Ophir—was part of exerting colonial control, and it went hand in hand with destruction. The okapi sent back to London was not a living specimen, after all, and big-game hunting was both fact and legend in nineteenth-century colonialism. Frederick Selous, a British big-game hunter who commanded Rhodes’s occupation force, later served as the basis for H. Rider Haggard’s fictional Allan Quartermain, who discovered King Solomon’s mines in the eponymous 1885 novel based on the discovery of Great Zimbabwe. Quartermain, in turn, inspired the character of Charles Munro in Michael Crichton’s 1980 novel Congo. Munro was a Scottish-Indian colonist born in Kenya who had gone from hunter to mercenary, helping to lead an American expedition to the “Lost City of Zinj,” known to ancient Israelites and later conquered by ape-like beings based on the mythical East African agogwe.[efn_note]H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines (London: Cassell & Company, 1885), 7–10; H. Rider Haggard, “Notes on King Solomon’s Mines” (1906), transcribed in Lilias Rider Haggard, The Cloak That I Left: A Biography of the Author Henry Rider Haggard (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951), quoted in H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, ed. Gerald Monsman (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Literary Texts, 2002), 254; Michael Crichton, Congo (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), 56–58, 94–95, 246–47, 345–48; Michael F. Robinson, The Lost White Tribe: Explorers, Scientists, and the Theory that Changed a Continent (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 112–13; Jean-Loïc Le Quellec, The White Lady and Atlantis, Ophir and Great Zimbabwe: Investigation of an Archaeological Myth (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd., 2016), 102.[/efn_note]

By combining the search for a lost civilization in Central Africa with the discovery of unknown (to European) creatures that were the basis for indigenous myths, Crichton was channeling Victorian fiction–and reality. As with the okapi, there was an insidious logic at work in nineteenth-century European colonial exploration. The existence—or non-existence—of creatures in Africa could only be proven through European “discovery.” Indigenous knowledge could only demonstrate possibility, not actuality. In the twentieth century, though, colonial explorers and hunters obsessively sought a creature less like the apes of Congo and more like the larger, older creatures of Crichton’s most famous novel.

Sign for Hagenbeck's arena at

Hagenbeck’s Arena at the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, two German animal collectors, Carl Hagenbeck and Hans Schomburgk, claimed to have heard talk of “some kind of saurian” known to both Africans and European hunters in Southern and Northern Rhodesia. To at least some Africans, this was the legendary mokele-mbembe, but Hagenbeck was sure it was a brontosaurus.

To their European contemporaries, this did not seem unreasonable. They viewed this part of Africa as a “primitive” region inhabited by people who civilization, if not evolution itself, had left behind. Part of the European civilizing mission, therefore, was to “discover” and identify their legendary creatures for them. This view seemed to receive further validation in 1938 when a South African fisherman caught a fish identified by local academics as a coelacanth, a species believed to have gone extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. This was widely heralded as the discovery of a “living fossil” in Africa. Why couldn’t the continent harbor other living fossils–perhaps even dinosaurs?

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and coelacanth after its discovery

Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer and coelacanth after its discovery (via Wikimedia Commons)

German-American rocket developer and advocate Willy Ley helped spread the idea of living African dinosaurs to a broad metropolitan audience. In his 1948 book The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn, a work of “romantic zoology,” Ley described the sirrush, a dragon from Babylonian mythology. Ley had seen this creature on the Ishtar Gate, which had been excavated at Babylon by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey between 1902 and 1914 and then rebuilt in Ley’s native Berlin. The Gate, constructed in the sixth century BCE, also depicted the auroch, a now-extinct species of cattle from Europe.[efn_note]Willy Ley, The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn: An Excursion into Romantic Zoology (New York: Viking, 1948), ix–xi, 156–70.[/efn_note]

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

Ishtar Gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (photograph by Raimond Spekking, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).

Since the aurochs had been real and had lived in a land far-removed from Babylon, Ley argued the same must be true for the other creature on the Gate. Some versions of the Book of Daniel included an encounter with a dragon before the more infamous exploit in the lion’s den, and Ley believed this must also refer to a sirrush. His thinking was further bolstered by the belief that premodern people hadn’t known that species could change or go extinct, an assumption that has been challenged since the 1990s. Since the Babylonians couldn’t have drawn the sirrush from fossils, they must have drawn it from real life.[efn_note]Flores, “Distant Wonders,” 156–70; Adrienne Mayor, The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Adrienne Mayor, Fossil Legends of the First Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).[/efn_note]

Sirrush from the Ishtar Gate

Close-up of the sirrush (photograph by Jami430, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0).

It was clear to Ley that the sirrush, the Biblical dragon, the mokele-mbembe, and Hagenbeck’s brontosaurus were all the same creature. It all fit together for him: “The sirrush could have lived in Central Africa, where it has been proved that [Babylonians] went, and where they could have seen a giant lizard.” After all, according to Ley, Schomburgk claimed he had found glazed bricks in Central Africa almost identical to those excavated by Koldeway. Ley did not say who “proved” that these Biblical civilizations had a presence in Central Africa, or cite any evidence beyond the bricks, but he didn’t need to. The connection between the two regions had already become firmly entrenched in the public consciousness due to centuries of “Ophir” claims.[efn_note]Ley, The Lungfish, the Dodo, and the Unicorn, 428.[/efn_note]

Ley’s 1959 book Exotic Zoology also claimed that the sirrush and the mokele-mbembe were the same still-living dinosaur, but removed references to Ophir and Babylonian bricks. Instead, Ley quoted Koldeway’s 1918 claim that the “Iguanodon of the Cretaceous layers of Belgium is the closest relative of the Dragon of Babylon.” But he no longer relied on the theory that Babylonians had been in Central Africa. Instead, the colonial myth of the “dark continent” left behind by evolution was sufficient: “The next question is, naturally, whether a large reptile could have survived in Central Africa. The answer is that if any survived anywhere it would have to be in Central Africa.”[efn_note]Willy Ley, Exotic Zoology (New York: Viking Press, 1959), iv, 62–74.[/efn_note]

Even as Ley abandoned his beliefs about the colonization of Africa, others carried them forward. In 1958, the Belgian writer Bernard Heuvelmans published On the Track of Unknown Animals, crediting Ley and reiterating his earlier claims about the sirrush’s Babylonian connections.[efn_note]Bernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals, trans. Richard Garnett (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958), 22; Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 1–27, 479–84.[/efn_note] The fascination with living dinosaurs in Africa persisted through the 1960s and 1970s, mainly in deliberately-speculative works like the Tom Swift books and Tarzan comics; in real life, it was overshadowed by hunts for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.[efn_note]Victor Appleton II, Tom Swift and his Repelatron Skyway (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1963), 161–79.[/efn_note]

Then, in 1982, Heuvelmans and his protégé Roy Mackal founded the International Society of Cryptozoology (ISC). Until its bankruptcy in 1998, the ISC funded several searches for cryptids in Africa. The society’s symbol of its hunt to find the facts behind legends? The okapi.[efn_note]William J. Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin (Landisville, PA: Coachwhip Publications, 2010), 23.[/efn_note] The launch of the ISC in the early 1980s coincided with shifts in Central African politics that presented opportunities for neocolonial exploration. To Scottish cryptozoologist William Gibbons, Mackal’s acolyte and an ISC stalwart, this was a welcome change after what he viewed as several decades of “disorder” in Central Africa.

As a young man, Gibbons saw the 1925 silent film The Lost World, based on the 1912 novel by Arthur Conan Doyle.[efn_note]William J. Gibbons, Missionaries and Monsters (Landisville, PA: Coachwhip Publications, 2006), 9.[/efn_note] A fantastic novel that nevertheless reflected contemporary colonial adventuring, The Lost World follows an expedition led by Professor Challenger and big-game hunter Lord John Roxton to a plateau in the Amazon Jungle where dinosaurs still live.

A page scan of a book The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle image cropped, captions removed.

The Celestial Lake of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World (via Wikimedia Commons)

While the novel ends with the realization that the dinosaur plateau is a source of diamonds explicitly comparable to those controlled by Cecil Rhodes, the filmmakers took some creative liberties, ending the story with a Claymation dinosaur terrorizing London.[efn_note]Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), 307–9.[/efn_note] This film version of The Lost World has long shaped Euro-American views of atavistic monsters, including Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park.[efn_note]Crichton borrowed both the title and the character of Roxton for its sequel. Michael Crichton, The Lost World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), 18–19, 395.[/efn_note] And it inspired Gibbons, who became and advocate not only of the theory of living dinosaurs in Africa, but also of Young Earth Creationism, believing that the evidence of one supported the other.

Gibbons’s assessment of the mid-century lull in cryptid sightings and searches reflected his view of the massive political changes that reshaped Central Africa in the latter half of the twentieth century. In his 2006 memoir, he argued that reports declined during World War II, resuming only with the development of African nationalist movements fighting for independence and European attempts to retain their colonies through military force.[efn_note]Gibbons, Missionaries and Monsters, 55–56; Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe, 47.[/efn_note]

Central and Southern Africa, administrative divisions, 1957.

The political status of Central and Southern African nations, 1957 (via Library of Congress)

Gibbons’s list of sightings during this period reads like a catalogue of colonial independence movements: Canadian missionaries sighting a large snake-headed, four-legged reptile while driving through the Rift Valley of Kenya during the 1952–60 Mau Mau Rebellion against British rule; an English employee at European-owned Kitwe copper mine in Northern Rhodesia who in 1954 sighted a long-necked reptile during a fishing trip; a Belgian Air Force colonel’s 1959 sighting of a fifty-foot-long python while flying a mission in the Belgian Congo during the unrest leading to its independence the next year; and a colonial administrator’s 1960 encounter with a sixty-foot python in French Equatorial Africa.[efn_note]Gibbons, Missionaries and Monsters, 56–67, 70–72; Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe, 39.[/efn_note]

The success of many of these nationalist movements between 1957 and 1967 reshaped the pattern of sightings once more. According to Gibbons, after these countries achieved independence, “very little else had been heard of mokele-mbembe or any other mystery animal in West and Central Africa.” In his view, sightings declined because “[m]any newly independent African states were turning their backs on their former colonial masters to embrace extreme socialist policies.” [efn_note]Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe, 47.[/efn_note]

As Gibbons understood it, the search for dinosaurs had only been possible when Europeans controlled their African colonies, and could defend their colonists with overwhelming force. Then ill-advised independence movements had led to socialism, war, corruption, negative relations with former colonial powers, persecution of the European colonists and (implicitly European) Christian missionaries who remained, and a general breakdown of law and order in Central Africa–all things which made the search for mokele-mbembe difficult, if not impossible.

The only mokele-mbembe sightings Gibbons cited during and after independence movements came from European missionaries who refused to leave or wealthy European “big-game hunters and adventurers,” representatives of a vanishing colonial order that not only provided the conditions necessary to hunt for living dinosaurs but also the superior knowledge required to find the facts at the root of African legends. But as the balance of power shifted in the later decades of the Cold War, descendants of these European hunters, mercenaries, and missionaries helped facilitate a wave of neocolonialism, largely through the exercise of economic power. Just as explorers and big-game hunters had acted as colonial proxies a century earlier, the ISC began to engage in its own form of neo-colonialism in the 1980s, launching expeditions in Central Africa explicitly allied with local European missionaries, hunters, and sympathetic government officials.

In 1980-81, Mackal led two ISC expeditions to the Republic of the Congo in search for the mokele-mbembe. Writing about them in 1987, Mackal cited Ley’s writings on the sirrush and Hagenbeck’s sighting of a brontosaurus-like creature in the interior of Rhodesia, continuing the chain, as with the Ophir promoters, of relying on the increasingly-obsolete work of non-experts to promote the theories they refused to let go of, despite further evidence–or the absence of evidence. Mackal’s confidence in these connections supported, and in turn reinforced, his own argument that mokele-mbembe was also the Behemoth described in the Book of Job, which Young Earth Creationists see as a Biblical description of a dinosaur. Mackal himself only led two expeditions, but eighteen more expeditions of European and American cryptozoologists to Central Africa followed in the next several decades, including five led by Gibbons. Finally, he would get the chance to follow in the footsteps of Professor Challenger and John Roxton.[efn_note]Roy P. Mackal, A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987), 5–6, 11–12; Gibbons, Missionaries and Monsters, 9, 55, 89, 101; Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe, 7.[/efn_note]

Despite the connections drawn to earlier colonial theories and expeditions, these ISC trips were not simply the revival of earlier colonial powers and privileges. In his 2010 book Mokele-Mbembe: Mystery Beast of the Congo Basin, Gibbons explicitly thanked the governments of Cameroon (formerly French Equatorial Africa) and the Republic of the Congo for welcoming ISC expeditions. He recounted how Mackal’s 1980–1 expedition met with President Kolonga, head of the Epena District in the Republic of the Congo. Kolonga not only supported the expedition but also asked members of the public with knowledge of mokele-mbembe to come and give testimony. Mackal’s group also met with the head of security for Brazzaville, the capital, who told them about his seeing mokele-mbembes as a youth. During the 1985–86 expedition led by Gibbons, however, the ISC team was tied up for weeks navigating bureaucracy in Brazzaville before gaining government approval to search in the country’s swamps. When they returned to Epena, Kolonga was no longer interested in supporting their efforts, and they faced the limits of neocolonial power, at least when it came to dinosaur hunting.[efn_note]Gibbons, Mokele-Mbembe, 7, 52–54, 60–67.[/efn_note]

Central African politicians may have been willing to facilitate these fringe researchers’ searches for mokele-mbembe because of the belief that such a discovery, or even a sustained search, would bring economic benefits through tourism like that seen at big animal reserves in eastern and southern Africa. Their later turn against the ISC can be explained by the fact that such tourism never materialized outside of the selfsame cryptozoological fringe, one full of people ideologically-aligned with forces opposed to fully recognizing and supporting independent African states.

But the initial belief that fringe “science” could bring economic gains from the global north was not a misguided one, nor one without precedent. In 2017, The New Yorker columnist David Preston published The Lost City of the Monkey God, a book recounting his twenty-year involvement in the search for a “lost city” in Honduras. Despite there being no evidence the “legend” of the city had existed prior to it appearing in print in 1927, amalgamated from a collection of indigenous stories and conquistador dreams that had laid dormant for centuries, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández gave his full support to both the invented myth and Preston’s book in order to bring American tourists (and their money) to Honduras.[efn_note]Douglas Preston, The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017), 16–17; Christopher Begley, “The Lost White City of the Honduras: Discovered Again (and Again),” in Lost City, Found Pyramid: Understanding Alternative Archaeologies and Pseudoscientific Practices, ed. Jeb J. Card and David S. Anderson (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016), 35–45; Jason Colavito, “Honduran President Embraces “White City” Myth in Push for Tourist Cash,”, Jan. 9, 2016; Jason Colavito, “Review of Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston,”, Dec. 22, 2016.[/efn_note]

In fact, the popularization of legends about Great Zimbabwe had always involved links between pseudohistory and foreign money, and Cecil Rhodes himself had established the Ancient Ruins Company to facilitate the sale of artifacts to Europeans.The work of making legends into facts had long been part of the larger colonial project of making money off of colonized lands and people. In this neocolonial version, hopeful European and American dinosaur-hunters in Central Africa soon realized they would never achieve the same level of control over the facts, let alone the financial success, that their colonial predecessors had.

The persistent Euro-American belief in the existence of dinosaurs in Africa–often without evidence–always served a colonial purpose. These atavistic monsters symbolize the continent and its people in the minds of those in Europe and the United States who oppose full independence of African nations and equality for their citizens. But more recently, another reptilian creature inhabits the conspiratorial right’s menagerie, combining the revisionist history of Ley’s sirrush link to Central Africa, racist stereotypes, and the thinly-veiled colonialist concept of ancient aliens, to create a reptilian being capable of ruling Europe and the United States, if only covertly: Lizard People.

Promoted in the 1990s by David Icke, Lizard People are shapeshifting fascist aliens who, according to true believers, control the world via the Babylonian Brotherhood, a group for which the Illuminati is a front. Icke himself was inspired by the 1970s writings of Zecharia Sitchin, a shipping executive and self-taught archaeologist who deduced that the ancient Sumerian pantheon were actually reptilian aliens. Referring to Koldewey’s excavations, and making leaps of logic that match those of Ley, Sitchin argued that legendary gold-mining sites were actually distorted records of alien mining operations. Among these were the mines of King Solomon, which Sitchin believed were at Ophir in Rhodesia.[efn_note]Zecharia Sitchin, The 12th Planet (New York: Stein and Day, 1976), 28, 288–91; David Icke, The Biggest Secret (Ryde, Isle of Wight: David Icke Books, 1999), 4–7, 65–67, 87.[/efn_note]

This might seem like a pointless diversion were it not for the fact that Public Policy Polling found four percent of voters in the 2012 U.S. presidential election (approximately 5.1 million people) believed in the Lizard People—a small minority, but more than a mere fringe. In contrast, a mere 1.74%, or 2.3 million people, cast their votes for all combined third-party candidates in the same election. Since 2016, numerous electrons have given their lives in the service of articles highlighting the role of conspiracy culture in the global alt-right populist movement. In these circles, the Lizard People are part of much broader antisemitic conspiracies.[efn_note]Tom Jensen, “Democrats and Republicans differ on conspiracy theory beliefs,” Public Policy Polling, April 2, 2013; Constance Grady, “The Alice Walker anti-Semitism controversy, explained,” Vox, Dec. 20, 2018; Adrienne LaFrance, “The Normalization of Conspiracy Culture,” The Atlantic, July 17, 2017.[/efn_note]

The theory of the Lizard People is sustained by a long chain of connections stretching back centuries, beginning with the same associations between Great Zimbabwe, King Solomon, and Babylon that sustained twentieth-century theories of living dinosaurs. Icke drew from Sitchin, who drew from Ley’s writings on Koldeway—as did Huevelmans and Mackal. Gibbons was inspired by Mackal and The Lost World, which also inspired H. Rider Haggard and Michael Crichton over a century apart. Like the branches of a phylogenetic tree, the Lizard People, African dinosaurs, and Great Zimbabwe theories all split away from each other–but ultimately grew from the same trunk. Like colonialism itself, the living dinosaur legend has thus far been immune to extinction. Instead, both have evolved into newer forms, sustained by legends of Euro-American superiority and the power—economic, military, and ideological—to make those legends into fact.

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