Saturday 10 March 2012

The Creatures of the Caucasus. 1. Background

    In the Caucasus Mountains, which separate Europe from the Middle East, live manlike creatures of which the outside world knows nothing.
    Throughout the “taiga”, or boreal conifer forests which stretch from Scandinavia to the Bering Sea and beyond, come reports of animals not unlike the famous North American bigfoot. However, the creatures of the Caucasus appear to be a little smaller, a little more manlike, and a little more social.
    As the following translation reveals, Russians first became aware of them after hearing news of the Himalayan “abominable snowmen”, and researchers over there still refer to their subjects as “snowmen”. In this field, the leading lights were Boris Porshnev (a brilliant polymath, according to a Russian mammalogist I spoke to), and Marie-Jeanne Koffmann (b 1919), a French-born Soviet citizen, surgeon, soldier, and mountaineer. The interview she gave in 1988 provides some background on her life – though not the six years she spent in prison, a victim of Stalin's last purge. 
   Porshnev died in 1972, but Koffmann continued to make personal expeditions to the Caucasus, and in 1991 she wrote a 19-page article in the French journal, Archéologia, a translation of which follows. The Caucasus is a refuge, not only for wildlife from many different zones, but also of ethnic groups and languages, and each language has a different word for the animals. Koffmann settled on the Kabardian term, almasty. This is perhaps unfortunate, since it invites confusion with the almas of Mongolia – which may well be a similar animal, but it is certainly a completely unrelated word. (Note that, in Mongolian, almas is singular; it is not the plural of alma.) She also refers to them as “hominoids”, which simple means “manlike”.
    Because of the length of the original article, this translation is divided into four parts: the background, two posts on eye witness testimonies, and the final one on analysis. They are posted in such a way that they can be read in the correct order. At the end of each part, you can go to the next by clicking on the link at the bottom of the post – or by going to the archives.
    My thanks to Michel Raynal for providing me with photocopies of the original article.
    P.S. I note that on 22 July 2019 she turned 100 years old. She now lives in Paris.

The Almasty, Yeti of the Caucasus
Marie-Jeanne Koffmann

Archéologia no. 269, June 1991, pp 24-43

    Prehistorians build their science starting from discoveries of which the most notorious concern a practically complete skeleton or a body fragment. For once, in the following years, are they going to observe a hominid, a fossil survivor from prehistory? The almasty, or wild man of the Caucasus, would be the object of this prodigious observation. Different from the yeti of the Himalayas, which is only a Gigantopithecus, the almasty of the Caucasus already possesses certain characteristics of Neanderthal man. Formerly rather familiar to the inhabitants of the region, who retain numerous memories of their encounters with the wild men, it is unfortunately on the road to disappearance. The Russian archeologists who are actively trying to observe it have not yet succeeded in approaching it. This exceptional perspective will hold the breath of the specialists in evolution in the course of the following years and perhaps one day will achieve their expectation.
    The enquiry undertaken over several years among the numerous populations of the Caucasus has permitted one to draw up a dossier of the more than 500 declarations by witnesses, affirming they have personally observed, often over long periods of time, bipedal, hairy, hominoid creatures, lacking any language, and designated in the local languages as “forest men” or “wild men”.
    The analysis of the descriptions of the “wild men” reveal extremely precise anatomic, ecological and ethnological criteria. This evidence, along with certain observations collected in the field, permits one to suppose that these hominoid creatures really exist.
    The publication in 1956 in the Soviet press of the Anglo-American researches in the Himalayas concerning hairy, bipedal creatures called “Yetis”, immediately provoked an abundant mail, addressed by the mountainous provinces of the USSR, to the scientific authorities, and to the editors of the major newspapers. Schoolmasters, doctors, shepherds, servicemen, were amazed at the interest shown by foreign expeditions, as well as the USSR itself, in manlike creatures similar to those they knew well, which left Soviet science indifferent.
    Such writings did not move the scientists at all. As luck had it, however, Professor B. Porshnev gave it attention. World famous historian, philosopher, and humanist (doctor honoris causa, among others, of the Montpellier University) Porshnev was seized by the simplicity of the accounts, the realism of the descriptions, and with all the concordances, despite the diversity of sources.
    The energy and authority of Professor Porshnev was able to overcome the resistance, indeed indignation, of the academic body. Brought to the consideration of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the debate lead to the creation, close to the Presidium in January 1958, of a Commission of study on the problem of “the snowman”, and the organisation of a research expedition to the Pamir, entrusted to the Botanical Institute of the Academy, which possessed its own scientific base there, and whose collaborators claimed to be informed of the existence of strange manlike beings. The USSR was thus the only country to attempt a serious exploration of this unsolved problem.
    The Commission displayed an intense activity: bibliographic researches which must have brought to the light of day numerous descriptions of these creatures by naturalists and explorers of every era and place; having alerted the Chinese authorities about them, they received communications of a lot of information about their western territories, such that a joint Sino-Soviet expedition was projected for 1959; collaboration with the Academy of Sciences of Mongolia, of which two eminent members had been applied to the problem in the 1920s, as well as with the Western zoologists who had revealed the existence of the yetis or directed the Himalayan expeditions (Doctors B. Heuvelmans and G. Russell in France, I. Sanderson in the USA); an annual edition of booklets presenting, without commentaries, nor retouched, the information such as arrived from different parts of the world or from the depths of time.
    The Pamir expedition met a check, and closed down. Conceived rather precociously in the burst of initial enthusiasm, the 1958 expedition of the Academy of Sciences, of which I was the doctor, was premature. This check was vigorously exploited by the powerful “opposition”, and the Commission slowly wound up by itself by 1960. Henceforth, the research was in the hands of a few particular people bereft of all material, technical, and financial means, a situation singularly difficult in the USSR, where all activity is structured by the State.
    The Academy of Sciences agreed, however, to edit, in 1963, the voluminous monograph, “Current status of the problem of relic hominoids”, where Porshnev exposed and analysed the exceptional documentation gathered to that date on these bipeds of hominoid demeanour, spread out over certain regions of the globe, and advanced the hypothesis of their paleoanthropological nature.
    It is then that the Caucasus arose.
    After 1958, the Presidium of the Academy had received the official visit of a lieutenant-colonel doctor, Dr. V. Karapetian, who felt it was his duty to advise them of an incongruent personal observation, which the recent publication of at last permitted interpretation: in the winter of 1941, in Daghestan, he had been called up to examine a being of human appearance, male, covered by a thick fleece, and with a bestial expression, which had been intercepted by a military patrol. [Eventually, the C.O., with typical Soviet paranoia, had it shot as a spy.] Shortly afterwards, a similar declaration was deposed by the Chief Inspector of Hunting of the Republic of Daghestan, K. Leontiev. In August 1958, he had observed for a few seconds, on a high mountain, an identical creature. He described in minute detail its footprints, resting on a slab of snow.
    Almost simultaneously, we discovered a piece of analogous information. Dated 1899, it came from an illustrious zoologist, Professor Satunin, whose work on the Caucasian fauna remains exhaustive: he caught a glimpse of a “hairy wild woman” in the course of an expedition to the eastern Caucasus. One should note that these three persons were all foreign to the Caucasus, and especially qualified to judge a zoological phenomenon.
    Nevertheless, these first Caucasian communications aroused a deep confusion. The idea of the survival to the 20th century of an unknown hominoid population appeared absurd and unacceptable. The research on the “snowman” was taking a ridiculous turn ... As an alpinist, and a former combatant of the Battle of the Caucasus in 1942, I decided in August 1959 to leave for the southern slopes of the Great Caucasus, bordering on Daghestan, with the intention of casting light on the problem.
    Then, a month later, I returned to Moscow, holding verbal declarations of 40 witnesses who had personally observed the “men of the forest”. Research on relic hominoids in the Caucasus had led me, on foot, by horse, and in automobiles, across practically all of the republics: Azerbaijan, Georgia, Daghestan, Chechnya-Ingushia, Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkharia, Karachai, Circassia, the territories of Stavropol, and in Kuban. This research has been pursued over many years.
    While I did not believe at the start in the existence of these hominoids unknown to scholars, I was progressively led to change my opinion thanks to the result of a vast enquiry among diverse strata of Caucasian populations, and some material vestiges: beds, alimentary remains, excrement, and footprints.


Map of the Caucasus and Dr Koffmann's itinerary (labelled in French)

Nations of Caucasus
    Stretching from the steppes of southern Russia to the great plateaux of Anatolia, Armenia and Iran, the Caucasus occupies the whole of the isthmus separating the Black Sea and the Caspian, covering a surface of 440,000 km2, or 4/5 that of France. A portion of the great geosyncline which must have given birth to the string of mountains stretching from Spain to the Himalayas, the Caucasus shares its rolling destiny. By turns, a tropical isle bathed by the warm Tethys Sea and an archipelago, it is to these episodes that it owes the endemism of a part of its current flora and fauna. The raising of the Lower Caucasus in the Miocene transformed the archipelago into a peninsula, into which flowed the fauna of the Near East, but also that of Central Asia, the Mediterranean Basin, and Eastern Europe.
    The Quarterary, drying out the rest of the Thetys Sea, opened the route to the Caucasus to the northern flora and fauna. The essential geomorphological element of the region is the Great Caucasus, which crosses the isthmus diagonally, an immense, uninterrupted barrier 1,200 km long, 120 to 150 km wide, and 3,000 to 5,000 metres high [18,510 ft]. Fifteen summits reach or pass 5,000 metres; the Elbrus, an ancient volcano peaks at 5,642 metre. The barrier consists of several chains, sometimes parallel, sometimes twisted among themselves, circumscribing deep depressions, extremely difficult to access, veritable microcosms. The part called the North Caucasus, or Ciscaucasia, is a gradual slope towards the watershed of waters flowing northwards from the Great Caucasus, with a temperate, humid climate; Transcaucasia, falling abruptly and also part of the isthmus, to the south of the large chains, has a subtropical climate. The extraordinary diversity of the Caucasian sites – powerful mountainous edifices, sandy deserts crossed by camels, inaccessible canyons, dense northern forests or veritable jungles, vertiginous cuestas, continental plateaux, the littoral Riviera of the Black Sea, the marshes of the ancient Colchis – is equaled only by that of the fauna and plants. To cite only the most common animals: bear, fox, wolf, lynx, wild cat, wild boar, ibex, chamois, deer, bison, together with tiger (alas, now practically extinct), leopard, hyena, jackal, saiga, gazelle, later wild goat, porcupine etc. Among the paleontological ancestry, one should note a Tertiary anthropoid ape, Udabnopithecus (end of the Miocene, beginning of the Pliocene).
    The mosaic of the innumerable Caucasian peoples – Strabo had already counted three hundred – makes the Caucasus one of the most complex regions of the world, ethnologically speaking. Inhabited since the Paleolithic, the theatres of the earliest civilisations (Urartu, 10th century B.C.), the Caucasus has been especially the site of of thousands of years of confrontations between Paleo-Caucasians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Romans, Parthians, Ottomans, and Byzantines. Then at the foot of its northern slopes broke waves of Cimmerians, Scythians, Alans, Huns, Khazars, Mongols, and who knows how many other peoples. Each wave of assailants exterminated in blood and fire the preceding populations, of which some refugees would sometimes find safety in the depths of the high mountains where, some decades later, they would by joined by survivors of a new massacre, perpetuated by a third invader. Aborigines, Semites, Iranians, Indo-Europeans, Mongols, pagans, Sabeans, fire worshipers, Lamaists, adepts of Judaism, Christians and Muslims, thus found themselves gathered together in this Babel of languages (Daghestan alone counts more than forty), always guarding their individuality.
    In spite of this multiplicity of origins, the very characteristic type of Caucasian permits immediate recognition. Against a background of poorly controlled emotionality and spontaneity, they bear witness to an extreme simplicity of human relations and of acceptance of the world, the stamp of a sense of justice and dignity, boundless hospitality, the veneration of aged persons and, above all, a guest, this being associated with much carelessness, versatility, and ingenuity. In fact, the Caucasian peoples and fully marked with the very seal of traditions of archaic common beliefs, jealously conserved or imposed by the identical conditions of existences of small feudal societies living essentially by breeding and brigandage. Soviet power conferred on all these ethnic groups an administrative structure, a cultural apparatus, an alphabet (only Armenia and Georgia possessed their own literature), abolishing and severely repressing the rape of women, blood feud, warlike incursions for livestock raiding, and ethnic confrontations. Difficult customs to renounce, especially when the police, sons of the same people, understand the situation so well ... Still today, the Caucasian retains of many things the innocent viewpoint of simple peoples.

Continue to Part 2 of 4

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