Tuesday 4 December 2018

The Mongolian Wild Man's Last Stand

     One reason for taking cryptozoology seriously is the possibility that a significant species is going extinct before science has even established its existence. Thus, throughout the boreal forests of Russia, as far as Siberia, legends abound of primates apparently similar to the North American bigfoot. However, if the legends are correct, a wide tract of Central Asia also harbours isolated pockets of a different type of primate: slightly smaller, slightly more social, slightly more manlike (but only slightly). Such, for example, are the almasties of the Caucasus, and possibly the bar manu of Chitral. Peasants still claim to see them in Tajikistan. In Mongolia the term is almas (singular; it is not the plural of "alma"), and the leading researcher used to be Professor Yöngsiyebü-Biambyn Rinchen of Ulaan Baatar (1905 - 1977). The Mongolian alphabets are different to ours, so his surname has also been transliterated as "Rincen" and "Rinčen", and his initial as "P" and "B".
     In any case, in 1964 Prof Rinchen wrote a paper for the Italian journal, Genus in which he claimed that almas were then restricted to an area of 1,000 square kilometres [380 square miles] in his country.
     The paper can be read online here, the reference being:
Rincen, Prof. P. R. (1964)   Almas still exist in Mongolia. Genus 20: 186 – 192

     The first few pages are concerned mostly with philology. We learn that, as I had originally suspected, nearly all the etymologies given in Ivan T. Sanderson's Abominable Snowmen are ridiculous. The origin of the word, "almas" is unknown, although it does contribute to quite a few place names, such as Almasyn Ulan Oula, the Red Mountains of Almases.
     However, I intend to start at the last line on page 189, where the eye-witness accounts begin. This is not a translation; the paper is in English. Nevertheless, since English remained a second language for both the author and the editors, I have taken the liberty of smoothing out the text in a few places. Even so, some phrases are difficult to understand.
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     I had collected information about Almases since 1927 and lost some chances of obtaining at least four corpses of Almases on account of rank ignorance of time-serving persons who were to equip an expedition.
     During these 37 years the numerous information at my disposal show an area of Almas habitation to be constantly shrinking. Development of air and automobile transport, of virgin and unused desert lands, increase in hunting and improvement of hunters' fire-arms changed the habitual area of wild animals of great deserts and steppes.
     The "iron curtain" of the Transmongolian railway now divided the wasteland of their habitation into "Western" and "Eastern" Gobi and, for example, the Gobi antelopes dare not now cross a strange reeking and repugnant steel snake with its constantly ringing and whistling wire of telegraph posts.
     The wild horses and camels and Almases retired to the West and during the last forty years the area of habitation of Almases has been very reduced. At present it is limited by [?to] the woodless mountainous region of about one thousand square kilometres on the junction of Kobdo [now Khovd] and Bayan-olegei [Bayan-Ölgii] provinces. This very rugged wasteland rich in edible roots and berries, mouflons and chamoises is now the last refuge of Almases in Mongolia.
     After many attempts I had succeeded in sending in autumn 1962 Mr. Damdin, one of the workers of our State Museum, to make reconnaissances in this region and he returned back in December with a lot of very interesting information, which permitted me and him to organize his second trip in autumn 1963.
     According to the data presented in the reports of Mr. Damdin, now retired 64 years old pensioner, who is preparing for his third trip to the Land of Almases, there are many eyewitnesses who met an Almas during these last three years, including August 1963. 
     Among these eyewitnesses there are simple hunters and cattle breeders, members of peasant cooperatives, men and women, students and teachers, former soldiers and officers of the Army etc.
     As a result of Mr. Damlin's first trip, we have now at our disposal a skull of an Almas [but see note] found near the Red Mountains of Almases in the district Bulgan somon Kodbo province. [A somon is a district.]
     Mr. Choijoa, Mongol Torgut native of Sinkiang [Xinjiang], former cattle breeder and subsequently a worker of the Fruit-Growing Experimental Station of the Mongolian Academy of Bulgan somo told a story of this great find:
     - It happened at about ten o'clock on 26th June 1953. I remember the time, day, and month because this event had utterly surprised me and was engraved on my heart.
     At dawn of that day I went to search for my lost camels in the direction of the so-called Red Mountain of Almases. It was a beautiful sunny morning when I dropped into the ravines. The wind spread a fragrance of highland flowers and herbs but I was in a hurry to leave before the midday heat this labyrinth of canyons and ravines. My camel climbed up and down in the craggy defiles. Suddenly I saw in the corner of a secluded ravine under two small ammodendron bushes [saxsaul, Haloxylon ammodendron] something of a camel colour. I approached and saw a hairy corpse of a robust humanlike creature dried and half buried in the sand. I had never seen such a humanlike being covered by camel-coloured, brownish-yellow short hairs and I recoiled, although in my native land of Sinkiang I had seen many dead men killed in battle. But who was this strange dead thing - man or beast? I decided to return back and thoroughly examine it. I approached once more and looked down from my camel. The dead thing was not a bear or ape and the same time it was not a man like a Mongol, Kazakh, Chinese, or Russian. The hair of its head was longer than on its body [similar to the almasties of the Caucasus]. The skin on the groin and armpits wad darkened and shrivelled like a hide of a dead camel.
     I have also examined the terrain near this body and found any rests of wears. [Presumably he means he found no remains of clothing.] Fear seized my heart. I remembered the old tales of Vetala vampires and thought I was seeing one of them before me. And I hurried away. After my return home I informed our local administration and Mr. Chimeddorje, manager of the Fruit-growing Station, but no-one took any notice of my account. And only after ten years I heard from a man who came from Ulan Bator specially for research about Almases that the dead body in question had a great scientific value - told Mr. Choijoa.
     Last year he had searched the place of the dead Almas and found only a skull. Sun and wind, snow and rain, and carnivorous beasts and birds had destroyed the corpse of the Almas during that ten years.
     Mr. Damdin, who visited the place with Mr. Chimeddorje and Choijoa succeeded in finding several greyish hairs from the head of the Almas.
     Mr. Chimmeddorje, manager of the Fruit-growing Station, photographed the skull of the Almas at its place of death. If only he had visited the area and photographed the Almas's corpse ten years ago!
     Mr. Damdin has at his disposal the accounts of eye witnesses who met Almases in 1960, 1961, 1962, and August 1963.
     One of these eye witnesses, Mr. Batudorje, former army officer and now the brigade leader of the cattle breeders' cooperative in Altantsogutse somon of Bayan-Ölgii province met, at the end of September, in the mountains of Khuren tolgoi (Brawnhill) near the mountain lake Nogonnuur (Green Lake) [49° 37' N, 90° 15' E] a strange hairy biped, and twice observed it unobtrusively with field glasses, hiding himself among the rocks at a distance of about 80 - 100 metres.
     Mr. Baturdorje met an Almas near the place where, many years before, his father had also met Altain sabdak [?].
     Mr. Damdin also talked to a 64 year old Kazakh woman, Khumsai, a member of the peasants' cooperative "Red Dawn" in Tolbo somon Bayan-Ölgii province [48° 24' N, 90° 17' E] who had met an Almas at midday on the third of August 1963.
     Khumsai and her husband were camping in the desert near Mount Bortu saridak. (It is near the place mentioned in my article, Almas - Mongolian relative of the Snowman [in Russian] in "Contemporary Mongolia", 1958, no. 5, pp. 34-38.) The old woman was ascending a cleft to look after the goats and suddenly heard the flock to shy. Leant of cleaft [?] she saw at a distance of about thirty metres a naked hairy man, very robust and strange, who looked at her unperturbed.
    I hope in my following article to give the results of our more better equipped third trip to the Land of Almases.

     Editor's Note: The results of this third trip will be so [much] more interesting, as there is no proof that the skull found by Mr. Choija [sic] is that of the Almas seen by him ten years before. The photograph taken by Mr Chimeddorje, kindly sent to this Journal by Prof. Rinčen, show that the skull is of a modern Mongol type, probably of a young woman.
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     Well, that was the situation as of 1964 ie 54 years ago. The results of the third expedition are not recorded in that journal. Nevertheless, Mr. Damdin did make a total of four expeditions: in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965. Therefore, I consider it a good idea to direct you to some other websites for more updated information.
  • Firstly, we have a paper by archivist Michael Heaney, originally published in Cryptozoology vol, 2 (1983), entitled, "The Mongolian almas: a historical reevaluation of the sighting by Baradiin". You will have to do a web search. It can be downloaded as a 37 KB HTML file from Oxford University. In it, he effectively establishes that the alleged sighting by Badzar Baradiin in 1906 was a work of fiction.
  • More importantly, we have this article, with photographs, about Prof. Rinchen, along with partial translations of his papers of 1958 (in Contemporary Mongolia) and 1959.
  • Even more important is that Mr. Damdin produced a manuscript of his four expeditions, containing 312 typewritten pages with 124 photos and 7 figures. Alas! It was sent west to the scientists on the Russian "snowman" project, and appears to have been lost - except for the first four chapters summarising his expeditions. A short English summary has been provided by Michael Trachtengerts here. The surviving four chapters, amounting to 19 pages can be found here. Since it is in Russian, you will need to use Google Translator, which renders it into quite passable, if rather stilted English. It will be well worth your while to read it, for it details a large number of encounters, some of them in the same year as the expedition. From the evidence provided, it will be hard to resist the conclusion that genuine bipedal primates were really present as late as the mid-1960s.
  • Nevertheless, that was more than 50 years ago, and although the memory of that period remains vivid in the minds of many of us, a lot can happen in half a century. Therefore, your attention is drawn to an 11-page paper in the 2017 edition of Anthropos, entitled "Wildmen in Central Asia". The two authors examine the traditions of the area, and note how they have changed over time. They explain that the term, "almas" was originally a generic term for demons, witches, and savages. They believe that it has been the interest shown by foreign cryptozoologists that has consolidated the modern image of the almas as a non-supernatural animal. By the 1990s almas stories consistently treated it as an inhabitant of inaccessible regions, and often refer to abduction and mating with human beings. Invariably they place the events at some indefinite time in the more-or-less distant past, happening to someone else, usually unnamed. In other words, they are urban legends. You can read some of them here, in a PDF of 1207 KB.
     With all due respect, however, it is possible to place another slant on the evidence. Large, uncommon wild animals often have supernatural qualities attributed to them in popular superstitions. It is probably true that cryptozoology has consolidated the view of the almas as a man-like animal, but the only cryptozoologist in the country until the 1960s was Prof. Rinchen himself. He had been studying the matter since 1927, and apparently never regarded it as a subject of superstition. Certainly, none the witnesses who spoke to Damdin provided any supernatural elements.
     Nevertheless, the comment the authors make on the absence of physical evidence is pertinent:
It is important to stress the lack of furs and hides, because Mongols, Kazak, and other hunters in Central Asia were experts not only in the hunting of any kind of animal but also in conserving hides and animal parts. The interest among rich city dwellers in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Beijing toward exotic hides would be enough to encourage any hunter to catch an almas and sell its fur. Siberian and Central Asian fur trade is famous since at least a thousand years, and furs and hides were collected as tax from several peoples in the Russian empire from the 1550s until our days. Fur markets lined the Russian, Siberian, and northern Chinese borders for centuries. [page 4]
     Equally important, the authors claimed that, by the 1990s, no first hand account of a sighting had been recorded for years. As mentioned before, all stories are second hand tales of unnamed persons in an unspecified location an indefinite period in the past. In the paper by Heany referred to above, mention is made of an alleged encounter in 1974, but nothing else appears to have occurred since them. As the last redoubt of the species was just a 1,000 km2 patch in the 1960s, it looks like the curtain had finally come down on the almas of Mongolia. Don't you just hate it when that sort of thing happens?
     Or has it? I don't suppose the folklorists spoke to anyone near the 1,000km2 redoubt in the 1990s. Also, on 26 June 2001, the English language newspaper, The Mongolian Messenger carried the following story:
A mysterious 'yeti' like creature attacked a driving schoolteacher in the mountains of Gobi-Altai Aimag earlier this month. Ts. Tuvshinjargal was attacked at 12:20 on June 8 in the mountains of Eej Hairhan, Tsogt Soum, by a creature she described as "strong and hairy" which jumped about on its hind legs like a monkey. The creature was frightened off by the loud noise made by Tuvshinjargal's travelling companions and disappeared into the mountains, reported Zuuny Medee. The aimag governor was informed of the attack.

    Mount Eej Hairhan, or Khairkhan, is located at approximately 45° N. 90° E, or a couple of hundred miles east of the refuge Damdin explored, and from the Landsat image it looks pretty desolate. On the other hand, the term, "almas" was not cited in the paragraph, and the lady involved appears to have been a person commanding some respect. So, you never know.

1 comment:

  1. Wish I'd found this post earlier, it seems rude to comment on an older post.

    The purported Alma skull's resemblance to that of a modern skull doesn't really come as a surprise to me; I've always thought the Almas are (were?) the remnants of an archaic homo sapiens population that had been isolated in the region for quite some time. I believe that this was what Brian Sykes was obliquely referring to when he stated that Zana's DNA indicated she was of African origin...