It’s not quite as famous as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster—at least, not in Europe or North America–but Mokele-mbembe (“he who stops the flow of rivers”) is definitely a close contender. For the last two centuries, vague reports have circulated of a long-necked, long-tailed, three-clawed, terrifyingly huge animal residing deep in the Congo River basin of central Africa. Cryptozoologists, who have never met a supposedly extinct dinosaur that they didn’t like, have naturally identified Mokele-mbembe as a living sauropod (the family of huge, four-legged dinosaurs characterized by Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus) the last straggling descendants of which went extinct 65 million years ago.
Before we address Mokele-mbembe in particular, it’s worth asking: precisely what level of proof is required to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a creature thought to have been extinct for tens of millions of years is still alive and flourishing? Second-hand evidence from tribal elders or easily impressionable children isn’t enough; what’s needed is a time-stamped digital video, the eyewitness testimony of trained experts, and if not an actual living, breathing specimen, then at least its rotting carcass. Everything else, as they say in court, is hearsay.
What Evidence Do We Have for Mokele-Mbembe?
Now that that has been said, why are so many people convinced that Mokele-mbembe actually exists? The the trail of evidence, such as it is, starts in the late 18th century, when a French missionary to the Congo claimed to have discovered giant, clawed footprints measuring about three feet in circumference. But Mokele-mbembe didn’t come into at least fuzzy focus until 1909, when the German big-game hunter Carl Hagenbeck mentioned in his autobiography that he had been told by a naturalist about “some kind of dinosaur, seemingly akin to Brontosaurus.”
The next hundred years witnessed a parade of often half-baked “expeditions” to the Congo River basin in search of Mokele-mbembe. None of these explorers actually glimpsed the mysterious beast, but there are numerous references to folklore and accounts of Mokele-mbembe sightings by local tribespeople (who may well have told these Europeans exactly what they wanted to hear). Over the last decade, the SyFy Channel, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel have all aired specials about Mokele-mbembe; needless to say, none of these documentaries feature any convincing photographs or video footage.
To be fair—and this is only to give cryptozoologists and monster-hunters the very, very slightest benefit of the doubt—the Congo River basin is truly enormous, encompassing over 1.5 million square miles of central Africa. It’s remotely possible that Mokele-mbembe resides in an as-yet-unpenetrated region of the Congo rain forest, but look at it this way: naturalists who hack their way into dense jungles are constantly discovering new species of beetles and other insects. What are the odds that a 10-ton dinosaur would escape their attention?
If Mokele-mbembe Isn’t a Dinosaur, What Is It?
The most likely explanation for Mokele-mbembe is that it’s simply a myth; in fact, some African tribes refer to this creature as a “ghost” rather than a living animal. Thousands of years ago, this region of Africa may well have been inhabited by elephants or rhinoceroses, and “folk memories” of these beasts, stretching back for dozens of generations, may well account for the Mokele-mbembe legend. (For another example, the giant one-horned rhinoceros Elasmotherium only went extinct in Europe 10,000 years ago, and some archaeologists believe that this megafauna mammal is the true source of the unicorn legend.)
At this point, you may be asking: why couldn’t Mokele-mbembe be a living sauropod? Well, as stated above, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence isn’t only sparse, but virtually nonexistent. Second, it’s very unlikely from an evolutionary perspective for a herd of sauropods to survive down to historical times in such small numbers; unless it’s sequestered in a zoo, any given species needs to maintain a minimal population lest the slightest misfortune render it extinct. By this reasoning, if a population of Mokele-mbembe resided in deepest Africa, it would have to number in the hundreds or thousands–and someone would surely have encountered a living specimen by now!