Historically, the Mongols were pretty hardcore. Genghis Khan famously remarked (and was quoted more or less verbatim by Conan the Barbarian), “A man’s greatest work is to break his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all the things that have been theirs, to hear the weeping of those who cherished them”. We’re talking about a tough people with a serious sense of fatalism reflected in Mongolian proverbs such as “He who drinks dies. He who does not drink, dies as well”. That is obviously the kind of intestinal fortitude and supercharged-level of testosterone that it takes to run roughshod over all of Asia and much of Eastern Europe from the 12th – 14th Century A.D. One wonders what mythological monsters could possibly arise in such a context, or alternatively, perhaps we should take their monsters a little more seriously, since these folks do not scare easily.
Mongolia is the 19th largest country in the world, nestled between Russia in the north, and China in the south, and also one of the most sparsely populated, with 45% of its 2.9 million people residing in the capital city of Ulan Bator, and 30% of the population is actually nomadic. Most of Mongolia is about as remote as remote gets. Homo Erectus inhabited Mongolia roughly 800,000 years ago (skeletal remains found in caves), and it is thought that modern humans reached Mongolia about 40,000 years ago, that is, human-like ancestors appear to have resided in Mongolia for about 760,000 years before those pesky Homo Sapiens ever worked up the gumption to join the party. With the Gobi Desert in the south, mountains in the north and west, and steppes in between, winters in Mongolia are largely influenced by the Siberian Anticyclone weather patterns. As you probably recognize, when the word “Siberian” appears in a sentence, one simply substitutes “really, really cold” (average January temperature in Mongolia is -22 degrees Fahrenheit). Ulan Bator has the distinction of being the world’s coldest capital city. Given the inhospitable, nay brutal, environment Mongolians live in, it is unsurprising that they take their mythological monstrosities in stride. Of course, the acid-spitting olgoi-khorkhoi (the Mongolian Death Worm) gets a lot of press, but reports are largely confined to the Gobi Desert, so if you simply stay out of the Gobi, your odds of being digested by a giant red worm that looks like a human intestine are relatively low. Far more frequently sighted in the historical record, are the Mongolian Almas (singular=Almasty), the wild men of Mongolia, often thought to represent a relic population of human ancestors.
The Almas are reputed to be six-foot tall, bipedal creatures, covered in reddish brown fur, with anthropomorphic facial features, including pronounced brow ridges, flat noses, and no chin, and unlike the Himalayan Yeti, their behavior is considered far more human, than ape-like. They are said to inhabit the Pamir and Caucasus Mountains of central Asia and the Altai Mountains of southern Mongolia. Modern accounts documenting footprints, as well as native traditions dating back hundreds of years attest to the existence of the Almas, including the exchange of trade goods between remote Mongolian villages and Almas. British anthropologist Myra Shackley noted that drawings of Almas also appear in an ancient Tibetan apothecary handbook, commenting “The book contains thousands of illustrations of various classes of animals including reptiles, mammals and amphibia, but not one single mythological anima, like its medieval European counterparts which often listed many fantastic animals in its medical books. Being that every creature in the Tibetan medicinal book are well documented actual species, with the exception of the Almas, gives some validity to the creature’s existence”.
European accounts of encounters with the Almas date to the mid-15th Century. Bavarian nobleman Hans Schiltberger (1380-1440 A.D.) in fighting the Ottoman Empire for the King of Hungary in 1396 A.D., was knocked on the head and taken prisoner. After the Battle of Ankara in 1402 he appears to have followed Tamerlane (Timur the Lame) to Samarkand in Uzbekistan, later accompanying one of Timur’s sons on an expedition to Siberia and Mongolia. Upon his return to Bavaria in 1427, Shiltberger became a chamberlain of Duke Albert III, and wrote an account of his journey called the Reisebuch, wherein he describes an encounter with the Almas. Just as a point of comparison, he also mentions what we today identify as the Przewalski horse of Mongolia, a native steppe horse whose existence was rumored and doubted, but was later verified (it is currently a rare and nearly extinct species that has now been reintroduced into the Mongolian wild—previously, the last wild Przewalski horse was seen in 1966).
The vassals in Tartary wander about in winter and summer, with their wives and children, and their cattle, and when the king encamps, there must be erected one hundred thousand huts. Now when the son of the above-named king of Tartary, and who was named Zegre, had come to Edigi, he went with him into the above-named country, Ibissibur, and they travelled two months before they arrived there. There is a mountain in that country, which is thirty-two days’ journey in extent. The people there, themselves say, that at the extremity of the mountain is a desert, and that the said desert is the end of the earth; and in this same desert nobody can have an habitation, because of snakes and wild beasts. On the same mountain there are savages, who are not like other people, and they live there. They are covered all over the body with hair, except the hands and face, and run about like other wild beasts in the mountain, and also eat leaves and grass, and anything they can find. The lord of the country sent to Edigi, a man and a woman from among these savages that had been taken in the mountain (Johann Schiltberger’s “Reisbuch” 1427, Manuscript translated by Karl Friedrich Neumann, 1879).
Nikolay Przewalski (1839-1888), a Russian geographer of Polish descent, following in the footsteps of Shiltberger, made four journeys throughout Central Asia, China, Tibet, And Siberia on behalf of the Russian Geographical Society, collecting flora and fauna largely unknown to the West at the time. He obligingly verified the existence of the species of steppe horse noted by Shiltberger, and modestly named it after himself, but dies of Typus before he could undertake his fifth journey to the East. Opinions vary among researchers, but he describes an encounter with bears in Mongolia, that many classify as Almas sightings, since the native guides he employed scoffingly told him that they knew what bears looked like, and what he was seeing was not a bear. In traditional European imperialist fashion, he was a bit of a snot about it.
Before arriving in Kan-su we heard from the Mongols of some extraordinary animal which ranged through this province, and was known to the inhabitants under the name of kung-guressu, i.e. ‘manbeast’ We were told that it had a flat face like that of a human being, and that it often walked on two legs, that its body was covered with a thick black fur, and its feet armed with enormous claws; that its strength was terrible, and that not only were hunters afraid of attacking it, but that the inhabitants removed their habitations from those parts of the country which it visited. These accounts were corroborated by the Tangutans in Kan-su, who one and all declared that an animal answering to the above description inhabited their mountains, but that it was rare. When we questioned them if it were not a bear they shook their heads, and assured us it was not, adding that they knew well enough what a bear was like. Upon arriving in Kan-su in the summer of 1872, we offered a reward of five lans to anyone who would show us where one of these fabulous beasts could be found. Nobody, however, came forward, to impart the desired information; unless that the Tangutan, who was acting temporarily as our guide, did certainly say that the kung-guressu inhabited the rocks on Mount Gadjur. But on our repairing to that sacred mountain, in the middle of August, we saw no trace of the extraordinary animal, and almost despaired of ever seeing one, when one day I heard that a skin might be seen at a little temple about ten miles from Chertinton, Hither we proceeded after a few days, and having made a present to the superior, requested him to show us the rare skin. The request was granted, when what was my astonishment to see, instead of some extraordinary animal, a small bear-skin stuffed with straw! All the stories we had heard were after all a pack of fables, and the narrators, after listening to my assurances that this creature was none other than a bear, declared that the kung-guressu never showed itself to people, and that its tracks alone were occasionally seen by huntsmen. This bear, whose skin I now saw, stood 4 feet high ; the muzzle protruding ; the head and forepart of the body a dirty white color ; the back darker, and the paws almost black ; the hind feet long and narrow, and the claws about an inch long, blunt, and of a dark color. Unfortunately I could not take more accurate measurements, or examine it more closely, for fear of exciting suspicion. In the following spring, as we were returning from Koko-nor to Chobsen, one morning, on the borders of a forest in Kan-su, we saw one of these bears wild and engaged in catching alpine hares. We went towards it; but it made off, and although pursued by our dogs, never turned to bay. We fired several long shots after the bear, but only wounded it, and to our extreme regret it got off. The one we saw in Koko-nor, as far as we could judge in the distance, was of the same color as thestuffed specimen we had seen at the temple, but rather larger, and about equal in size to our flesh- eater ; ‘ it seemed to have an unusual long body, and a kind of hump on its back. The Mongols told us that they were plentiful on the Burkhan Buddha and Shuga ranges, where they inhabit the rocky parts, in summer, however, descending to the plains ; and said they had even been seen on the banks of the Murui-ussu. (Przhevalski , 1876, p249-251)
Almas sightings have persisted into our modern era, including the 1937 report of Mongolian Academy Of Sciences member Dordji Meiren, who was shown an Almas skin being used ritually in a monastery in the middle of the Gobi Desert; the 1943 Red Army capture of an Almas prisoner; Tsyben Zhamtsarano collection of accounts dating from 1907-1940; The 1963 ethnographic work of Russian pediatrician Ivan Ivlov who reported observing an Almas family group from a distance of half a mile, and collected numerous Mongolian stories of interactions with the Almas, including reports by Mongolian children that they had played with Almas children, and were not afraid of them; and into the 1980’s where reports have filtered in from remote experimental agricultural stations of encountering Almas corpses. Among cryptozoologists, the Almas is often equated with Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and the Yeti, but interestingly, the Almas is credited with being distinctly “more human”, even to the point of using tools, communicating through gestures, and occasionally wearing simple animal fur clothing as protection from the elements, leading many to speculate that the Almas probably represent a well-hidden relic population of Homo erectus, based on the details of physiognomy and behavior reported.
One of the most celebrated tales of the Almas is the story of Zana, dating from the 1880’s. The following account is paraphrased by the International Center from Hominology from work by Russian investigators Igor Burtsev, Dmitri Bayanov, Alexander Mashkovtsev, and Boris Porshnev, who collected over a hundred accounts of the local myth of the capture and taming of an Almas woman, who surprisingly is credited with having four children by a human father. One son, named Khwit, died in 1954 (picture above).
The manner of her capture is vague. Probably she had already changed hands by sale when she became the property of the ruling prince D.M. Achba who was the titular head of the Zaadan region. She passed into the possession of one of his vassals, named Chelokua and still later she was presented to a nobleman, Edgi Genaba, who visited the region. He took her away, still shackled and chained, to his estate in the village of Tkhina on the Mokva River, 78 kilometres from Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia.
At first Genaba lodged her in a very strong enclosure and nobody ventured in to give her food, for she acted like a wild beast. It was thrown to her. She dug herself a hole in the ground and slept in it and for the first three years she lived in this wild state, gradually becoming tamer. After three years she was moved to a wattle-fence enclosure under an awning near the house, tethered at first, but later she was let loose to wander about. However she never went far from the place where she received her food. She could not endure warm rooms and the year round, in any weather, slept outdoors in a hole that she made herself under the awning.
Her skin was black, or dark grey, and her whole body covered with reddish-black hair. The hair on her head was tousled and thick, hanging mane-like down her back.
She could not speak, over decades that she lived with people, Zana did not learn a single Abkhaz word; she only made inarticulate sounds and mutterings, and cries when irritated. But she reacted to her name, carried out commands given by her master and was scared when he shouted at her. And this despite the fact that she was very tall, massive and broad, with huge breasts and buttocks, muscular arms and legs, and fingers that were longer and thicker than human fingers. She could splay her toes widely and move apart the big toe.
From remembered descriptions given to Mashkovtsev and Porshnev, her face was terrifying; broad, with high cheekbones, flat nose, turned out nostrils, muzzle-like jaws, wide mouth with large teeth, low forehead, and eyes of a reddish tinge. But the most frightening feature was her expression which was purely animal, not human. Sometimes, she would give a spontaneous laugh, baring those big white teeth of hers. The latter were so strong that she easily cracked the hardest walnuts.
She lived for many years without showing any change: no grey hair, no falling teeth, keeping strong and fit as ever. Her athletic power was enormous. She would outrun a horse, and swim across the wild Mokva River even when it rose in violent high tide. Seemingly without effort she lifted with one hand an eighty-kilo sack of flour and carried it uphill from the water-mill to the village. She climbed trees to get fruit, and to gorge herself with grapes she would pull down a whole vine growing around the tree. She ate whatever was offered to her, including hominy and meat, with bare hands and enormous gluttony. She loved wine, and was allowed her fill, after which she would sleep for hours in a swoon-like state.
She liked to lie in a cool pool side by side with buffalos. At night she used to roam the surrounding hills. She wielded big sticks against dogs and on other perilous occasions. She had a curious obsession for playing with stones, knocking one against another and splitting them.
She took swims the year round, and preferred to walk naked even in winter, tearing dresses that she was given into shreds. However, she showed more tolerance toward a loin-cloth. Sometimes she went into the house, but the women were afraid of her and came near only when she was in a gentle mood; when angry she presented a scary sight and could even bite. But she obeyed her master, Edgi Genaba, and he knew how to bring her to heel. Adults used her as a bogy figure with children, although Zana never actually attacked children.
She was trained to perform simple domestic tasks, such as grinding grain for flour, bringing home firewood and water, or sacks to and from the water-mill, or pull her master’s high boots off. (International Institute for Hominology).
A variety of explanations have been offered for the existence of the Almas, from relic populations of Homo erectus or Neanderthals, Denisova hominins, or feral humans with hypertrichosis (abnormal hair growth on the body) – which seems an awfully unparsimonious and ungenerous way to characterize what may be the few proud remaining ancestors of the human genealogical tree, or perhaps even remnant populations of an evolutionary dead end. Of course, maybe they’re just a bunch of hairy dudes. We may be looking at our own future, as famed physical anthropologist Richard Leakey observed, “An evolutionary perspective of our place in the history of the earth reminds us that Homo sapiens sapiens has occupied the planet for the tiniest fraction of that planet’s four and a half thousand million years of existence. In many ways we are a biological accident, the product of countless propitious circumstances. As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long-extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species. There is no law that declares the human animal to be different, as seen in this broad biological perspective, from any other animal. There is no law that declares the human species to be immortal.”
Porshnev, Boris. The Struggle for Troglodytes . Prostor Magazine, July 1968 pp. 113-116 (in Russian).
Przhevalski, Nikolaĭ Mikhaĭlovich, 1839-1888. Mongolia, the Tangut Country, And the Solitudes of Northern Tibet, Being a Narrative of Three Years’ Travel In Eastern High Asia. London: S. Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1876.
Schiltberger, Johannes, Karl F. Neumann, and J B. Telfer. The Bondage and Travels of Johann Schiltberger: A Native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427. London: Printed for the Hakluyt Society, 1879.