Who or what is the Yowie? From 'Out of the Shadows', by Tony Healy and Paul Cropper 1995,
Many Bigfoot buffs like to think that in ancient times Gigantopithecus might have crossed from Asia into the Americas, as so many other animals did, via the Bering Straits land bridge and that modern Sasquatches are descended from those ancient apes. Some Yeti investigators like to think the same about the Abominable Snowmen who, after all, are reported today in areas quite close to the former range of the ancient giant ape in southern China and northern India.
Despite Rex Gilroy's "fossilised Gigantopithecus footprint" there is nothing to suggest the creatures ever ventured as far as Australia. Even had they moved south, they would have found not a land bridge to the Lucky Country but a vast water barrier. During the Ice Ages Australia was joined to New Guinea but never to Asia: it was one of the great triumphs of the Aborigines that their settlement of Australia was the first colonisation of a continent which involved seafaring.
The nearest large apes to Australia are the gentle - and tragically vulnerable - orangutans of Sumatra, some 3,000 kilometres away. It has rarely, if ever, been suggested that the reports of the fearsome Yowie are the result of orangs which have somehow found their way to Australia. As against the many reports in which the Yowie has been compared to a gorilla, orangutans are mentioned only once.
In 1985 a Braidwood grazier phoned the Head Keeper of Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo to tell how he and his son saw two creatures resembling orangutans - a "large one" and "a small one" - in a remote, scrubby corner of their property. Although Australian palaeontologists have provided us with no fossilised great apes, they have uncovered remains of a type of supposedly primitive man who just might have had something to do with the Yowie legend.
In 1967 during the digging of irrigation canals, about 40 very unusual skeletons were unearthed at Kow Swamp, between Swan Hill and Echuca. The skeletons, between 9,000 and 14,000 years old, were robust, large-toothed and appeared radically different from those of modern Aborigines. The jaws were among the largest human jaws ever found - one was almost the size of Heidelberg Man - at that time the world's largest. They appeared, in some respects, quite similar to those of Java Man (a south-eastern form of Homo erectus).
It is important to note, however, that although they appeared so primitive, the Kow Swamp skeletons were by no means the oldest discovered in Australia. Remains of a more slender "modern" type - clearly one of the ancestors of the modern Aborigines - have been dated at 30,000 years and it is generally accepted that such people lived in Australia for at least 20,000 years before that.
Although Dr Alan Thorne of the A.N.U. has suggested that the ancestors of the "Kow Swamp people" may have entered Australia as long ago as 120,000 years, there is no way of proving, as yet, which group arrived first. What is certain, however, is that the "Kow Swamp people" shared the continent with the ancestors of the Aborigines for at least 5,000 years, until as recently as 7,000 BC.
It is impossible to tell from the skeletons how hairy the Kow Swamp people were. It is possible they were no hairier than modern men but it is also possible they were very hairy indeed. They may also have possessed only the most primitive technology. If so, the memory of them, preserved in Aboriginal folklore and handed down from generation to generation would have formed a good foundation for the legend of the wild, hair-covered Yowie.
The suggestion that the folk-memory of the Aborigines could stretch back 9,000 years is not entirely unreasonable; in the colonial era Aborigines in south-eastern South Australia were found to have legends pertaining to great fire and destruction coming out of Mt Gambier, an extinct volcano which last erupted 3,000 years earlier.
Anthropologists have long noted that one of the most widespread themes in Aboriginal folklore is the contest between eaglehawk and crow. It has been suggested that these battles, in which the eaglehawk is almost always triumphant, recall a centuries-long contest between the ancestors of the Aborigines and an earlier wave of more primitive people. It is just possible that the "crows" were the Kow Swamp people/Homo erectus.
Several Aboriginal tales about the Yowie recorded in the nineteenth century refer to Yowies attacking Aborigines and to violent death on one side or the other. One very interesting story spells out a tale of intermittent warfare in which the Aborigines ultimately emerged triumphant:
"then they (the Aboriginals) have a tradition about the Yahoo they say he is a hairy man like a monkey plenty at one time not many now but the best opinion of the kind I heard from old Bungaree a Gunedah Aboriginal he said at one time there were tribes of them and they were the original inhabitants of the Country before the present Race of Aboriginals took possession of the Country he said they were the old Race of blacks he was of Darwins theory that the original race had a tail on them like a monkey he said the Aboriginals would camp in one place and those people in a place of their own telling about how them and the blacks used to fight and the blacks always beat them but the yahoo always made away from the blacks being a faster runner mostly Escaped the blacks were frightened of them a lot of those were together the blacks would not go near them as the Yahoo would make a great noise and frighten them with sticks. He said very strong fellow very stupid the blacks were more Cunning getting behind trees spearing any chance one that Came near them this was his story about those people" (from the reminiscences of William Telfer, The Early History of the Northern Districts of New South Wales, c. 1898).
If Homo erectus really did inhabit Australia in considerable numbers and if they were defeated by the Aborigines in skirmishes spanning hundreds of years, it is reasonable to expect the tattered remnants of the race would withdraw to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the country - just the kind of places where Yowies are allegedly encountered today.
There are, of course, certain major problems with the Homo erectus = Yowie theory. The most important, perhaps, is the fact that in the last few years some pre-historians have challenged Dr Thorne's assertion that the Kow Swamp skeletons have skulls similar to those of Java Man. The shape of the skulls, they suggest, may have been the result of artificial skull manipulation (similar to the binding of infants' heads which produced the distinctive skull shape of the Flathead Indians of Montana) practiced by a group of otherwise normal Homo sapiens.
At least one anthropologist, Gail Kennedy, argues that, in the femur at least, the Kow Swamp skeletons are perfectly modern with no trace of Homo erectus characteristics.
Other considerations are that the Kow Swamp skeletons do not appear to display the very long arms or the extremely short neck we have heard so much about in Yowie reports, that their remains were found in actual graves, that one skull was adorned with a kangaroo-tooth headband and that shells, quartz chips and one stone artifact was found at the site. Given these finds, and the assumption that the ancestors of the Kow Swamp people must have used boats or rafts to island-hop from Asia, it seems they must have been reasonably intelligent people.
The composite picture we have built up, from eye-witness accounts, of the Yowie, however, hardly suggests they would be capable of navigating vast stretches of water. Yowie technology appears to be a little basic, to say the least. Our files contain only three references to them using sticks as weapons or walking aids and three references to them hurling stones at humans. The Yowies may be physically large but they are no mental giants. To borrow Lyndon Johnson's phrase, it seems as though they would have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time.
Is the Yowie a Hoax?
Over the years we have interviewed two or three people who we feel may have fabricated their Yowie stories for one reason or another. In one case the story began to fall apart when the teenage "witnesses" inadvertantly contradicted each other, and in another our suspicions were aroused when the "witness" pretended to have had no prior knowledge of the Yowie phenomenon when we knew from another source he did.
Although we have, over the years, learned various techniques for spotting hoaxers there is no guarantee that we have not been successfully conned on occasion. At the risk of sounding outrageously gullible, however, we maintain that certain people are quite transparently honest. When someone looks you in the eye and tells you, in their own home, in the presence of their spouse or children that they have seen a strange creature in the bush it is very difficult to disbelieve them. Similarly, if a person is obviously very reluctant to be interviewed and requests or demands that his name not be published, one is also strongly inclined to take him at his word.
While they do not destroy our faith in the genuineness of the Yowie phenomenon it is nevertheless true that hoaxes have played a small part in the saga from the very beginning.
As mentioned earlier, the first reference to hairy giants in Australia, the handbill depicting the "Monftrouf favage from Botany" was clearly a hoax (although it may have been prompted by rumours of Yowies near Botany Bay). Since it was never really meant to be taken seriously, "hoax" is almost too strong a word for the only photo of what is claimed to be a Yowie. That picture - of, possibly, a small stack of straw - was published as a prank by the Coffs Harbour Advocate on August 7, 1979.
Similarly, the following story from The Goulburn Evening Penny Post, 28 October 1893, is fairly obviously a rather laboured practical joke although - once again - possibly prompted by an outbreak of genuine Yowie sightings in the area:
Says the Braidwood Dispatch: Mr Arthur Marrin, cordial manufacturer, met with a rather awkward reception as he was going in to Captain's Flat on Friday last with a load of cordials. Shortly after getting upon the turn off road from the Cooma Road, within two or three miles of the Flat township, he noticed his dog running up out of the bush at full tear and clear off down the road in a terrible scare.
He got down to see what had frightened him, when a formidable animal with which he was entirely unacquainted jumped up the lower bank on to the road. It frightened him quite as much as the dog, as it was standing up on its two hind legs with its two fore feet stretched out like the two arms of a man.
The road being a cutting on a hill side, was narrow, and the animal was making for him, either to follow the dog or spring upon himself. Being unarmed, having only the whip in his hand, which would have made very little impression upon such an antagonist, he dropped the whip and picked up a stone which lay close to him, which he threw at the beast, striking it on the temple, bringing it to the ground.
He then ran up to it and finished it with the butt end of the ship. After he killed it he left it on the road, and on his return to Braidwood put its body in the cart and brought it home with him. We paid a visit to Mr Marrin's factory on Saturday and inspected it. It was four feet long, 11 inches across the forehead, with a face very much like a polar bear.
It weighed over 7 stone. Its forearms were very strong, with great paws that would be capable of giving a terrible grip. It was a tan colour like a 'possum with strong hair on its skin. When Mr Marrin encountered it it stood between 6 or 7 feet high.
Some people think it is identical with a beast which has frightened several teamsters travelling through Parker's Gap on the Cooma Road at various times, so much that they have left their horses and run away ...
Although many references to giant wombats in a follow-up article and several attempts at what passed for humour in those days make it is clear this particular story was a load of clap-trap, we sometimes wonder, uneasily, if other venerable old reports are hoaxes.
It seems, however, that a key part of the enjoyment for people who play practical jokes is gained from, in the end, revealing the joke to the unfortunate dupe. None of the other old stories, which are, in any case, more restrained in tone and much less dramatic in content, have that kind of "ha ha - we fooled you" follow-up.
Ironically, Alexander Harris, possibly the first European to write about the Yowie, assumed he was being hoaxed by the Aborigines who warned him of the creatures in the 1830s:
The river, on the banks of which we know were, rises and for a long distance winds to and fro among the mountains of the country of Durham; at length it falls into the Hunter, not a great way from the mouth of that stream. It is now well settled, but at that time we were there spoiling it of its cedar, only here and there amidst the lonely wilderness was there to be found a settler's farm or stockman's hut.
The blacks were occasionaly, but not often, troublesome. The stories they used to tell us about the brush thereabouts being haunted by a great tall animal like a man with his feet turned backwards, of much greater, however, than the human stature, and covered in hair, and perpetually making a frightful noise as he wandered alone, made me sometimes doubt whether they were themselves really terrified, or were merely endeavouring to scare us away; but I very strongly incline to the latter opinion.
In suspecting that the blacks did not really believe in the creatures however, Harris is the odd man out. It is quite evident from all other accounts left by white pioneers that tribal blacks believed absolutely in the creatures. Our own conversations with Aborigines convinces us the belief is still strong and very widespread.
In Canada there was a case of a man in a gorilla suit successfully hoaxing most - but not all - of a bus load of witnesses, but the hoaxer could, of course, not resist talking about it later. There has been no suggestion of gorilla suits being used in any Australian incident and in any case - judging from the reactions of Kos Guines and the gun-toting teenagers of Kilcoy - wearing a monkey suit in the Australian bush could be a very hazardous pastime.
If the Yowie phenomenon is a hoax it must be a very, very elaborate one. It would, in fact, have to be a long series of hoaxes, involving Aborigines and Europeans stretching back for centuries, if not for millenia. No - hoaxes have played a part in the Yowie saga, but only a small part. What veteran Sasquatch hunter Rene Dahinden once said about the Bigfoot mystery applies just as well to the Yowie: "Anyone who thinks the Sasquatch is a joke is ignorant of the facts - it's as simple as that."
Are the Yowies feral humans?
In Cryptozoology, Vol.8, 1989 an energetic Brisbane-based researcher, Malcolm Smith, argued that reports of "hairy men" in the Australian bush refers to just that: "hairy men, isolated Aboriginal males whose physical features were sufficiently striking to confuse the credulous anglo setter." He points out that during the nineteenth century, when the Aborigines waged desperate guerilla wars against the whites and were decimated by epidemics of imported disease, tribal society in many areas broke down completely. At that time, he argues, "degraded and anti-social individuals are likely to have been fairly common."
Since Aborigines are just as hairy as caucasians, Malcolm argues that the Yowie reports could have been the result of unexpected encounters with solitary Aboriginal individuals - males with unusually profuse body hair as well as untended beards and long hair on the head.
While Malcolm raises several interesting points his "feral man" argument contains several rather serious flaws:
- In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries most Europeans in frontier areas were quite familiar with the sight of naked or near-naked Aborigines.
- In those days the majority of Aboriginal males sported full beards and long hair.
- Only one report - detailed later - refers to the Yowie having a beard.
- Only three reports state or imply that the creature's head hair was longer than that on its body.
- If the Yowies were merely Aborigines disorientated by the frontier wars and epidemics, why are the creatures still seen today?
- Malcolm's arguments, aimed mainly at explaining why nineteenth-century anglos reported seeing Yowies, do little to explain why blacks have believed in the creatures for hundreds of years. (As a point of interest, however, it might be worth mentioning that one European suggested as early as 1842 that Aboriginal tales of the Yahoo might have been caused by white castaways or runaway convicts.)
Whatever the Yowie may be, Malcolm, like the rest of us hapless investigators, is only human and like the rest of us he is, at times, rather selective in which material he presents and which he rejects. Because George Osborne's 1871 account described in detail a creature which was absolutely non-human, Malcolm rejects it as a hoax.
This is not to say he is being dishonest; in fact, he wryly acknowledges that "To dispose of inconvenient data in this manner may seem like special pleading..." In our view Osborne's story, unlike the accounts of the Yahoo allegedly killed by Mr Marrin, contains nothing to suggest a hoax.
Malcolm is also very selective about the modern Yowie material. Out of the dozens of reports more recent than 1920 he chooses only two. It must be admitted, however, that one of these cases does support his argument very strongly. This concerns a family which claimed a Yowie encounter in, of all places, the Northern Territory. The Centralian Advocate of 18 February 1987 told the story:
Phyllis Kenny and friend Frank Burns were hunting with Phyllis' nephews when the sighting occurred about 5pm Saturday. They were driving through Yambah Station about 50km north of Alice Springs when they stopped at a favourite spot called Top Bore. The kids went to the toilet while Phyllis shared around some kangaroo meat.
"Suddenly this thing jumped out of one of the empty tanks," Phyllis said. "At first I didn't know anything about it until one of the kids screamed. This thing started walking towards the ute and I shouted at the kids to get on. The kids in the back of the ute had a better look at it and say it was half man/half animal. Frank just put his foot flat to the floor. It couldn't have been a large Aborigine because he would've waved and sang out to us.
Nephew Daniel Kenny said the thing looked like a gorilla. "It was huge and was covered with hair," he said. "The hair on its head grew to its elbows and its beard reached its chest. It had a large forehead, big eyes and it was red around the mouth. The red bit couldn't have been blood 'cos you would have seen it dripping". Daniel described the creature to be about two to three metres in height and "very fat."
"It ran after the car the way monkeys run. It caught up and grabbed the tail of the ute and tried shaking the car. It was very strong. I noticed there were no cattle around so it must've spooked them too." Daniel said the creature chased the group for about 60m before it gave up. "It didn't make any noise or speak. I had a nightmare about it on Sunday night. I don't think I'll go out bush anymore, not to that place anyway." Phyllis said no-one had been drinking alcohol. "We usually take a few beers with us but not when the kids are with us", she said.
When the group arrived in town Phyllis contacted the police but received a negative response. "They said they were too busy in town to go chasing monkeys through the bush," she said. Phyllis told her relations and several went to look at the site where the beast was seen. Karen and Henry Bloomfield drove to the site and said it was not a hoax. "There were human-shaped footprints in the sand but they huge, about a foot or so long," Karen said. "There was a lot of long grass and a big area had been flattened where something had slept.
It couldn't have been an Aborigine because there were no blankets. I think it must be eating things raw because there was no fire either. When we arrived we could sense something was watching us but we didn't see anything." Karen said anyone could be in danger going to Yambah Station. "If it is a black fella, then he's very, very demented." Karen said the property owner, Arron Gorey told people he had been chased by a similar thing while riding his motorbike. Mr Gorey was not available for comment.
Apart from the details of the extremely long head hair, the long beard, the aggressive behaviour and the fact that it supposedly occurred in the Northern Territory (we have no other cases from anywhere near the N.T.) there are some things about the story - the description of "thing" as "half man/half animal", "covered with hair", "two or three metres in height", its monkey - like gait, the "spooked" cattle, the child's subsequent nightmares, the "huge" footprints and even the claim that "we could sense something watching us" - which sound very compatible with a "normal" Yowie report.
One all-important detail, however, was included in a later report by a Brisbane paper: unlike his spouse and children, Frank Burns thought the entity was a man: "...it looked like a man to me." Sure enough, the following night in the same area police took into custody a behaviourally-disturbed, six-foot, eight inch man who they estimated weighed 280-350 pounds. They found him sitting by the roadside completely naked.
Malcolm's second modern account does far less to bolster his argument. It concerns a Yowie report from the Heathcote National Park which was supposedly debunked when investigating police were told that a Yugoslav hermit, Franjo Jurcevic, had been living in the national park for years.
While admitting to doubts about this case - Heathcote National Park is uncomfortably close to the Sydney metropolitan area - we fail to see how the fact of human living close to nature in a particular locality proves that Yowies could not also, occasionally, visit the same general area. Certain elements of the story still - for us at least - have a ring of authenticity about them.
Malcolm's "feral human" theory suffers from the fact that apart from the two atypical modern cases detailed above, his source material is limited to the twelve eyewitness accounts (the most recent being 1912) contained in Graham Joyner's 1977 booklet The Hairy Man of South Eastern Australia. Since 1977, Graham, ourselves, and others have uncovered many more nineteenth and twentieth century reports and although a small number of those could - at a stretch - be interpreted as encounters with wandering, isolated Aborigines, most could not.
As mentioned earlier, we also see no reason to dismiss all the modern reports - in which several eyewitnesses have given detailed descriptions of distinctly non-human Yowies - as being Gilroy-induced or Gilroy-influenced.
In considering the feral human argument we invite the reader to turn back to our "century of sightings" and to look again at the 1976-77 Woodenbong incidents and at the March 1978 report from Springbrook.
Those sightings were made at point-blank range in well-lit conditions by competent witnesses with absolutely no desire for publicity and no prior interest in the Yowie phenomenon.
We have personally interviewed them and have total confidence in their veracity. They are quite definite about what they saw, not pathetic, wandering "feral" human beings, but large, powerful gorilla-like animals.
An undiscovered marsupial?
Graham Joyner, the most careful and conservative of researchers, is not particularly interested in modern Yowie reports. He feels the press releases of Rex Gilroy from 1975 onwards, representing the Yowie as an enormous primate related to the Sasquatch and Yeti, have provided the Australian public with so much information - or misinformation - about the creatures that all modern reports must be considered suspect.
While we feel he is rather rash in ignoring all the modern reports (he has never, as far as we know, interviewed an eye-witness) we respect his right to investigate the mystery in his own very productive and valuable way. Dismissing the Yowie as " ... a recent fiction which came into being in 1975 ..." Graham rejects even the term "Yowie" - preferring "Yahoo" which he considers to be more correct. He feels the creature may now be extinct and favours the theory that it was "an undiscovered marsupial of roughly bear-like conformation."
We agree that, if the Yahoos were - or are - real flesh and blood animals, then it is quite possible they were - or are - marsupials. The Thylacine was a marsupial that resembled a dog; the Thylacoleo was a marsupial that resembled a cat; why should Australia not have had a marsupial that resembled a bear?
Graham favours the idea of the Yahoo being roughly bear-like because, unlike ourselves, he feels Mr Marrin's account of having slain the creature near Captain's Flat to be genuine. Apart from the Marrin story there are three other reports where the creatures were said to be bear-like.
On the other hand, a far greater number of reports (20 in all, and 11 of these prior to 1975) compare the creatures to apes, gorillas, orangutans or ape-men. Because of this we feel that the Yowie/Yahoo, if it is a marsupial, is a marsupial which is much more ape-like than bear-like.
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Australian Yowie Research - Data Base