Today I am working on my All About History article on Hitler’s wonder weapons, so you are getting a rerun. This past week, Scientific American published a piece by Darren Naish exploring the origins of Mokèlé-mbèmbé, the legendary Congolese monster supposed by many cryptozoologists to be a living dinosaur. Nash correctly attributes the development of the myth to the dinosaur mania of the early twentieth century, the same impulse that led Conan Doyle to write The Lost World around the same time. But neither in the blog nor in his book Hunting Monsters (according to a text search in Google Books—I haven’t read the book) does Naish discuss the story that has long served as “evidence” that the monster predated twentieth century adventurers’ stories. Therefore, I present my discussion of the eighteenth century French account of Mokèlé-mbèmbé’s monstrous footprints. I originally wrote this in 2012, and the text below is the revised and expanded version presented in my 2013 book Faking History.
A Dinosaur in the Congo?
The zeal of Afrocentrists to find Africans around the world was quite obviously a response to the imperialist-colonialist zeal to disinherit indigenous peoples from their own history and to link native peoples the world over with the primitive and the wild. The alleged dinosaur living in the Congo Basin, mokèlé-mbèmbé, has appeared widely in popular culture, thanks in large part to early twentieth century writers who reported Congolese folklore about the creature and saw in it a reflection of the most primeval times of earth’s history. The earliest report for the supposed monster is almost universally claimed to be a passage in a 1776 book by the Abbé Liévin-Bonaventure Proyart (1743-1808), a French cleric and writer later executed for writing the wrong thing about Louis XVI during the reign of Napoleon. Proyart served as a missionary in the Congo Basin in the 1760s, and in an early chapter of his book on the region, Histoire de Loango, Kakongo, et autres royaumes d’Afrique (1776), he describes the animals of west and central Africa using reports compiled by fellow missionaries in the area.
He devotes only two sentences to the monster later cryptozoology authors have claimed as a dinosaur. This creature is frequently said to be a sauropod on the order of Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus). These authors tend to selectively quote only a part of the first sentence, mostly because the second sentence makes plain that the “monster” is in no wise the equivalent of a dinosaur. They also tend to all abridge the exact same translation, first provided, so far as I can tell, in the journal Cryptozoology in 1982. (Seriously, does anyone in alternative studies actually review primary sources? I mean, if I can do it, it can’t be that hard…)
Roy P. Mackal’s A Living Dinosaur: The Search for Mokele-Mbembe (1987) at least provided the correct measurements and a full, if not absolutely faithful, quotation.  By contrast, Michael Newton’s account in Hidden Animals (2009) is dependent upon Mackal (an acknowledged source) but garbles the discussion and claims Proyart described “tribal stories of a beast known as mokele-mbembe…,”  which he certainly did not do. Since this passage is almost never given in full and sometimes given incorrectly, allow me provide my own translation to clarify things:
The Missionaries have observed, passing along a forest, the trail of an animal they have not seen but which must be monstrous: the marks of his claws were noted upon the earth, and these composed a footprint of about three feet in circumference. By observing the disposition of his footsteps, it was recognized that he was not running in his passage, and he carried his legs at the distance of seven to eight feet apart. 
This monster, as you can see, is not terribly large by the standards of dinosaurs. Note, for example that my own footprint has a circumference of two feet (with sides of 11 inches, 4 inches, 7 inches, and 2 inches), and at 5’10” I am hardly a monstrously-sized human. By contrast, an Apatosaurus had a footprint measuring approximately ten feet in circumference (three feet by two feet in dimension), though other dinosaurs were obviously much smaller. Mackal recognized this, though minimizing the implications. He quotes a modern Franco-Belgian scientist, Bernard Heuvelmans, as suggesting the measurements are somewhat akin to the rhinoceros, though he argues that it cannot be one because rhinoceroses lack claws. 
The trouble seems to be that modern writers are confusing circumference for length (they are not the same), and they have taken Proyart’s adjective monstrueux as an indication that he was referring to a “monster.” However, while monstrueux carries the implication of “horrific” or “monstrous” today, in the eighteenth century, the word carried instead the connotation of “prodigious,” or very large, according to French dictionaries published in that era; it is modern people who added terror to the older sense.  Proyart and his sources did not express any great terror at the creature, whose description he sandwiches between passages on the elephant and the lion, and the context of the passage clearly implies that he considered the creature simply one of many animals of similar bulk. A rhinoceros, for comparison, has a footprint averaging seven inches (18 cm) in diameter, according to zoologists, but which can easily top eleven inches (28 cm). This yields a circumference (using π times diameter) of two feet (56.5 cm) for an average rhino and our required three feet (91 cm) for the eleven-inch rhino foot. The rhinoceros also has a head-and-body length averaging around twelve feet (3.7 m), with a body length of about eight feet (2.4 m), meaning its legs are seven to eight feet (2.1-2.4 m) apart.
The greatest objection to identifying Proyart’s monster as a rhinoceros is that the rhinoceros does not have claws. Its footprint, however, takes the appearance of three enormous, sometimes pointed, claw marks, which are actually its toes but appear distorted when smeared through mud. A hippopotamus is also a close fit, with a footprint that similarly resembles that described by Proyart, with what look like “claw” marks but are actually the toes. Keeping in mind that Proyart did not witness the tracks firsthand, this would seem to be a reasonable description of a rhinoceros or hippopotamus track.
A second objection to identifying Proyart’s print as a hippopotamus or rhinoceros is the claim that such creatures do not currently live in the area of the Congo now home to the legend of mokèlé-mbèmbé. Proyart did not provide a location for his missionary friends’ sighting of the prints, so this objection cannot be sustained. There is no way to localize Proyart’s description to the same territory where the (current) mokèlé-mbèmbé myth is centered. Both the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus had ranges that included areas visited by missionaries when Proyart was active in Africa. The hippopotamus range included the Congo, and the rhinoceros the areas to the north. (Sadly, both have declined markedly since then and are no longer found in their historic ranges.) Most damning of all is the fact that Proyart does not describe either the hippopotamus or the rhinoceros in his book, meaning that he was probably not aware that the hippopotamus lived in sub-Saharan Africa. The rhinoceros, then known primarily from Asian species, would also have been beyond his knowledge in 1776. Since Proyart describes the monster in a passage listing elephants and lions, this would imply that the creature was probably not in the rainforest, perhaps making the rhinoceros the more likely animal.
At any rate, given the measurements provided by Proyart and the secondhand nature of the report, it is not possible to infer the existence of a dinosaur from his description of relatively small footprints.
 Roy P. Mackal, A Living Dinosaur: The Search for Mokele-Mbembe (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1987), 2. Mackal paraphrases the second sentence somewhat for clarity, but his translation does not change the essential meaning.
 Michael Newton, Hidden Animals: A Field Guide to Batsquatch, Chupacabra, and Other Elusive Creatures (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2009), 44.
 Les Missionnaires ont observé, en passant le long d’une forêt, la piste d’un animal qu’ils n’ont pas vu; mais qui doit être monstrueux: les traces de ses griffes s’appercevoient fur la terre, & y formoient une empreinte d’environ trois pieds de circonférence. En observant la disposition de ses pas, on a reconnu qu’il ne couroit pas dans cet endroit de son passage, & qu’il portoit ses pattes à la distance de sept à huit pieds les unes des autres. (Liévin-Bonaventure Proyart, Histoire de Loango, Kakongo, et autres royaumes d’Afrique [Paris, 1776], 38-39).
 Mackal, A Living Dinosaur, 4-5.
 Similarly, Dr. Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755 defined “monstrous” as being “unnatural, shocking.” Both the English and French words were drawing on the older Latin sense of monstrum, referencing an unnatural birth, a sign from God.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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