I haven’t made mention of the strange claim made on this past week’s episode of Monster Talk because I am not a geneticist and I don’t really have much to say about the scientific evidence adduced for the existence of a pre-modern African hominid living in the Abkhazia principality between the Russian Empire and Ottoman Empire in the 1850s. (Abkhazia is now a breakaway quasi-state claimed by Georgia.) But it is a very interesting story for the echoes of similar claims that have been made for African connections to the same region for centuries. I happen to be familiar with those claims because I wrote about them in my book Jason and the Argonauts through the Ages, where they intersected with Afrocentrist views of the Argonauts myth.
Dr. Bryan Sykes, a controversial geneticist affiliated with Oxford (though no longer a professor there), has a new book out called The Nature of the Beast, which tracks his efforts to discover the DNA of Bigfoot and other exotic monsters. In so doing, Sykes investigated whether some Bigfoot or Yeti sightings could be attributed to remnant populations of Neanderthals. This, in turn, led him to the story of the wild woman of Abkhazia, named Zana, who, according to accounts first published in the 1970s, became a curiosity in the 1850s (or perhaps later; the timeline is unclear) when she was allegedly captured by some hunters, kept in a cage and poked with sticks (a common Victorian form of entertainment—visitors to freak shows would pay extra to poke freaks with sticks). She never learned to talk but nevertheless gave birth to multiple children by local human fathers. According to accounts, she had apparently been the victim of ongoing sexual abuse and rape.
Since 2013 Sykes has claimed that after analyzing DNA from one of her son’s teeth and her great-grandchildren, he concluded that Zana’s DNA was “100% fully sub-Saharan African.” He posits two possibilities: first that she was an escaped Ottoman-era slave, and second that she was a remnant of a lost species or group of early humans that left Africa before modern Homo sapiens.
In the Monster Talk interview, Sykes said that it seemed impossible to him that even a “fit” African slave could survive in the Caucasus Mountains on her own for any length of time. Instead, he found it much more likely that a small group of pre-modern humans survived in that same location through tens of thousands of years of inbreeding, with no appreciable genetic change and no outside genetic input from the surrounding populations.
According to Pseudoscience: A Critical Encyclopedia, a Russian scholar named Alexander Mashkovtsev first heard about the Zana story in the 1970s and passed it on to Boris Prochnev, a historian who developed the hypothesis that Neanderthals remained active in Asia down to modern times and are behind Yeti and wild man legends. As best I can tell, there are no nineteenth century primary sources related to Zana, and all of the accounts of her large, apelike appearance derive from local lore recorded more than a hundred years after the fact, and during a time when Black Africans were routinely described as apelike, particularly by isolated rural populations with little or no contact with other races.
Abkhazia toggled between Ottoman and Russian influence until 1864, when it decisively passed to Russia. At the time Zana was captured, Russian influence was in the ascendant. Russians in the 1800s and 1900s were generally white supremacists and considered Blacks subhuman. For example, in 1868, Nicholas Dubroliubov wrote that “We do not think it necessary to deal with the differences between the skulls of Negroes and of other lower races of man and the skulls of people among civilized nations. Who is not aware of the strange development of the upper part of the skull among these [lower] races…?” (trans. Charles Quist-Adade). Similarly, the poet Alexander Gibroedov called Black women wooly-haired, hump-backed, angry, and cat-like. “And how black! And how frightful!” And that was the attitude among the educated! As late as 1989, a survey found that only 16% of (white) Soviet schoolchildren in the cosmopolitan capital of Moscow agreed that Black people were fully human. You can imagine what ignorant backwoods people of the 1850s must have thought. Ottoman attitudes were little better, and tended to connect African slaves to the wilderness, the pagan, and the savage.
Sykes admits in the interview that he has found no genetic evidence that yet points conclusively to a pre-modern origin for Zana, and it’s important to note here that Abkhazia was well-known for the African slaves that had been bought and sold on its shores from the time of the Arabs straight through to when the Russians seized the territory. Slavery, under the Ottoman system, included both physical and sexual servitude. Black Africans, considered sub-human, could be sold as sex slaves for as little as £20 in the 1880s, while light-skinned Circassian sex slaves (not legally considered white, and thus subject to slavery) sold for £500. Black slave trading was officially banned in 1858, but not readily enforced.
The area of Abkhazia is part of the old land of Cochis, where Jason and his Argonauts allegedly came in Mycenaean times. Since the fifth century BCE Western scholars have tried to connect its people to Africa in some way or another. Herodotus was the first, and he set the template, though by accident. The Greeks, by convention, held that people at both ends of the earth had to be black because they were closer to the rising and setting sun and therefore had burned skins. By convention, they called them the “dark” races. Later writers conflated this with Herodotus’ (Histories 2.104) connection of the Colchians to Egypt on the basis of their shared circumcisions, dark skin, and curly hair, and his mistaken belief that the fictional pharaoh Sesostris had conquered the Black Sea and left his men behind in what is now Abkhazia and Georgia. Speculation about the Egyptian origins of the Colchians continued off and on for centuries, eventually finding expression in fringe literature. Robert Temple accepted the idea at face value and declared Colchis an Egyptian colony run for the benefit of space aliens. This strain of thought, though, tended to discount Egypt’s connection to “Black” Africa. By contrast, Afrocentrist scholars cited it as a font for Greek knowledge of Black Africa’s true greatness, and the 1920s Afrocenrist Drusilla Dunjee Houston took it still farther, claiming that the Colchians were really sub-Saharan “Black” Ethiopians—the true source of Egyptian knowledge—and used Colchis as a testing ground for their fleet of airplanes, one of which that nasty interloper Phrixus stole for the Greeks and known as the Golden Ram.
These claims helped to propel the idea that there was an “African” connection to the Georgia-Abkhazia region that predated the documented arrival of sub-Saharan African slaves with the Arab slave traders, and their continued presence under the Ottomans. A small population of Black Africans continued to live in Georgia down to modern times, with a group of about 30 individuals still present when studied in the twentieth century, though Afrocentrist estimates put it closer to 200 individuals. Presumably there was a somewhat larger group in the 1850s, and at any rate their presence shows that a known group of Black people could maintain their genetic identity for a century or more despite living among a different population. Early ethnographies done of these “Black Soviets” recorded oral histories indicating their origins as Ottoman slaves.
Sykes will need some very strong genetic evidence to overcome the impression that the story of Zana is a racist exaggeration of the horrific abuse heaped upon a feral or mentally impaired member of the former slave class. To speculate without clear evidence is quite close to perpetuating the horrific legacy of slavery.
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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