Australian Cryptozoology

Gary Opit, 2009 (pp 162)

(Available from author; request details at garyopit@bigpond.com)

(Investigator 129, 2009 November)


This ring-bound, A4-sized self-published work is the latest addition to the already strong tradition of cryptozoological work emanating from the Big Brown Land.

It joins the offerings of such as Healy & Cropper (1994), Smith (1996) and other works on 'bunyips', 'Tim the Yowie-Man' (2001), etc, a veritable string of books specifically dedicated to the thylacine ('Tasmanian Tiger'); also: sections in works on Australian mysteries (including spectacular claims about eg surviving populations of the 'giant goanna' megalania and even surviving dinosaurs in the writings of the maverick Rex Gilroy, whom Opit takes seriously as a 'naturalist'; see p 27); Australia-focused sections in general cryptozoological books; various articles in Cryptozoology and other journals; and now of course web-based material.

The indigenous fauna of Australasia is distinguished by the absence of any (scientifically recognised) placental land-dwelling mammals, which apparently never crossed the 'Wallace Line'; even the well-known dingo was introduced by Aboriginal people around 4,000 years ago.[1] In their place, we find the familiar marsupials and three species of monotreme (two in Australia).[2] The cryptids reported in Australia by more sober authors include:
a) surviving populations of large marsupials deemed extinct by mainstream scholarship (notably thylacines and the 'marsupial lion' thylacoleo);
b) out-of-place placentals (or quasi-placentals) such as big cats (as in the UK and eastern North America) and the 'yowie' (Australia's equivalent of the Asian yeti and the North American bigfoot/sasquatch);
c) animals of uncertain classification (notably the 'bunyip').[3]
In his rather disjointed introduction, Opit first explains the focus of cryptozoology and summarises the content and character of much of the earlier Australian material. He then provides a string of summaries of Australian cryptid sightings, mainly of yowies, which would probably be better relocated to the relevant later chapters (see below).

In the final section of the introduction, Opit engages in a critique of contemporary science in a manner typical of the genre, arguing on the strength of carefully selected facts that science has been much less successful than its practitioners would claim in arriving at accounts of aspects of the physical universe (including humanity itself).

To some degree, in fact, he seems to adopt the popular view of science as concerned mainly with conclusions (rather than with the scientific method and the ongoing revision of theories in response to expanding knowledge) – and the associated fringe perception of scientists as unwilling to consider new or non-standard ideas. In addition, he adopts the 'trendy' view of traditional belief systems (here, Aboriginal) as reflecting the true structure of the universe more accurately than contemporary science and thus demonstrating the superior wisdom of traditional peoples.

Some of Opit' s own extrapolations from the scientific data he cites are themselves almost mystical and involve undefined claims about 'vibration', 'dimensions beyond light-speed', etc – again as is currently popular in New Age thought. This kind of extreme fringe claim is not required for or relevant to the substantiation of reports of flesh-and-blood cryptids. (Despite the above, Opit rejects the view of cryptids as paranormal entities; see p 57.) These reports, if valid, will (eventually, in favourable circumstances) meet the normal standards of scientific evidence and be accepted by mainstream thought; they cannot be usefully justified in terms of weaker empirical standards associated with non-standard pseudo-science.

Opit's focus on these ideas will weaken the book in the eyes of scientists and is thus counter-productive. In addition, these ideas stand in confusing contrast with Opit's own stated and repeatedly instantiated commitment to the need for careful empirical study if cryptids – even those frequently reported anecdotally, as recounted in this and other books – are to be accepted as genuine (a pattern of conceptual tension familiar in this kind of context).

In the body of the book, Opit commences with an essentially uncontroversial discussion of the Australian environment, flora and fauna as it has developed over time (chapter 1) and a chapter (2) on 'Aboriginal People and the Australian Mind'. This latter chapter again presents a highly positive view of traditional Aboriginal beliefs about the relationship between people and the land (identified in the introduction as 'proven' by scientific data). Opit stresses Aboriginal beliefs surrounding the 'dreaming', and urges that all people embrace such ideas as reflecting spiritual reality and engendering more fruitful attitudes to humanity and the world.[4]

Although this point is not foregrounded in this chapter, Aboriginal beliefs of course include belief in the 'real' existence of creatures which count as cryptids in the context of 'western' science, and in fact the very distinction between 'real' creatures and eg spiritual entities is typically interpreted differently in such traditions.

In the later chapters, reference is made to these ideas (and, interestingly for this reviewer, to the names of the cryptids in the relevant Aboriginal languages), as well as to modern reports of the creatures in question (involving either chance sightings or expeditions) and earlier discussions of these matters. All these types of datum are obviously of great interest. Opit reproduces newspaper reports and other documents, and refers where appropriate to physical evidence such as casts of alleged footprints, structures supposedly created by yowies, the bodies of animals apparently killed by cryptids, objects scraped or disturbed by them, etc (he includes photographs).

In these later chapters, Opit deals with yowies and a range of similar creatures (chapters 3-8), putatively marsupial 'cats' (chapter 10), anomalous 'big cats' (chapter 11), bunyips (chapter 12) and thylacines (chapter 13). He also includes discussion (chapter 9, ie pp 85-86, also pp 28-30) of the possibility of the local survival of homo erectus, whose remains have not actually been found in Australia but have been discovered, spectacularly, in long-insular Flores. In this context there is also a brief reference (p 28) to the 'hobbits' more recently found in Flores. The final chapter (14) deals with the ri or 'New Guinea mermaid', which he links with Elaine Morgan's highly controversial 'aquatic ape' theory of human evolution (which Opit takes very seriously, without however rehearsing the scholarly objections).

Again interestingly for this reviewer, Opit refers (albeit very naively) to (quasi-)linguistic behaviour on the part of yowies (p 45); and in chapters 9 and 14 he summarises claims to the effect that cryptids probably representing surviving homo erectus exhibit linguistic behaviour (p 86) – compare Woods (1997), etc on the alleged (pre-)linguistic behaviour of sasquatches – and that the development of language was crucial in the differentiation of homo sapiens (and its closest relatives such as erectus?) from their hominid predecessors (pp 158-159; citing here Jared Diamond).

Opit is a serious (if at times arguably selective) student of the technical literature. Each chapter contains extensive references to relevant scientific literature, especially where it can (possibly sometimes dubiously) be adduced in support of his ideas, and a bibliography, and the work ends with a general bibliography.
There is clearly a reasonable case to be made that some of these cryptids might be genuine animals; others are more suspect. However, Opit personally is evidently totally persuaded that his cryptids are genuine animals and that the zoological mainstream is grossly in error in rejecting them. (He takes a similar view of non-Australian cryptids, accepting eg the 1967 Gimlin/Patterson sasquatch film as veridical and arguing against some skeptical points; see pp 73-74.) Indeed, he makes frequent statements in which the existence of a given cryptid species or a reported observation of a specimen is treated as a matter of plain fact. Some of these statements refer to field observations (often prolonged and/or repeated) reported by his associate Pixie Byrnes, who provides drawings of the animals. But in this context one might reasonably expect Opit to provide photographs, which would furnish some more of the hard evidence for these cryptids which – as Opit admits (p 14) – is at present often conspicuously minimal, despite the fact that the entities in question appear to observers to be flesh-and-blood animals like any other animal. (Of course, this is precisely why these alleged creatures remain cryptids.) However convinced Opit himself is, he would do well to adopt a less forthright stance, and to take contrary mainstream views more seriously, if he wishes to influence the scholarly community. But he has given that community plenty to (re-)consider!

NOTES

[1] But note that mysterious animals closely resembling antlered deer are shown in the 'Bradshaw' rock art of the Kimberley (itself of disputed provenance); see eg Wilson (2006). Opit addresses the question of how various placental mammal species could have reached the Australian bush (eg p 57 on yowies, pp 115-117 on big cats) – with varying degrees of plausibility.

[2] Remote New Zealand's land-dwelling fauna is even sparser, and included no mammals at all until humans and accompanying kiore rats arrived, apparently around 1000 CE.

[3] The main New Zealand cryptid reports involve the moa, a genus of giant ratite birds thought by most scholars to have been exterminated by the Polynesian settlers.

[4] In this context, it should be noted that – as reported by eg Josephine Flood – some traditional Aborigines who become familiar with Europeans, especially scientists and such, perceive them as 'having no dreaming' and thus as 'going their own way'. But for many 'western' scholars, this emancipation from their people's own traditional beliefs is to be seen as part of the legacy of the Enlightenment from which science and critical philosophy emerged, and thus as advantageous – as long as the traditional beliefs are not merely discarded but rather taken into account both for such merit as they do possess and as objects of study in themselves.

REFERENCES


Healy, T. & Cropper, P. Out Of The Shadows: Mystery Animals Of Australia (1994) Panmacmillan, Australia, Ironbark (NSW)

Smith, M. Bunyips And Bigfoots: In Search Of Australia's Mystery Animals (1996) Millennium Books, Alexandria (NSW)

'Tim the Yowie-Man' The Adventures Of Tim the Yowie-Man, Cryptonaturalist (2001) Random House, Australia, Milson's Point (NSW)

Wilson, I. Lost World Of The Kimberley: Extraordinary Glimpses Of Australia's Ice Age Ancestors (2006) Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest (NSW)

Woods, L. Story In The Snow (1997) Galde Press, Lakeville (Minnesota)

(Mark Newbrook)


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