Anthropology and Cryptozoology

Cryptozoology, or the study of purported animals unknown to Western science, has had a long and complicated relationship with the anthropological sciences. Western biology and zoology developed in a context of European colonial expansion. The ethnographic record—the writings of anthropologists working throughout the world—was a crucial source not only of the diversity of global human culture, but of modern ecological and biological science. In the twentieth century, early cryptozoological researchers began to take note of creatures who were “ethno-known,” that is, they appeared in the anthropological record but did not correspond to any living animal known to Western science. Canonical creatures in the cryptozoological literature, including Bigfoot, the dragon of Ishtar Gate, and the south Asian Buru all had their origins in this unwieldy collision between the anthropological record and modern biology.

A close look at the history of cryptozoology and anthropology shows us how modern science superimposed itself over traditional and local knowledge systems. Contemporary anthropologists offer serious critiques of Western science as a total arbiter of all truth-claims, especially when applied to Indigenous worldviews. Where many modern zoologists saw the anthropological record as a resource, many contemporary anthropologists look to the cryptozoological record as a record of traditional ecological knowledge. Is cryptozoology just a pseudoscience? Or do some cryptozoological accounts contain hidden records of traditional ways of relating to the nonhuman world, lifeways rejected by Enlightenment science?


Timothy Grieve-Carlson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. He earned his doctorate in Religion from Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he worked on the Archives of the Impossible Project with Jeffrey Kripal. Timothy was also a 2021-2022 Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on the relationship between environmental phenomena and religious practice. His book manuscript, American Aurora: Environment and Apocalypse in Early Pennsylvania, explores environmental knowledge and apocalyptic thought in the early modern mid-Atlantic world.

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