According to Brazilian stories, the Mapinguari or Mapinguary was once an Amazonian shaman who discovered the key to immortality thousands of years ago. He angered the gods and was severely punished as to his discovery, which forced him to be transformed into a wandering, hairy beast for the rest of his life.
Due to application of the name to what seem to be different cryptids, modern sightings show the beast as a giant sloth, whereas older sightings described it as an ape-like creature. Many cryptozoologists speculate that the Mapinguari is either a mylodontid or a megalonychid, medium-sized giant ground sloths from the Ice Age that lived in the area. The creature also supposedly has a horrid odor, which supposedly can knock a man unconcious. It is said to sometimes be a humanoid creature with a mouth in the middle of its stomach. It is sometimes said to have one eye, long claws, caiman skin, backward feet and a second mouth on its belly. Some samples of Mapinguari "hair" and "droppings" were collected by investigator David Oren, but turned out to be the deposits of giant anteaters and the hair of small rodents.
Initial descriptions of the mapinguari's appearance were vague. It was described as a primate, dark and thickset and bipedal, but still very agile. The traditional, folkloric depiction of the mapinguari is that of an ape- or man-like creature. It was described to investigator Paulo Aníbal G. Mesquita as a flat-snouted quadrupedal animal (which could nonetheless assume a bipedal gait) with caiman-like skin, long brown fur, a flattened snout, and robust claws. When startled it was said to rear up on its hind legs and show its claws, and some informants told Mesquita that it emitted an "extremely foul odour from its belly".
David Oren pieced together a description of the mapinguari in 1993, based on interviews with a number of claimed eyewitnesses. From their accounts, he described the mapinguari as a man-sized animal, no more than a metre and eighty centimetres long, with long reddish fur, backwards feet, and a monkey-like face. Later, in 2001, after speaking with more witnesses and seven hunters who claimed to have killed specimens, Oren was able to give a presumably more accurate description of the animal. According to his 2001 paper, the mapinguari is a very heavy, powerfully-built animal, up to two metres (6'6'') tall when standing bipedally, which breaks the roots of trees with its steps. It is covered in long and coarse fur which ranges in colour from reddish to brownish to blackish, and has a muzzle similar to that of a horse or a burro, though shorter, which is armed with four peg-shaped canine teeth. Its formidable claws are shaped like those of the giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), but are the size of those of the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus). Its tail is short, short and broad. Various other physical features which may apply to the mapinguari are described in the segamai and kida harara—for instance, the matted fur of the segamai is said to resemble the fibers on the trunk of an Oenocarpus palm; and the segamai and kida harara are both said to live in caves.
Sometimes, but not often, it is described as having more fantastic characteristics such as a single eye, and a mouth in its abdomen. Oren writes that the single eye appears predominately in legend, not usually in first-hand sightings. Most famously, it is reputed to be invulnerable to bullets and arrows unless hit in the navel, the eye(s), the mouth, or sometimes elsewhere on the head. This invulnerability is sometimes attributed to thick or crocodile -like skin, or to the animal's hair. Hunters who claim to have shot specimens say they used special solid lead shotgun slugs fired at the head; a special shot used for hunting tapirs fired at the navel from a .16 calibre shotgun; and all the bullets of a .38 caliber revolver, emptied into the chest.
Two kinds of tracks are attributed to the mapinguari. The first, and most common, are as "round as a pestle" (like those attributed to the pé de garrafa) and are found in the ground around vegetation and faeces even during the dry season, when the earth is baked hard. The second tracks are "like people's, but backwards," with only four toes. The mapinguari's faeces were always described to Oren as "just like horses," and are said to contain poorly-broken down, recognisable plant matter such as leaves and stems. Of all the Amazonian mammals, only the South American tapir (Tapirus terrestris) produces similarly horse-like faeces, but this animal usually defecates in water, whereas supposed mapinguari dung is found on land.
According to most accounts it can walk either quadrupedally or bipedally, but the bipedal gait is often described as unsteady (Salinas describes a "Charlie Chaplin" gait). Some sightings, however, describe a fast and agile animal. It is said to be nocturnal and crepuscular (i.e. active at night and twilight), and feeds on vegetation including bacaba (Oenocarpus bacaba) and babassu palms (Attalea speciosa), which it twists to the ground and tears apart in order to feed on the palm heart and berry-like fruits. The diet of the Peruvian segamai is described similarly. In southern Brazil and Paraguay, the mapinguari is blamed for periodically killing vast herds of cattle by pulling out their tongues. It is said to be migratory, descending from the Andean foothills around February in Acre, near the Peruvian border. Salinas claimed to have seen a family group.
Although its call is often described generically as a terrifying roar or bellow, two distinct types of vocalisations are also described. The first is a low call reminiscent of thunder, while the other is a very loud, higher-pitched cry "just like a human shouting," but with a growl at the end. This second cry often impresses and terrifies people who claim to have heard it: claimed eyewitness Innôcencio, who initially mistook the cry for that of a man, described it as "wild and dismal," "horrible, deafening and inhuman." Oren described a call heard by himself as being extremely strong and of steady pitch, lasting for up to forty-five seconds, and resembling "jets flying over low." Grunts, growls, and groans are also sometimes described. When shot, it produces an "extraordinarily loud, human-like scream." A very strong and unpleasant smell is frequently described, compared to a mixture of faeces and rotting flesh; garlic vine (Mansoa alliacea) and a foetid peccary; a skunk; or simply described as "just the worst odor they ever smelled." The smell leaves people light-headed and nauseous, or even renders them unconscious.
Various cryptids very similar to the mapinguari have been reported from other Amazonian nations. The most well-known of these is the Machiguenga segamai, which is described as a cow-sized animal which can walk both quarupedally and bipedally, with dark matted fur (specifically said to resemble the fibers surrounding the leaf stems of an Oenocarpus bataua palm) and a snout "similar to" a giant anteater's. It is said to live in caves in the remote cloud and foothill forests of the Vilcabamba Range, where it feeds on Cyclanthaceae plants and palm piths. The Machiguenga are terrified of it due to its reputedly aggressive behaviour, and it has a number of alleged characteristics in common with the mapinguari: it is said to be impervious to bullets, has a terrible roar, and supposedly generates an odour which stupefies or knocks out anyone who comes close to it.
In 1997, anthropologist Glenn Shepard Jr. suggested to some Machiguenga who told him about the segamai that it might be a bear: the Machiguenga, who knew spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) well, "expressed great surprise and affirmed that the two animals are completely different". One of the tribe matter-of-factly told him that he had seen a segamai at Lima's Natural History Museum when he was a student, and when Shepard checked, he discovered that the museum had a diorama featuring a model of a giant ground sloth.
Ecuador's version of the mapinguari is the semi-mythical ujea, which is said to have been wiped out by the Shuar people, who used to hunt it. A Shuar source describes it as a bear-man hybrid with an odour strong enough "to knock a grown man unconscious," which feeds on flower nectar and is not dangerous to man, leading to it formerly being hunted by the Shuar. A picture drawn by the Shuar who gave this description depicts the ujea as a man-like being with shaggy red hair on its head and back, a long tongue, and strongly hooked claws. Another cryptid "very much resembling a ground sloth" was reportedly seen by a cave in Ecuador once in the 1980's, by a colleague of cryptozoologist J. Richard Greenwell. It was described as a 10' long animal with shaggy hair and a horselike snout, and was capable of standing bipedally to browse on vegetation, and walking quadrupedally.
Some zoologists who have heard stories of the mapinguari have suggested that it sounds more like a bear than a sloth or an ape, and Kenneth Campbell and Brad Rancy theorised that it could be explained by spectacled bears (Tremarctos ornatus) seasonally coming down from the cold mountains during the winter, into Brazil's warmer climate. However, wild bears have never been recorded in Brazil, and Oren notes that the Peruvian segamai, which may be the same animal as the mapinguari, is described by the Machiguenga people as a totally different kind of animal to a bear, with which they are familiar. Questioned by naturalist Richard Rasmussen, Salinas was certain that the animals he had seen were not bears.
During Pat Spain's "animal identity parade" interview with Geovaldo for Beast Man, the animals which he is shown (onscreen) to have no reaction to are an African elephant, a Bengal tiger, a spectacled bear, a white rhinoceros, and a gorilla. He showed no recognition of the spectacled bear, and thought the gorilla could be some sort of monkey. Geovaldo recognised the giant anteater and stated that the animal he had seen was "much, much different," with the only slight similarity being in the arms.
Cryptozoologists including Bernard Heuvelmans, Ivan T. Sanderson, and Loren Coleman have traditionally regarded the mapinguari as a bipedal primate similar to an ape, like other South American cryptids including the curupiru or the didi of Guyana, which is sometimes considered to be the same animal. Though this theory is no longer so popular as it once was, it is defended by cryptozoologists including Coleman, who notes that certain sightings cannot refer to ground sloths. The earliest descriptions and sightings described an animal more like a primate, and according to Coleman, the animal responsible for pulling the tongues out of cattle—if they were not simply scavenged—must have had enormous strength and great hand dexterity.
In a 1993 paper for Goeldiana Zoologia, David Oren demonstrated how each of the mapinguari's characteristics, as they were then known, were consistent with a human-sized mylodontid ground sloth. Almost all known hair samples from mummified ground sloths are reddish in colour. They are believed to have walked with their claws turned inwards, which would give rise to stories of backwards feet, as the unusual curvature would lead people to interpret the tracks the wrong way around, and fossil ground sloth tracks have been misinterpreted as giant human footprints, which they closely resemble in the past (Heuvelmans attributed backwards footprints in Asia to bears for similar reasons). Oren suggests that the more common, round track attributed to the mapinguari could be the imprint of the tip of its powerful tail. The fossilised faeces of ground sloths are almost identical to those of horses, just like the mapinguari. The mapinguari's reputed invulnerability could be explained twofold, by a mylodontids triple-layered bone ossicles covering the shoulders, back, and thighs, as well as the powerful, almost-fused ribcage present in some ground sloths—the combination of both characteristics would explain why only a shot to the navel or face can kill a mapinguari. Although ground sloths are famous for their great size, not all were so large, and since forest animals are frequently smaller than their open-environment cousins, it would make sense for a jungle ground sloth to be smaller. Oren's study of ground sloth hyoid bones suggested to him that they would have been capable of loud vocalisations, as indeed modern sloths are. Only the monkey-like face is inconsistent with what is known of ground sloths, but Oren suggested that some species could have had such faces, as the tree sloths do.
When Oren proposed a mylodontid identity, he had not spoken to anyone who claimed to have killed a specimen, and the hunters he spoke to afterwards did not mention the more fantastic traits, and gave details which both reinforced the ground sloth theory—including a head like a horse as opposed to a monkey, a slightly larger size and build, and hooked claws like those of an anteater—and suggested a slightly different familial identity, including four peg-like "canine teeth". Following the hunters' accounts, Oren modified his theory, suggesting that the mapinguari would be a megalonychid, not mylodontid, ground sloth: megalonychids, almost alone amongst the ground sloths, had frontal caniniform teeth (as did some specimens of mylodontids such as Glossotherium and Lestodon), and walked on the soles of their hind feet, so a sloth with "fangs" and a flat-footed locomotion could only be a megalonychid. Reconstructions of Megalonyx have twice been identified as the mapinguari by claimed eyewitnesses (Geovaldo and Salinas). Although megalonychids did not have ossicles like mylodontids, they still had very powerful ribcages. Additionally, some accounts ascribe the mapinguari's invulnerability to its hair, not any sort of armour—although the Karitiana kida harara, which is supposed to have fangs, is said to have "pebbles" under its skin. Oren also admitted that the hunters did not describe a ground sloth-like tail.
In Pat Spain's investigation into the kida harara, a slowed-down sloth call was blasted in the rainforest. Spain believed he may have got a vocal response which sounded similar to his modified sloth call. Eyewitness Geovaldo was shown images of various animals, both South American and African. Geovaldo identified the South American animals (the spectacled bear excepted), but not the African ones, as would be expected. When an image of the ground sloth Megalonyx was shown, Geovaldo unhesitatingly nodded and identified it as what he had seen, stating that "it was kind of like that. I think that was the animal. I really think that looks like it. Its arms were just like that." One difference he noted was that the claws on what he saw were similar, but even larger—other than that, it had the same body, the same arms, and the same face.
The Mapinguari is featured on the show Beast Hunters. As said in the episode it is also commonly featured in Brazilian culture. This creature is also hunted in the show Monsters Underground, which is on Destination America. Bill Brock and his team head to Graveyard Gulch, located in Northern California, and investigate the reason for recent unexplained black bear deaths. In season 2 episode 5 of Destination Truth the team searches for the Mapinguari in the Amazonian rain-forest.
Also, a mapinguari named Guava is featured in a trilogy called The Menagerie, written by Tui T Sutherland.
- Oren, David "Did Ground Sloths Survive to Recent Times in the Amazon Region?" Goeldiana Zoologia (1993)
- Oren, David "Does the Endangered Xenarthran Fauna of Amazonia Include Remnant Ground Sloths?" Xenarthra (2001)
- "Segamai: Survival of the Pleistocene ground sloth?," Biological and Social Assessments of the Cordillera de Vilcabamba, Peru (RAP Working Papers 12, June 2001)
- Sutherland, Tui T, and Kari Sutherland. The Menagerie. HarperCollins Children's Books, 2013 / Ibid. Dragon on Trial. HarperCollins Children's Books, 2014 / Ibid. Sutherland, Tui T, and Kari Sutherland. Krakens and Lies. HarperCollins Children's Books, 2015