Neanderthals in First Nations Tradition
Legend of the Wildman
Nearly every folkloric tradition on earth has a story about a race of primitive wildmen that lived deep in the wilderness, beyond the outskirts of civilization. Some of these legendary people, like the one-eyed cyclops of Greek mythology or the Yeti of Tibetan tradition, are described as monstrous beings considerably larger than the average man. Others, like the ebu gogo of Flores, Indonesia, or the dwarf of Germanic folklore, are distinguished by their smallness. Others still, like the Greek satyr and the medieval European woodwose, are neither especially large, nor particularly small, but comparable in size to man.
Since the late 1700s, the Western mind has generally relegated the wildman to the realm of fantasy, to keep company with dragons, unicorns, and other fabulous animals born of the fevered imaginings of our less enlightened ancestors. This past century, however, has seen that universal mainstay of fireside fables make a gradual return to the land of plausibility, beginning with credible eyewitness reports of wildmen encountered in the most far-flung corners of the globe.
Ivan Sanderson’s Wildman Classification System
Among the first modern scientists to seriously consider the possibility that the legendary wildman might have some basis in reality was a maverick Scottish-American biologist named Ivan T. Sanderson. In his 1961 book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life, Sanderson proposed that the Sasquatch of British Columbia, the Yeren of China, and other wildmen spotted throughout the world were really different species of undiscovered bipedal hominids, or great apes. He divided these hypothetical species into four taxonomic classes based on physical characteristics and behavior, namely Neo-Giants, Sub-Humans, Sub-Hominids, and Proto-Pigmies. Neo-Giants, as their name suggests, are much larger than humans, being “taller than average man by at least a foot or two; much bulkier, with enormous barrel torso and no neck.” Proto-Pigmies, conversely, are described as being “smaller than average humans, to tiny.” Sub-Hominids, though only slightly larger than the average man, are distinguished by their “excessively bestial” nature, and of the four classes are “in every way the least human.” The most humanlike of the four classes are the Sub-Humans – primitive, tool-wielding wildmen who haunt the wilderness of East Eurasia and the Orient, who eerily evoke the ancient Neanderthal and Denisovan whose bones have been found in caves nearby.
What are Neanderthals?
Although it would undoubtedly have been worth our while to make a brief digression here, before proceeding, into the nature of the Neanderthal and his mysterious Asian cousin, the Denisovan, the truth is that there is no real consensus in the world of anthropology as to what Neanderthals are, when they lived, how they behaved, or what became of them. Decades of academic fraud perpetrated in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries thoroughly muddied the waters of the Neanderthal debate – a long-fought ongoing battle waged between ever-evolving camps of scholarly thought. Suffice to say that Neanderthals or ‘Neandertals’ are generally believed to be archaic humans who lived alongside our Stone Age ancestors throughout Europe and Central Asia. They are supposed to have been slightly shorter and far more robust than Homo sapiens, or modern humans, with huge barrel-shaped ribcages, large elongated skulls, wide pelvises, and stocky limbs. They are believed to have made primitive tools, and to have hunted large game in small bands. Their relationship with Homo sapiens is a subject of great contention among anthropologists. Some scholars believe that they competed fiercely with humans for resources. Others contend that they interbred with humans, arguing that traces of Neanderthal DNA are present in the human genome. Other still believe that Neanderthals hunted humans for sustenance, instilling in our genetic memory a primordial dread of humanlike predators. Whatever the case, most scholars agree that, sometime in the distant past, Neanderthals vanished from existence, perhaps succumbing to human competition, genetic deterioration resultant of inbreeding, or climate change.
The Chuchunaa and the Almas
Sanderson’s ‘Sub-Human’ class, the most humanlike of the elusive hairy hominids reported in wilderness areas throughout the world, so evocative of the ancient Neanderthal, has since been reclassified by other scientists interested in the subject of the wildman. In her 1983 book Still Living?: Yeti, Sasquatch, and the Neanderthal Enigma, British archaeologist Dr. Myra Shackley divided Sanderson’s ‘Sub-Humans’ into two different categories. One category is populated exclusively by the chuchunaa, a 6-foot-tall skin-clad troglodyte, or cave-dweller, spotted in the mountains of Siberia, which Shackley proposed was some variety of human. The other is populated by the almas, a smaller manlike creature reported throughout Central Asia, from the Caucasus Mountains to the Gobi Desert, which she proposed was a surviving Neanderthal.
Shackley first alluded to the possibility that the Neanderthal might still exist today in her 1980 book Neanderthal Man. “Even back in the days of the ‘extinction’ hypothesis,” she wrote, referring to the theory that the Neanderthal died out thousands of years ago due to out-competition by Homo sapiens, “it was suggested that relict populations of Neanderthals might have survived long after the death of their companions, eking out a miserable existence far from the best hunting grounds and eventually fading quietly away. And then there was the suggestion, at first dismissed as unquestionably ‘lunatic fringe’, that some of the stories told of creatures living in the high mountain regions of the Himalayas, Mongolia, and the Caucasus might represent those relict-populations of Neanderthals who have retreated to a climate in which they were well fitted to survive, and where they were unlikely to meet with much competition. This suggestion is being taken very seriously by some extremely reputable scientists, and it is no longer possible to dismiss it out of hand.”
Neandertaloids, Marked Hominids, and Erectus Hominids
The scientists to which Shackley alluded may have included cryptozoologists Loren Coleman and Patrick Huygue, who essentially, if not explicitly, divided Sanderson’s ‘Sub-Humans’ into three of their own subdivisions in their 1999 book The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. One of these subdivisions was the Neandertaloid class which, in spite of Dr. Shackley’s 1983 proposal, did not include the almas of Central Asia. “Neandertaloids average about 6 feet tall and have a stocky, muscular build,” they wrote. “Their bodies sport a reddish hair, and males generally have abundant facial hair, often with a fringe beard… All Neandertaloids have heavy browridges and a large, broad nose.”
Coleman and Huygue’s second subdivision of Sanderson’s ‘Sub-Human’ category is the ‘Marked Hominid’ class, to which Shackley’s chuchunaa belongs, whose members abide in the Siberian, Alaskan, and Canadian subarctic. “Though often mistaken for the Sasquatch,” they wrote, “Marked Hominids are actually more human-looking and somewhat shorter than the classic Neo-Giant… about seven feet tall… with firm, powerful bodies… with well-developed legs and shoulder muscles.”
Coleman and Huygue’s third subdivision is the ‘Erectus Hominid’ class, which includes the almas, the Chinese Yeren, and other mystery hominids which they claimed “have in the past been misidentified as Neanderthal,” alluding perhaps to Shackley’s work. “The Erectus Hominids,” they wrote, “are human-sized to about 6 feet tall. Their bodies are also within the standard human range with a slight barreling of the chest. They are partially to fully hairy, with head hair longer than their body hair.”
Tema’ut: The Cavemen of Shuswap Country
Canada has a few legendary wildmen who could easily fit into Coleman and Huygue’s ‘Marked Hominid’, ‘Erectus Hominid’, and ‘Neandertaloid’ classes, into Shackley’s chuchunaa and almas classes, and into Sanderson’s broader ‘Sub-Human’ class. British Columbia’s Shuswap people, for example, who lived at the northern end of the Interior Plateau, in Canada’s northwestern Rocky Mountains, and in the forests east of Cariboo Country, tell traditional stories about a short, robust, humanlike creature they called tema’ut. Scots-Canadian anthropologist James Teit described this legendary entity in his 1909 treatise on the Shuswap for the American Museum of Natural History.
“Beings called tema’ut or temtemana’ut,” Teit wrote, “are said to be occasionally seen. They are described as very short, from about four feet to four feet and a half tall, with underset strong bodies, sometimes obese, and with heads of peculiar shape. They are said to be very wild, and to live in holes in the ground. They are believed to have no real language, but make jabbering noises.”
Teit went on to relate a story about a family of tema’ut who lived at the confluence of Deep Creek and Soda Creek, about eleven miles (17 kilometres) northwest of Williams Lake, BC, not far from the Fraser River. A local Shuswap band became aware of their presence after finding a number of small footprints on the creek bank leading into holes in a slope nearby.
“They watched from above,” he wrote, “and saw the tema’ut emerge from the holes at dusk, and repair to a shingly bank near the mouth of the creek, where they began to play. At daybreak they suddenly disappeared. One night the people surrounded them, and lay in wait. Just when the day began to break, they rushed on them as they were playing, and succeeded in capturing one girl. The others escaped, and never showed themselves at this place again. The girl was very wild and could not talk. After a long time she became tame, and gradually learned how to speak. She married a Soda Creek man and had many descendants. They were all short, stout people, and partook of all her characteristics. They were superior, both physically and mentally, and all of them were great wrestlers.”
Woodland and Swampy Cree Legend of the Hairy-Breasts
The Woodland Cree of Northern Saskatchewan have their own legends about primitive hairy men who waged war against their ancestors in ancient times, small populations of which were said to still exist in the forests of Quebec and Northern Ontario in the early 1800s. A proud but foolish people, these so-called ‘Ancients’ or ‘Hairy Breasts’ were said to be great hunters who never used the bow and arrow, but killed their prey by running them down, leaping on top of them, and tearing them open with knives of stone or bone. They were brutal to the Cree warrior they captured in battle, torturing them cruelly before executing them. They also captured Cree women and kept them as slaves in their camps.
19th Century fur trader George Nelson included several traditional stories featuring these primitive people in his various letters and memoirs, having heard the tales from the Woodland Cree of Lac La Ronge, Saskatchewan, and the Swampy Cree of Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba. In one of the stories he related, a Cree hero named Nayhanimis tricked a party of Hairy-Breast warriors who had preyed on his people into impaling themselves on spike traps he had built. When all the Hairy-Breast men had been killed, all the Cree women who had been captured by those primitive people tortured the Hairy-Breast women and children to death, hoping that their pain would appease the ghosts of the fallen Cree warriors who had met similar fates at the hands of their Stone Age enemies.
Plains Cree Legend of the Hairy Hearts
Saskatchewan folklorist Reverend Edward Ahenakew, an Anglican priest of Cree heritage, included the humorous Plains Cree version of this tale in his article Cree Trickster Tales, published in the 1929 issue of the Journal of American Folklore. In this version of the story, the protagonist is Wesakaychak, the legendary father of Nayhanimis. The story begins with Wesakaychak’s visit to a Cree camp, and his somber welcome by the chief.
“You have come at a time of sorrow,” the chief told the newcomer. “Yesterday one of our young men, who had been out hunting, failed to return. We know only too well what has happened to him. There are hairy beings living some distance from here who have been instrumental in the death of a number of our young men. Whenever they find a man walking through the forest alone they kill him and eat him… These beings are known as Hairy Hearts.”
Hoping to put an end to the Hairy Hearts and their predations, Wesakaychak wandered over to a lake where many hunters had gone missing and pretended to fall into a spike trap the monsters had laid for the Cree. He was shortly picked up by a Hairy Heart, who believed him to be dead, and who carried him off to his camp. There, the mischievous hero spent a day and night playing tricks on the dim-witted cannibals, from which he derived great pleasure. Finally, he laid a trap for the monsters, lured them into it, and dispatched them all with his war club. When his enemies all lay dead before him, Wesakaychak cut out their hairy hearts, burned them, and scattered the ashes to the wind. Following a motif which recurs in the monster stories of the westerly Salish Indians, the ashes all transformed into timid rabbits which hopped away into the forest.
Rocky Cree Legend of the Hairy-Heart People
A variation of the Hairy Breast legend also exists among the Rocky Cree of Northwestern Manitoba. In his 1989 book on the oral traditions of the Rock Cree of Granville Lake, Manitoba, American anthropologist Robert A. Brightman included three stories featuring a primitive, man-eating tribe whom the natives called the Hairy-Heart People.
In Brightman’s first Hairy-Heart story, told by Cree elder Selazie Linklater and translated by Caroline Caribou, a Hairy-Heart father and son stalk a band of Cree, whom they intend to eat. The Hairy-Heart father is described as having mystical abilities which allow him to remotely locate his human prey and to masterfully camouflage himself and his son. The two predators also seem to have some sort of psychic connection with each other.
The cannibals are too powerful for humans to best in open combat, and so the Cree run and hide from them. The Indians initially manage to evade their pursuers through the magical workings of their chief, a medicine man endowed with the gift of clairvoyance. After the cannibals capture and eat several Cree children, however, the Cree chief invites the predators into his lodge.
Inside, the Hairy-Hearts lose their power, which melts away owing to the warmth of the fire. They then pretend to make peace with the Cree, and each of them marries a Cree woman. Secretly, however, the Hairy-Hearts plan to eat their new kinsmen at the earliest opportunity.
Later on, while out hunting in the cold, the Hairy-Heart son regains his power, but is ambushed and killed by his suspicious brothers-in-law before he can carry out his sinister plan. Back at camp, the Hairy-Heart father, who psychically learns of his son’s death, murders a woman. Before he can inflict further damage, he is clubbed to death by Cree warriors, who only manage to prevail against him because the fire in the lodge had made him weak.
Brightman’s second story, narrated by Cornelius Colomb, begins with a brief description of the Hairy-Heart people and their antagonistic relationship with the Cree. According to Colomb, the Hairy-Hearts killed Indians whenever they encountered them. They slaughtered the men, ate the children, and kept the women as wives. On one occasion, however, they deviated from their regular modus operandi by adopting a young Cree warrior who had murdered his own uncle.
Another of the young man’s uncles, a fearsome battle-scarred brave named Kayanwi, set out to bring his nephew to justice. He tracked his murderous kinsman to a beaver lodge, where the band of Hairy-Hearts who had adopted the latter were busy hunting beavers. Through artifice and deception, Kayanwi managed to kill all the Hairy-Heart men with his knife, and finally shot his nephew in the ribs with an arrow. He then found the Cree women who had been captured by the Hairy-Hearts and advised them to slaughter the wives of their captors with their own stone axes. The women followed his suggestion and wiped out the Hairy-Heart band.
Brightman’s third story, also told by Colomb, is nearly identical to Ahenakew’s story. Instead of Wesakaychak, however, the hero of this tale is Kayanwi, the protagonist of the previous story.
Nuk-Luk of the Nahanni Valley
Another race of primitive people are said to live in the valley of the South Nahanni River, a storied waterway which runs through the Mackenzie Mountains near the southern border of Yukon and the Northwest Territories, through what is popularly known as the Headless Valley. In addition to being the very first UNESCO World Heritage site and a destination for world-class canoeists, the Nahanni National Park, through which the South Nahanni Runs, is home to a number of disturbing legends, most of which revolve around a series of mysterious decapitations and disappearances which took place in the area throughout the 20th Century.
One of the Nahanni’s many legends tells of a race of brutal Stone Age warriors called the Naha who once inhabited the region, who occasionally raided nearby Dene camps in the lowlands along the Liard River, into which the South Nahanni drains. Every once in a while, these Paleolithic savages would leave their camp at the mouth of Prairie Creek, a tributary of the Nahanni, or the so-called Mongol Caves which overlook the river, in which some storytellers say the Naha made their homes, and headed downriver, armed with weapons of stone and bone. The warriors would proceed to climb Nahanni Butte, a lone mountain which stands at the mouth of the South Nahanni, overlooking the Liard lowlands, and scan the valley below for any sign of campfire smoke.
As I put it in my 2018 book Legends of the Nahanni Valley, which delves into the many legends associated with the region, “When [the Naha] located an enemy camp they deemed worth raiding, they descended the mountain and set off through the woods towards their quarry. If the ensuing skirmish was a success, the Naha tortured the surviving enemy warriors, mutilated the bodies of their fallen comrades, executed their children, and carried their wives and daughters off into the mountains.
“According to Herb Norwegian, the [former] Grand Chief of the Dehcho (i.e. Slavey) First Nation, ‘It came to a point where the people in the flats and lowlands couldn’t put up with the continuous raiding every year, so finally the elders got together and said ‘we got to put a stop to this.’ It was decided that a massive Dene war party would head into the Nahanni Valley to eliminate the Naha threat once and for all.
“The Dene warriors marched into Naha territory without meeting any resistance and soon espied the smoke of a distant campfire. Upon rushing into the camp with their weapons drawn, however, they found that the Naha were nowhere to be found. It was as if their enemies had vanished into thin air. Terrified that they would suffer a similar fate if they lingered, the Dene braves beat a hasty retreat back to the lowlands. They never saw the Naha again.”
In 1965, five young American men who styled themselves the ‘American Expeditionary Society’ made an exploratory expedition to the Nahanni Valley under the auspices of the Minnesota State University. One of the party was an adventurer named Frank Graves, who took a special interest in the wildman sightings which occurred with casual frequency throughout the region, referenced in Ivan Sanderson’s book Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life.
While staying at the settlement of Nahanni Butte, which lies across the Liard River from the mountain for which it was named, Graves interviewed a number of locals and learned that a population of short, primitive, humanlike creatures vaguely resembling the legendary Naha were said to still inhabit the area. Graves described this phenomenon in my interview with him in the summer of 2018.
“I became friendly with various people,” he said, “the Indians there, the Slaveys and the Cree Indians. And once you get to where they trust you, and will talk to you, that’s when they talked to me about these things. When I got really friendly with the Indians at Nahanni Butte… there’s a place called the Twin Buttes that I couldn’t get to. It wasn’t that far away, but it was an arduous trek to get there. And they told me that there were people living there. And these were, like, sub-human people. They weren’t like Bigfoot. They were, like, little small people that wore clothes – not clothes, but, you know, clothes that they made from skins and things. And that they were very hairy, and that they lived at a place called the Twin Buttes.”
Graves elaborated on the little hairy men of the Nahanni in a 1965 letter to Ivan Sanderson. The informants he consulted told him that one of the smaller wildmen of the sort said to inhabit the Twin Buttes had been spotted on three separate occasions the previous year, first at Fort Liard to the southwest, then at Nahanni Butte, and finally in Fort Simpson to the northeast, as if it were making its way up the Liard River. This creature, Graves wrote, was said to be “rather short in stature and to be quite strong with a beard and usually wearing simple clothing. The name given this creature is Nuk-luk, or ‘Man of the Bush’, or as told to me, by one old man, ‘Bushman’.”
The first Nuk-luk sighting of 1964 was made by several Dene trappers in the woods near Fort Liard. While walking through the bush, the trappers came upon a manlike creature which one of their number, a local school janitor and handyman named John Baptist, described as short, hairy, muscular, naked, and sporting a long dark beard. When they hailed the creature, he uttered a low growl and fled.
The second sighting was made a month later, by Dene woman from Nahanni Butte. The witness was inside her cabin at the time, weaving a birch bark basket. At around dusk, a strange face appeared at the window and peered inside. When it recognized that it had been perceived, the face shrank away.
The third Nuk-luk sighting was made by a 14-year-old boy named Jerry and his father, who lived in the village of Fort Simpson. One evening, at about 9:00, Jerry’s dog began to bark at something in the forest. Suspecting that a bear was on the prowl, Jerry’s father shined a flashlight into the woods, revealing a small, dark, manlike creature wearing a moose-skin loincloth, and carrying a stone club. The creature stood still for several moments, gazing at the flashlight. When the dog resumed its barking, the figure darted across Jerry’s property, ran across a road, and disappeared into the bush.
Loren Coleman and Patrick Huygue included a chapter on the Nuk-Luk in their 1999 book, and placed the creature in the ‘Neandertaloid’ class – one of the three roughly man-sized hominid categories which fit under Sanderson’s broader ‘Sub-human’ umbrella. There is only one other Canadian wildman whom they fit under that same canopy: a mysterious creature called ‘Old Yellow Top’, spotted near the mining town of Cobalt, Ontario, several times throughout the 20th Century, not far from a lake with an equally mysterious secret… but that’s a story for another time.
Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life (1961), by Ivan T. Sanderson
Still Living?: Yeti, Sasquatch, and the Neanderthal Enigma (1983), by Myra Shackley
Neanderthal Man (1980), by Myra Shackley
The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide (1999), by Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe
“History of Modern Man Unravels as German Scholar is Exposed as Fraud: Flamboyant Anthropologist Falsified Dating of Key Discoveries,” by Luke Harding in the February 19th, 2005 issue of The Guardian
“The Neanderthal Debate,” by Emeri Claire Eide in Volume 7, Number 1 of Culture, Society, and Praxis (2008)
“Body Height, Body Mass and Surface Area of the Neandertals,” by H. Helmuth in the October 1998 issue of Zeitschrift fur Morphologie und Anthropologie
Them and Us: How Neanderthal Predation Created Modern Humans (2009), by Danny Vendramini
“The Shuswap,” by James Teit in Volume II, Part VII of the Memoir of the American Museum of Natural History (1909)
“Cree Trickster Tales,” by Reverend Edward Ahenakew in the 1929 issue of the Journal of American Folklore
The Orders of the Dreamed: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823 (1988), by Jennifer S.H. Brown and Robert Brightman
Acaoohkiwina and Acimowina: Traditional Narratives of the Rock Cree Indians (1989), by Robert A. Brightman
Legends of the Nahanni Valley (2018), by Hammerson Peters
Interview with a Cryptid Hunter (2018), by Hammerson Peters