The Bear and the Wolf are, according to the belief of the American Indians, children and consorts of the first woman, and in both forms the Great Spirit is conceived as embodied.
—Edward Tyrrell Leith,
The Dog in Myth and Custom
|Image: Max Geiger, Flicker, CC BY-SA 2.0|
Many aboriginal cultures, both in northern Eurasia and North America, embraced the idea that bears can interbreed with human beings, a belief that apparently played a role in shamanic ritual long before the advent of writing. The people of these northern cultures took bears as their totems and practiced bear worship. Some continue to do so today, just as their ancestors did in paleolithic times.
The Haida people, an indigenous ethnic group of the North Pacific coast of North America, are a surviving example of this tradition. Their choice of the bear as a totem reflects a story of a Haida maiden who was so foolish as to laugh at the bears. Incensed at this outrage, a great pack of bears suddenly appeared and killed all her companions. The chief bear then took her away and made her his mate. They had a daughter, half human, half bear. And when this weird offspring reached maturity, a hunting party from the tribe cornered her in a tree. At first they thought she was a bear, but when they found she was part human, they urged her to descend and live among them. According to Haida legend this bear-woman is the ancestor of all those entitled to wear the bear crest.
|Bear suckling a child (from The History of Poland by Bernard Connor, London, 1697)|
Such stories are widespread. In Eurasia, Russian fable tells a story of a woman who enters a bear’s den, unites herself with him and later gives birth to a son. She names him Ivanko-Medviedko, meaning “Little John, the son of the bear.” Human down to the waist, he has the lower extremities of a bear, much as satyrs are human above and goat below. It was believed, too, that bears, wolves and other wild animals would sometimes suckle human children (right).
The ancient Greeks and Romans had similar tales. According to Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary, Polyphonta, one of Diana’s nymphs, “devoted herself to celibacy and to a retired life, with such constancy, that
|Juno transforming Calisto into a bear.|
Or an outraged deity might also get vengeance by transforming some hapless mortal into bear. Thus, in the Metamorphoses, when the goddess Juno hears her husband Jove has been philandering with the nymph Calisto, she transforms her into a bear.
Such ideas persisted, and tales of bears carrying women away and raping them found their place in early scientific literature. For example, in his Historium Animalium the zoologist Conrad Gesner (1516–1565) says “A bear, who came down from the alps of the Haute-Savoie, carried
|Woodcut from History of the Northern Peoples (1555, p. 627), by Olaus Magnus, the last archbishop of Sweden, who gave a supposedly historical account of a girl raped by a bear. According to the story, their shaggy son, Ulsonis, went on to found the royal lines of Denmark and Sweden. Translation of Latin: “The rape of a girl, and the conception of Ulsonis, cleverest and bravest of men.”|
The German physician Johann Joachim Becher (1635-1682), in his Physicae subterraneae (1669, II, p. 242), says that “There are various stories, too, of bears and monkeys coupling with
Such ideas even made it into newspapers here in the United States. Thus, the Brownsville Daily Herald, (May 17, 1901, p. 2, col. 1) carried an account of a young woman in Texas being abducted by a bear. It reads as follows: “A paper published in San Francisco tells a marvelous bogey story of
And another Texas newspaper, the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, from (Aug. 3, 1889, p. 2, col. 5) reported a half-bear, half-human “child” birthed by a woman near Camden, Tennessee, a town about halfway between Nashville and Memphis. The title of the story was “HALF HUMAN, HALF BEAR. Fright Produces a Hideous Monstrosity, Brought Forth by a Young Woman in Childbirth.” This account, which harks back to shamanic times, apparently was printed in newspapers across the country at the time (the same story appears, for example, on the front page of the Pittsburg Dispatch on July 31, 1889). It reads as follows:
CAMDEN, TENN., July 30.—A young white woman near here recently gave birth to a half human and half bear, the resemblance to the latter predominating.
The eyes are prominent and set far back in the crown of the head. A human nose in faint outline is seen in the center of the head. A prominent snout projects where the face should be, and from this a long tongue protrudes. The arms and legs are those of [a] human, but the feet and hands are those of an animal, except that the fingers and toes are perfectly those of a human. The creature was still-born. Some months ago the mother was greatly frightened by a pet bear.
The last sentence of the news report refers to the old idea that a pregnant mother being frightened by an animal can result in her later giving birth to a child who resembles that animal, a notion that dates back at least to medieval times. The idea that fright by an animal can impress features of that animal on the unborn is, however, an undocumented phenomenon. Thus, for the allegations made in the last quoted article, only three explanations are available to a modern mind: (1) the report is simply a fabrication or report of a false rumor; (2) it is a sensationalistic exaggeration of certain bearlike features that occurred in a mutant, but non-hybrid, infant; or (3) a very rare and strange hybrid was sired by a pet bear somewhere near Camden, Tennessee in 1889. Of course, on the basis of the information offered here, there is really no way to know which of these three possibilities is correct.
With certainty, one can say only that bear × human is a very poorly documented cross. Reports about matings of this sort, even without the production of hybrids, are both old and smack of myth. Indeed, it’s difficult even to imagine how a bear might “carry a woman away.” They have paws, not hands. Sexual interaction with a pet bear, such as that implied in the Camden account, would be more plausible (and would, in fact, be similar to the case of the probable chimp-human hybrid born at a hospital in Vichy in 1897). But the Camden report seems to be the only case where a bear-human hybrid ever attempted to emerge from the realm of legend, and it didn’t quite succeed in its escape. One more case appears in the news item immediately below, but it still fails to free this hybrid from myth.
|An account of the Durango Bear Lady from page 2 of the February 7, 1855 issue of The American Patriot, a newspaper published in Clinton, Louisiana (access source).|
So given available information, it seems fair to say only that hybridization between humans and bears is much further from the realm of fact than are certain other crosses involving human beings. In particular, hybrids of this kind are far less well documented than such crosses as pig × human or cow × human, for both of which, there are many independent reports attested by many separate eye witnesses. In both of these latter cases, it seems, given what has been reported, that there are even specimens that could perhaps be tracked down. The evidence is especially abundant for pig × human, where actual videos of putative hybrids are available. Even chicken × human has more evidence to support it than bear × human, given that a testable specimen is available in a known location.
Of course, there are those who seem to expect me to voice a definite opinion about whether bear-human hybrids are possible. But with regard to this cross, as with respect to any other, my goal is to present facts, not my own opinions—facts about what others have said, and facts about what has been reported. (I explain my motives for this policy in the introduction.) However, even though I have nothing to say about this cross specifically, I am willing to express an opinion generally and theoretically: After looking at many thousands of different types of crosses among mammals, birds and other types of organisms, I would venture to say that, in some crosses between very disparate types of parents, it seems that the fertilization rate does not go to zero. Instead, empirical evidence suggests that some rescue mechanism exists which allows a percentage of such zygotes to form and develop. In certain types of crosses complete development occurs only at very low rates; a well-documented example is that of turkey × chicken, a cross where only about one insemination in a thousand produces a mature hybrid (McCarthy 2006, p. 51). But saying a cross produces hybrids at only very low rates is not at all the same as saying it never produces them. So the question then becomes “What might be the implications of this phenomenon?”
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
Most shared on Macroevolution.net: