Bear-human Hybrids

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD GENETICS

     
The bear wife was remembered by human beings as a goddess under many names, and there were many stories about her children and what they did in the world.
—Gary Snyder
The Woman Who Married a Bear
brown bear with woman 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. Indeed, some continue this practice even today, just as it has been handed down from paleolithic times. As Edward Tyrrell Leith puts it in his book The Dog in Myth and Custom

Haida bear totem Haida bear totem
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.

The Haida people, native to southern Alaska and northern British Columbia, 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 appears and kills all her companions. The chief bear then takes her away and makes her his mate. They have a daughter, half human and half bear. And later, when the daughter grows up, a hunting party from the tribe corners her in a tree, thinking she is an ordinary bear. But when they realize she is part human, they persuade her to come down and live among them. And now, according to Haida legend, this primal bear-human goddess is the ancestor of all those entitled to wear the bear crest.

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Such stories are widespread. In Eurasia, Russian fable tells 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.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, too, told tales about women mating with bears. 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

Venus, irritated at the contempt she showed her divinity, inspired her with an unnatural passion for a bear, which the unfortunate nymph is said to have gratified. This was no sooner known, than she was detested by Diana, and pursued by all the wild beasts of the forest, but she escaped to her father’s house, where she brought forth twins, to whom she gave the name of Oreius and Agrius.

Or an outraged deity might get vengeance by transforming some hapless mortal into bear. In the Metamorphoses, when the goddess Juno hears her husband Jove has been philandering with the nymph Calisto, she makes her into a bear:

So saying, by her forehead’s tresses seized
the goddess on her rival; and she dragged
her roughly to the ground. Pleading she raised
her suppliant arms and begged for mercy.—While
she pled, black hair spread over her white limbs;
her hands were lengthened into feet, and claws
long-curving tipped them; snarling jaws deformed
the mouth that Jove had kissed. And lest her prayers
and piteous words might move some listening god,
and give remembrance, speech was so denied,
that only from her throat came angry growls,
now uttered hoarse and threatening.

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Juno and Calisto Juno transforming Calisto into a bear.

Poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder (1990, pp. 163-164) expressed an assessment of bears widespread among native Americans:

Bears are so powerful and calm. At the same time, they are the closest of all animals to humans. Everybody says, “After you take a bear’s coat off, it looks just like a human.” And they act human: they fool, they teach their cubs (who are rowdy and curious), and they remember. They are confident. They will eat little trifles, or knock down a moose, with equal grace. Their claws are delicate and precise: they can pick up a nut between two tips. They make love for hours. They are grumpy after naps. They can lope a hundred miles overnight. They seem to be indestructible. They know what is happening, where to go, and how to get there. They are forgiving. They can become enraged, and when they fight it’s as if they feel no pain. They have no enemies, no fears, they can be silly, and they are big-hearted. They are completely at home in the world. They like human beings, and they decided long ago to let the humans join them at the salmon-running rivers and the berry fields.
Conrad Gesner Conrad Gesner
(1516–1565)

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

a girl off to his cavern lair and there raped her. Each day, he gathered fruits and herbs, and brought them back for her to eat. And while away he would block the mouth of the cave with a stone to prevent her escaping. Eventually, however, when her parents after long search found his den, they were able to push the rock aside and rescue her. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin.]

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bear and woman 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

women, and the seed of those beasts, instead of forming the ordinary human figure, produces shagginess and extreme strength. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original Latin.]
bear suckling child Bear suckling a child (from: The History of Poland, Bernard Connor, 1697)

And Bernard Connor (1699, pp. 133-134), a Fellow of the Royal Society who served as personal physician to King John III Sobieski, writes that “Recently, in 1694, at the court of the now deceased king of Poland, John Sobieski,

there was a wild boy who had been living with bears when he was captured by woodsmen somewhere in the neighboring confines of Lithuania and Russia. About ten years old, his skin covered with hair, he was frightful to see. He had neither reason nor speech, nor even human voice, and he went about on all fours. Indeed, he had nothing in common with human beings except the mere form of his naked body.

Given that he resembled a human being, at least in appearance, he was baptized. But, separated now from his beast companions, he seemed unhappy, for he was fearful and would try to run away, as if he were imprisoned. Eventually, by placing his hands against the wall, he was taught to stand, in the same way that infants are, and, as he gradually became accustomed to human food, he grew more tame. After a long time he was able to speak a few words with a hoarse, inhuman voice. But even then, when asked about his former life in the forest, he could remember no more about it than we do of our days in the cradle.

The king himself, numerous senators and many other trustworthy people have assured me of these facts. And it is in fact widely believed in Poland that human beings are sometimes reared by bears. For they say there that if parents leave their babies close to the forest, or too near the fence, or carelessly out in a field, they may be devoured by a hungry bear, but that a lactating she-bear may carry the child away and raise it among bears. And then, after a few years the child may be caught again by hunters.

[Translated by E. M. McCarthy Original Latin.]

sloth bear with woman

In India, where even today human beings occasionally marry animals (see video below), women are represented, on the walls of temples and in pictures, mating with various creatures, including bears. For example, the image at right, from Kotah State and dating to the eighteenth century, depicts a woman embracing a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), an animal native to that country.

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Video: A Hindu woman marries a stray dog.

And even in the 1800s here in the United States, newspapers told tales of ursine abductions. Thus, the Brownsville Daily Herald, (May 17, 1901, p. 2, col. 1) printed an account of a young woman in Texas being carried away by a bear. It reads as follows: “A paper published in San Francisco tells a marvelous bogey story of

a half-human half-bear creature which caught a beautiful Texas girl, the belle of Marble Falls society, when she went out to gather her herd of sheep at night and carried her to a cave. The beautiful belle was rescued, and a posse of her admirers shot the bogey as it charged on them. This is vouched for an actual fact. No wonder New York, St. Louis, Chicago and other cities are sending delegations to investigate the resources of a state which produces such wonderful animals and such accomplished society ladies.

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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.

reality thermometer
Reality Thermometer (estimated reliability of this cross).

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.

One other nineteenth-century case may be worth mentioning, that of Julia Pastrana (pictured below). Born in the Mexican state of Sinoloa in 1834, Pastrana was exploited as a sideshow attraction where she was variously billed as a bear-woman or an ape-human hybrid. The exact nature of her condition, however, was never determined with any certainty, and certainly it was never established that she was a bear-human hybrid.

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bear seducing woman Julia Pastrana
(1834-1860)

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, which may in fact refer to Julia Pastrana, appears in the news item immediately below. But it still fails to free this hybrid from myth.

bear lady
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—that is, 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 fertilization does occur, but only at very low rates. That is, empirical evidence suggests that some rescue mechanism exists, allowing a percentage of such zygotes to form and develop.

In certain disparate crosses complete development of hybrids does occur, but 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 then one must wonder what the evolutionary implications of this phenomenon might be?

“Science went up so high,” the old one says, “that now it’s beginning to come back down. We’re climbing up with our old-ways knowledge, pretty soon we’ll meet science coming down.”
—Gary Snyder
The Woman Who Married a Bear,

Table of contents >>

Bibliography >>

Internet citations >>

Biology Dictionary >>

By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).

bear-human hybrid
bear-human hybridsCover of Franz Hoffmann's Märchen und Fabeln für kleine Kinder (Stories and Fables for Little Children)


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