I’ve written quite a bit about cryptozoology here lately, predominantly due to the recent appearance of Hunting Monsters (Naish 2016). This book – just out in hardcopy here in the UK – crystallizes various of the cryptozoology-themed hypotheses entertained and discussed at Tet Zoo over the years.
One recent article here, based on a section of text included in Hunting Monsters, covered the notorious case of the Minnesota iceman. I said therein that a new and long-awaited book had just appeared on this subject but that I had yet to see it. Well, I have now not just seen it, but read it too, and today I’m going to review it. The book concerned is Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman (Heuvelmans 2016), and a most curious and interesting book it is.
The main story of the iceman is familiar. If you need a primer, please see the previous article. As if the initial circumstances were not suspicious enough (a travelling exhibit very clearly of the ‘Is it real? You won’t believe your eyes!’ tradition of fairground gaffs, initially marketed as the ‘Siberskoya creature’ (or ‘Siberskoye creature’), and viewable for a small fee to the public), we even have the name of a person stated to have been the model-maker (Howard Ball), and know of a model (today on display at the Museum of the Weird, Austin, Texas) that most people say exactly matches their recollection of what the original looked like. As justifiable as it might be to regard the whole case as ridiculous and unworthy of scientific consideration from the off, the key factor that transformed the iceman story into an international incident (see Regal 2013) is that several knowledgeable people either became convinced that it was real, or at least became interested in the possibility that it might be.
Among those convinced by its reality was the late ‘father of cryptozoology’ Bernard Heuvelmans (1916-2001) who, together with colleague Ivan T. Sanderson – also a formative character as goes writings on alleged mystery animals – examined the iceman in person in 1968. In 1969, Heuvelmans published a brief technical paper on the creature (it’s telling that the paper is sole-authored and not co-written with Sanderson; more on that in a moment) (Heuvelmans 1969), and in 1974 co-authored an entire book – L’Homme Néanderthal est Toujours Vivant (Neanderthal Man is Still Alive) – on the whole story. While mentioned in every published discussion of the iceman, this book (despite seeing a 2011 reprint) has long been both hard to obtain (like many of Heuvelmans’ works, it has become a sought-after and expensive collector’s item), and untranslated from the original French.
It was thus a pleasant surprise to hear back in 2015 that cryptozoologist and author Loren Coleman had learnt of Paul LeBlond’s completion of a translation, and of Coleman and LeBlond’s successful venture to see said translation published in the United States.
LeBlond – an oceanographer by profession but well known for his interest in sea and lake monsters (see previous Tet Zoo articles on the Cadborosaurus Wars) – had translated the volume in his own spare time. Retitled Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman (Heuvelmans 2016), the work does not include a separate section penned by Russian economist, historian and biologist Boris Porchnev, but is nonetheless very welcome. It is an inexpensive, well designed softback, and it’s most interesting – at last – to hear Heuvelmans’ full version of events.
Across 12 chapters, Heuvelmans describes all the steps in the story. It’s immediately apparent just from the titles of the chapters that he believed in a conspiracy of silence that affected his research and how it was received (there are chapters titled ‘Cloak and Dagger’ and ‘The Wall of Incredulity’). The last few chapters promise to provide his specific interpretation of the creature’s zoological and evolutionary significance (‘What it Really Was’ and ‘A History of Man-Beasts’), and it was those I was looking forward to reading the most. The book ends with a series of appendices and an afterword by Loren Coleman.
Heuvelmans’ writing style is quite different from that encountered in the works most familiar to English-speaking readers (On the Track and In the Wake). He is less formal, faster-paced, angrier. It is also evident throughout the book that the whole iceman deal led to a falling-out between Heuvelmans and his great friend and colleague, Ivan Sanderson. Heuvelmans states on several occasions that he regarded certain of Sanderson’s statements as unwise or based on poor judgement; some of the actions concerned are well established in the public record and already noted by others as weird given that Sanderson was apparently trying to drum up official acceptance of the thing as a real carcass (Naish 2016). There are good reasons for thinking that Sanderson was playing this whole episode like a showman because, basically, that’s what he was – I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that he deliberately engaged in mystery-mongering and hype because that’s how he made a living; he was never interested in any of this stuff for honest, scientific reasons. Incidentally, Sanderson disagreed with Heuvelmans’ main premise on the iceman (that it was a Neanderthal); this disagreement is not covered in this book.
Anatomy of a corpse, or not. One thing the book did not deliver on – to my disappointment, I regret – is the anatomy of the alleged ‘corpse’ itself. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t expect a popular book to include a heavy, technical discussion of anatomical minutiae. But I was expecting there to be a reasonable discussion of the various convincing anatomical details that Heuvelmans and Sanderson were reportedly impressed by. Instead we just get some brief references to vegetation seen stuck in the teeth, parasites on the skin and some discussion of head size and the anatomy of the hands and feet, not detailed disclosure and documentation of these features.
That the remarkable proportions of the iceman are not consistent with Heuvelmans’ argument that it represented a relict Neanderthal are explained in two ways. In some cases, the differences concerned (in skull size and overall height, for example) are put down to a continuing evolutionary trajectory not recorded in the fossil record (he even posits the specimen to be the result of “the final extreme result of accelerated Neanderthal evolution”).
And in others (the proportionally long, slender iceman thumb: a real contrast with the Neanderthal thumb known from fossils*), Heuvelmans deliberately emphasises the minority opinions of certain scholars, positing that consensus opinion might be mistaken (he notes at least twice in the book that the iceman’s thumb is seemingly a neotenous character, an interesting hypothesis were the iceman real but one that contradicts established data on the actual Neanderthal hand). Ultimately, it’s clear – contrary to what I had always expected – that Heuvelmans did not intend this book to include the full, detailed, anatomical discussion he always promised… more on that later.
* Based on Boule’s work of the early 1900s it was long thought that Neanderthals had shorter, more massive thumbs than those of modern humans. More recent work indicates that their thumbs were, relative to the rest of the hand, proportioned much like ours (e.g., Aiello & Dean 2002, Lorenzo 2015).
Cloak and dagger. Indeed, a significant part of the story concerns the remarkable ‘cloak and dagger’ tale (to use Heuvelmans’ own words) in which it is alleged that the body was smuggled out of Vietnam via an illicit drug-trafficking route. Seeing as stories about the iceman being discovered frozen in sea ice or encountered and killed in the wild woods of Minnesota are, so Heuvelmans argues, untenable, he instead contends that the body was collected by its ward – Frank Hansen – and smuggled to the USA in a remarkable instance of complex, far-sighted enterprise. Citing the 1972 book The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and various political acts, events and statements relevant to Vietnam, smuggling and trafficking, Heuvelmans goes as far as suggesting as the entire drug-running operation may even have originated from the specific event involving the iceman – that it established the plan that then became standard procedure in drug-smuggling operations. As interesting a tale as this is, I found it incredibly elaborate and based wholly on freewheeling speculation.
For reasons of length and time, this review has been split into two. In the next part we look at various of Heuvelmans’ personal comments on the iceman, and on the several remarkable evolutionary hypotheses he discusses within the book.
For previous articles relevant to various of the issues mentioned here, see...
- The Cryptozoologicon (Volume I): here, at last
- Is Cryptozoology Good or Bad for Science? (review of Loxton & Prothero 2013)
- My New Book Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths
- If Bigfoot Were Real
- The Strange Case of the Minnesota Iceman
Refs - -
Heuvelmans, B. 1969. Note preliminaire sur un specimen conserve dans la glace, d’une forme encore inconnue d’hominide vivant Homo pongoides (sp. seu subsp. nov.). Bulletin de I’Institut Royal des Science Naturelles de Belgique 45, 1-24.
Heuvelmans, B. 2016. Neanderthal: the Strange Saga of the Minnesota Iceman. Anomalist Books, San Antonio, Tx.
Lorenzo, C. 2015. The hand of the Neandertals: dexterous or handicapped? Journal of Anthropological Sciences 93, 181-183.