”Wildmen in Central Asia”

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DOI: 10.5771/0257-9774-2017-1-51
Cite this publication
Abstract
Central Asian wildmen traditions can be divided into two main lines: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which as well as Chinese Central Asia seem to belong to the same tradition. This line is close to Tibetan and Chinese wildmen beliefs. Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains belong to another cultural area, which is connected to Iranian and Indian folklore. We focus here on the wildmen in Mongolia, Kazakstand, and Kyrgyzstan, describing and analysing wildmen stories from three Points of view; emic, etic, and mixed perspectives. These Points of view should be seen as dimensions of understanding which complement each other.
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ANTHROPOS
112.2017: 1 – 11
Abstract.– Central Asian wildmen traditions can be divided into
two main lines: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, which
as well as Chinese Central Asia seem to belong to the same tra-
dition. This line is close to Tibetan and Chinese wildmen beliefs.
Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains belong to another cultural
area, which is connected to Iranian and Indian folklore. We focus
here on the wildmen in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan,
describing and analysing wildmen stories from three points of
view: emic, etic, and mixed perspectives. These points of view
should be seen as dimensions of understanding which comple-
ment each other. [Central Asia, Kazaks, Mongolians, Kyrgyz, lo-
cal knowledge, mythology, nomads, wildmen]
Sabira Ståhlberg, PhD (Bonn, Central Asian Studies); M. A.
(Helsinki, East Asian Studies).– Independent researcher and lec-
turer.– Major publications: Der Gansu-Korridor. Barbarenland
diesseits und jenseits der Großen Chinesischen Mauer (Hamburg
1996), The Gansu Corridor. An Ethnic Melting Pot (in: T. Ataba-
ki and J. O’Kane [eds.], Post-Soviet Central Asia. London 1998).
– See also References Cited.
Ingvar Svanberg, Senior scholar at Uppsala Centre for Russian
and Eurasian Studies, Uppsala University.– Major publications:
China’s Last Nomads. The History and Culture of China’s Ka-
zaks (Armonk 1998); Contemporary Kazaks. Cultural and So-
cial Perspectives (Richmond 1999); Islam in the West. Critical
Concepts in Islamic Studies; 4 Vols. (London 2011), Pioneers
in Ethnobiology (Uppsala 2014).– See also References Cited.
Introduction
Two Kazak hunters caught a wildman, kiik adam,
in the Altai Mountains some fifty years ago. From
its breast they knew it was a female. They tied the
hairy, furious creature to a pole of their yurt (no-
madic tent), where it clawed at people and cried all
night. In the morning, the hunters felt sorry for the
creature and set it free.
This interesting piece of ethnographic informa-
tion was told to Ingvar Svanberg in the early 1980s
by a Kazak informant from Xinjiang, western China
(Svan berg 1988: 131). Similar stories about wild,
human-like creatures are told throughout Central
Asia. There are dierent types and names of wild-
men, e.g., Mongolian almas, Kazak and Kyrgyz
kiik adam or kiyik kishi, and zhabayi kishi in the
Pamir. Especially in the Gobi Desert and the Altai
and Tianshan Mountains wildmen stories abound.
Observations of wildmen, sometimes identified
as hairy hominids, are occasionally reported by
informants during fieldwork, but have incurred a
limited interest among anthropologists and ethno-
biologists so far (with the exception of Forth 2008).
The purpose of this study is to discuss the wild-
men traditions in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and
Mongolia (almas, kiik adam, and animal-men),
but for comparative reasons we also include a few
wildmen in Siberia and Caucasus, which are con-
nected to the Central Asian beliefs. The stories on
encounters with wildmen will be analysed from
three points of view: the emic, etic, and mixed per-
spectives (Kottak 2005: 11 f., 40). These points of
view should be seen as levels, or rather dimen-
sions of understanding, which complement each
other.
The emic perspective is the viewpoints of the lo-
cal people, who believe or used to believe that wild
-
men roam in their surroundings. The legends, sto-
ries, and emotions connected to wildmen are the
main sources for this perspective. “Without accept-
ing the stories of our informants, we cannot under-
stand them”, wrote Finnish scholar Lauri Honko
(1987: 45). This is the first step to a broader under-
Wildmen in Central Asia
Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg
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2Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg
Anthropos 112.2017
standing of the informants’ world, knowledge sys-
tems, and concepts of reality.
Local folk knowledge is a complex system
where “knowledge” does not necessarily mean a
view based on arguments and facts (Ståhlberg and
Svan berg 2014: 73). Scientific knowledge usual-
ly builds on objectivity, accumulated information,
non-partiality, the concept of truth, and a methodo-
logical approach. In contrast, folk knowledge de-
velops on a basis of local conditions, traditions, in-
terpretations, habitual understanding, and hearsay.
Folk and scientific knowledge often do not coin-
cide. Folk knowledge seldom makes any clear dis-
tinction between scientific and other knowledge sys-
tems. It appears at first to be a mixture of detailed
information, mythical ideas, and beliefs. However,
a second glance brings forth what Daniel Clément
(1995) defines as traditional methodology– obser-
vation, comparison and classification, specific con-
cepts, and an objective argument. The main dif-
ference between scientific and folk knowledge in
Nancy J. Turner’s (1997) opinion is the holistic,
context-bound approach of folk knowledge. It re-
flects the environment, worldview, and life strate-
gies, and the exchange of information within the
group as well as between the group and the outside
world. Ralph Bulmer and Chris Healy assert (1993)
that local knowledge is inseparable from the com-
munity in which it exists.
The etic or scientific perspective is needed to un-
derstand and analyse the reasons for and the dis-
tribution of wildmen traditions. Therefore, we use
linguistic and historical data found in various kinds
of sources, such as travel narratives and histori-
cal records. European, Russian, and Buryat Mon-
gol travellers have noted wildmen stories since the
end of the nineteenth century. The main interest of
the travellers lies in geographical and archaeologi-
cal exploration; wildmen stories are mentioned only
in passing as curious events or folk beliefs. Even
though the material is fragmentary and scarce, it can
be considered as a kind of primary (albeit not very
secure) source for the early period, as it is based
on first-hand experiences. From the 1950s onwards,
there are mainly Russian research reports which re-
spond to some scientific criteria. No fresh data are
available. The latest field study on wildmen was
done in Mongolia in the early 1990s.
Central Asia in general is not very well docu-
mented and wildmen stories are in most cases trans-
mitted by travellers or researchers who have little
knowledge of local languages and traditions. This
has lead to confusion not only within linguistic but
also many other kinds of data. The third perspective
of our analysis, the mixed point of view, reflects the
chaos in secondary sources. Cryptozoologists try to
balance between inner and outer perspectives, be-
lieving the local people, yet trying to make science.
Chinese, Soviet (now Russian), and Western crypto-
zoologists have chased wildmen in Central Asia for
five decades. As a result, theories about Nean der thal
and other hominid origins abound, but there is lit-
tle analysis, information, or research that could be
remotely classified as science. Their influence on
the distribution and frequency of wildmen encoun-
ter reports in Central Asia is also a question which
requires attention.
Historical Records
During the Middle Ages, Europeans believed that
Central Asia was full of strange creatures. Some
of the human-like beings had their mouths on the
stomach; others possessed dog heads (Kwanten
1984). Travellers such as John of Plano Carpini/
Giovanni da Pian del Carpine and William of Ru-
bruck frequently asked local peoples about these
creatures or monsters during their long journeys
from Europe to the Mongol rulers in Karakorum.
Nobody was able to tell them the exact location or
confirm that the monsters existed, and they did not
observe any odd creatures themselves (Tegengren
1964: 153, Rubruck 1990: 201).
Johannes Schiltberger is considered to be the
first Westerner who reported on wildmen in Cen-
tral Asia. Schiltberger was taken prisoner during the
battle of Nikopol (now in Bulgaria) in 1396, and
he later served as a slave-soldier to several Turkish
and Mongol chiefs. Passing great mountains (sup-
posed by modern researchers to be Tianshan) on
his journey through Central Asia, he heard about
“savages” who roamed the mountains like wild ani-
mals. These savages ate leaves, grass, and anything
they could find. Fur covered the bodies and only the
hands and faces were free of hair. Schiltberger does
not mention if he saw these creatures himself, but
he heard that the local lord sent a man and a woman
to the Mongol ruler. Some researchers suggest the
hairy savages were people from icy northern Siberia
and, therefore, clothed in furs (Schiltberger 1879:
35,139).
Strange human-like creatures are noted much lat-
er from another place in Central Asia by Johan Peter
Falck, a disciple of Carl Linnaeus in Sweden and a
natural scientist. Falck and his colleagues from the
Imperial Academy in Saint Petersburg travelled ex-
tensively in Russia and Siberia between 1768 and
1774. During one of the journeys, Falck was told
about people with tails in what is now western Ka-
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3
zakhstan. He was unable to find them, but heard that
they were like other humans, except that they had
a longer tailbone. When dressed they could not be
distinguished from ordinary people, but their neigh-
bours believed they were sorcerers and avoided
them (Falck 1786: 525).
Falck was a typical eighteenth-century scientist
who already discarded most folk beliefs as pure su-
perstition, but he still gathered information about
these exceptional tail-people for scientific purposes.
The interest of Linnaeus and his students in non-
standard human bodies and human-like creatures
was the main reason for this kind of research. Lin-
naeus’ classification of hominids and the introduc-
tion of beings similar to humans into his natural
system marked a change in the concepts about hu-
man-like creatures in Europe and later worldwide;
Charles Darwin brought forth the evidence of the
human-ape connection (for Linnaeus, see Broberg
1975: 178–204).
Despite the superior attitude of eighteenth-centu-
ry scientists to local peoples and folk religion, sto-
ries of the extraordinary and especially human-like
creatures were researched into and proved or dis
-
proved after careful investigation. Certainly, mod-
ern scientists would accept such unreliable sources
only as hearsay. To Falck and his colleagues, inter-
views with local people were valuable enough to be
carried out and the traditions and beliefs were im-
portant enough to be studied and discussed. One of
the more intriguing topics Falck commented on is
relevant here: the almas.
Almas
The almas is known mostly among dierent Mon-
golian peoples. There are data from Mongolia, the
Altai and Tianshan Mountains, Xinjiang, Gansu and
Qinghai in China, and the Tuva Republic in Siberia,
as well as among Kalmyks (now in Kalmykia by the
Caspian Sea). In its modern form, which prevails in
reports since the end of the nineteenth century, al-
mas is usually described as a tall, hairy, human-like
creature which eats small mammals and wild plants
and roams mainly during the night. It uses primitive
tools, but does not know any language. The Russian
researcher Boris Porshnev, who interviewed people
in areas where almas’ stories have been noted, men-
tions that it can run as fast as a horse and is an excel-
lent swimmer. Almas lives in holes in the ground or
caves and smells very badly (Porshnev 1974; Mon-
tagu 1964).
Information on almas shows great regional vari-
ation and is often contradictory. Age, sex, values,
and social status of the speaker form the framework
in which the story is told. The relationship of almas
with fire, water, and humans dominate the contents
of the stories. To give a few examples: several almas
were reported to warm themselves by a fire lit by a
caravan in the Gobi Desert almost a century ago.
They consumed dried dates and sweets, but did not
touch the wine (Sanderson 1961:
318–320). In oth-
er contexts, almas is told to be afraid of fire or have
no knowledge of it (Porshnev 1974; Czubala 1993).
A much-quoted incident occurred in 1964. Ivan
Ivlov, a Russian paediatrician, saw several creatures
when travelling in the Altai Mountains. He inter-
viewed local children who told him about almas
encounters. A father almas had carried his child
through a river, one of the local boys informed
(Shackley 1983: 91 f.). Yet in the 1990s, almas was
told to be afraid of water. Persons who had been kid-
napped by an almas in Mongolia usually fled swim-
ming or wading through a river, leaving the angry
hominid howling on the other side (Czu
bala 1993).
Also, almas is considered mostly curious about hu-
mans, but not dangerous. A Mongol pharmacist and
his two Kazak friends on a journey in the mountains
oered food and clothing to an almas which, how-
ever, kept at a distance. When they fired shots, the
creature looked curious, but then departed (Rabjir
1990). In contrast, a Mongol Buddhist monk met an
almas child in 1930 in the Gobi Desert; the monk
fled in terror (Rinčen 1964).
The word almas is commonly translated in cryp-
tozoological literature as a hominid “wild man,” but
the generic word means “demon, witch.” This word
is used in Mongolian for demons and savages (pres-
ent and legendary) of both sexes, but mostly for fe-
male demons. It is also an invective for women. Al-
mas emegen is used in colloquial language like “old
witch” in English. “Wild man” in Mongolian is zer-
lig kümün, which carries the meaning of a wild (hu-
man) person, savage or barbarian (Lessing 1960:
33, 1046).
There have been eorts to create an etymology
for the word almas out of ala, “to kill,” and mas,
“animal” (see, e.g., Shackley 1983: 92). This theo-
ry is highly improbable due to linguistic and folk-
loric considerations. Myra Shackley also mentions
that almas occurs in several place names in southern
Mongolia. More plausible than her identification of
“Hominid Hills” is the translation “Demon Hills” or
“Devil Mountains,” which makes sense in the Mon-
golian worldview. Mongols believed that the envi-
ronment was full of supernatural forces, demons,
and spirits which in most cases were dangerous for
humans. For instance, Nukhni Almas was a demon-
ic creature that hid itself, the name deriving from the
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Mongolian verb nigu-, “to hide, conceal, keep se-
cret” (modern pronunciation nuukh) (Lessing 1960:
579). Some authors also mention a “saxaul demon”
called Zagin Almas or Zagit Emegen Zagit Emegen,
“old woman of the saxaul thickets” (Eberhart 2002/
1:
12). Saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) is a com-
mon bush in the Gobi Desert.
We do not know for how long almas has been
part of the Mongol world. Local people prefer to
give it hundreds of years, which is correct if the de-
mon is meant. In the eighteenth century, almas was
a creature living in the folkloric traditions, not a
hominid. Johan Peter Falck (1786: 567) noted, how
Kalmyks in the eighteenth century believed that the
almas caused dicult births to women (compare
Kazaks below). The woman who was giving birth
hid behind curtains, squatting, with female neigh
-
bours assisting her. Inside the yurt the Buddhist
Lama prayed, and outside a shaman was shooting
against the almas with arrows or a flint gun. Only
the shaman could see the demon. The father-to-be
ran around the yurt shouting “go away, devil!” Falck
mentioned that often the young man risked being
shot instead of the demon.
In 1881, explorer Nikolaǐ Przheval’skiǐ noted the
first almas story of modern times.
1
Following his
almas story, in which the creature has clearly homi-
nid features, Russian, Mongol, Kazak, American,
and European travellers and hunters started telling
about encounters. A classical example dates from
about a year later, when a caravan in southern Mon-
golia lost one of its men in the desert. The others
figured that he had been abducted by an almas. Ac-
cording to the tale, they shot the creature and saved
the man, but he died insane a few months afterwards
(Forsyth 1876–1877).
The early encounters were reported only by men,
such as hunters, camel drivers, and travellers. They
met mostly a male almas, usually at a distance, and
there were few close encounters except for a cou-
ple of abductions. The newest stories in the 1990s,
in contrast to earlier reports, included women ob-
servers and also female and child almas, reflecting
a change in society and social values. There were
also new themes.
Dionizjusz Czubala (1993) interviewed several
Mongols who told about an almas kidnapping a
woman or man for sex and reproduction.
Sexual
freedom was a big, new issue in the post-Com-
munist world in the early 1990s, and almas con-
sequently became a sexually active subject. A girl
was made pregnant by an almas male, or a man was
1 Przheval’skiǐ (1876: 249 f.) is famous for his description of
the Central Asian wild horse which now bears his name.
carried away to produce a baby with an almas fe-
male. Even an old Buddhist Lama (in principle cel-
ibate) was kidnapped, but fled and took the half-al-
mas baby with him to the monastery. However, like
in earlier reports, local people asserted that the crea-
tures are afraid of humans and do not seek company.
The almas-born boys (no girls) all became im-
portant persons in the community: wrestlers, artists,
or Buddhist Lamas. Their extraordinary strength or
hairiness was the main reason for suspicions of al-
mas breed. These concepts are based on Mongol
cultural and social customs. Wrestlers enjoy high
prestige and their great strength traditionally is
considered to originate from supernatural sources.
Lamas are respected for their booklore and magi-
cal knowledge, and artists for their “strange” tal-
ent, which is also connected to the supernatural (cf.
Czubala 1993).
Despite several reports of humans shooting an
almas, physical evidence is missing. No bodies,
bones, furs, hides, or other parts of a body have been
or are available. It is important to stress the lack of
furs and hides, because Mongol, Kazak, and other
hunters in Central Asia were experts not only in the
hunting of any kind of animal but also in conserving
hides and animal parts. The interest among rich city
dwellers in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Beijing
toward exotic hides would be enough to encourage
any hunter to catch an almas and sell its fur. Sibe-
rian and Central Asian fur trade is famous since at
least a thousand years, and furs and hides were col-
lected as tax from several peoples in the Russian
empire from the 1550s until our days. Fur markets
lined the Russian, Siberian, and northern Chinese
borders for centuries (Martin 2004).
The lack of furs and animal parts has been ex-
plained in many ways in the cryptozoological litera-
ture. For example, an almas female was killed in the
Gobi Desert with a bow used in hunting snares, but
the information was confidential and the body dis-
posed of, because this hunting technique was ille-
gal (cf. Démentiev 1960). War is also blamed: Two
wildmen were reportedly shot by Russians or Jap-
anese in 1939, but due to military movements and
chaotic conditions the bodies disappeared (cf. Cole-
man and Huyghe 1999: 161 f.). A Xinjiang guest
worker saw the dead body of a wildman in Mongo-
lia, but it also disappeared. The only fur of an almas
exhibited turned out to be a bear. A hunter had do-
nated it to a Buddhist monastery where it was used
as a ritual carpet (cf. Shackley 1983:
103 f., 107).
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Wildmen in Central Asia
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5
Almas Research
Russian and Mongol researchers have now hunted
almas for almost a century. Research is generally
presumed to have begun in 1906, when a Buryat
Mongol scientist, Badzar Baradiin, met a creature in
the Gobi Desert. Baradiin and a former Lama from
Urga (now Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia) called
Shirab immediately ran after the almas, but did not
catch it (Rinchen 1958: 35; Rozenfel’d 1931: 73).
Researcher Michael Heaney (1982) has shown that
this story is fiction. There is no mention of simi-
lar encounters in Baradiin’s (1908) diary; the actual
route was not even close to the place indicated, and,
finally, there was no Shirab with the caravan. A Shi-
rab accompanied, however, the Russian writer M. K.
Ro zen fel’d and another famous Buryat scientist,
Tsyben Zhamtsarano, on a car journey in the 1920s.
Ro zen feld invented the encounter for his fictional
novel, “The Ravine of the Almases,” published in
1936. The “wildmen” in the book in the end were
revealed as savage Chinese peasants (Heaney 1982).
Early almas research was carried out by a group
of Soviet scholars of Buryat Mongol origin. They
travelled extensively through Mongol areas, inter-
viewing local people, noting encounters on maps,
and sketching pictures. Rinčen (1959) asserted that
Zhamtsarano collected many stories about almas,
but that the archive disappeared in the turbulences
of the 1930s. These non-existent archives are often
coupled with the common Western belief that the
totalitarian Soviet authorities suppressed all wild-
men information, but the authorities were not ca-
pable of a total control at any point and they ac-
tually supported wildmen research for some time.
In the 1950s, the Soviet Academy of Sciences set
up a commission for the study of snowmen under
the leadership of Boris Porshnev. This sudden aca-
demic attention to hominids accompanied a rising
public interest in supernatural phenomena. Porsh-
nev sought out Rinčen, who was encouraged to pub-
lish some of his own materials.2 G. Démentiev and
D.Ze veg mid (1960) also studied almas in 1959. Af-
ter the peak in the early 1960s, little was report-
ed from Central Asia until the fall of Communism.
During the insecure and dicult 1990s, among oth-
ers religion, supernatural phenomena and magic had
an upsurge in popularity in all former Communist
countries.
Almas stories are characterised by a sliding time-
scale and common second- or third-hand informa-
tion. At the beginning of the 1990s, encounters in
2 Rinchen (1958); Y. Rinčen (1959); P. R. Rinčen (1964); Por-
shnev and Shmakov 1958–1959).
Mongolia were told only as past events. All meet-
ings took place in a more or less indefinite past time
and none had occurred lately. The persons Czu bala
(1993) had interviewed claimed, however, that they
knew the stories from reliable persons or directly
from people who had met an almas. Everybody
knew someone who had met a wildman, or they
knew at least somebody who knew a person who
had met such a creature.
In earlier times, Almas stories could be identified
as caravan lore or popular demon folklore. News of
all kinds, including stories, myths, and tales, trav-
elled quickly through Central Asia, following the
movements of the nomadic populations and caravan
traders. The nomadic and trading communities were
flexible in their attitudes and easily adopted new in-
formation into their worldviews. Today, the Cen-
tral Asian landscape is mostly rural and only partly
remains nomadic; caravans disappeared more than
half a century ago. Folk beliefs and traditional life-
style continue to be important, but they change with
political, social, and economic transformations.
These changes can be observed in the almas sto-
ries as well. From being demons with a specific task
(making births dicult), the almas have turned into
hominids once more Europeans had visited local
peoples. Then, from limited, predominantly male
and distant observations of human-like creatures in
solitary areas, almas stories turned into close and
even intimate encounters which include all age and
gender groups.
From a scientific point of view, almas stories can
today be considered part of the nomadic and rural
folklore, but for the local people the demon-homi-
nid exists for several reasons. The main proof for
Mongolians is the sexual encounter, which produces
ospring with extraordinary strength or hairiness.
The other evidence is that famous, important for-
eign scientists come to Mongolia to chase almas, so
the stories must be true and the creature really ex-
ists (Czubala 1993). This “dialogue” between local
people and foreigners has enforced and changed the
concept of almas from a demon in the thickets to a
full-fledged hominid.
In the cryptozoological literature the most pop-
ular explanation is that almas is a remnant of an
earlier hominid, such as the Neanderthal or Homo
erectus. The closest relative to a Homo erectus
would be the Peking Man, 300,000 years old
(Cole man and Huyghe 1999: 161 f.). Boris Porsh-
nev (1974) suggested that almas is a Neanderthal,
and Myra Shackley (1980) also regards this homi-
nid, who disappeared about 30,000 years ago, as a
possible explanation. Neanderthal fossils have been
found from the Caucasus eastwards to Central Asia,
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6Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg
Anthropos 112.2017
including the Teshik-Tash Cave in Uzbekistan and
the Altai Mountains (Krause et al. 2007). Interest-
ingly, most researchers tend to forget that much
time has passed between the last Neanderthal find-
ings and today. They seem to believe that Nean der-
thals, if they had existed, always stood on the same
evolutionary level. Being hominids, the Neander-
thals probably would have learned another trick or
tool during the past millennia.
In Siberia, where similar creatures are report-
ed, a palaeo-asiatic, aboriginal theory has been put
forth by Russian scientists. The Siberian chuchunaa
or abas(y), kuchena, or mulen(a) is described as a
very tall human-like creature with a great beard and
dressed in deerskin. The word chuchunaa is actual-
ly from Yakut (Saha) and usually translated as “out-
cast” and mulen as “bandit” (cf. Räsänen 1969: 296,
343). The Siberian wildmen are also supposed to
be hominids, either Neanderthals or more advanced
hominids because of their better tools. They are also
defined as remnants of previous human groups, ab-
origines who had lived in the Arctic area, or as the
original population in Siberia, which was pushed
north by invading peoples from the south (Heuvel-
mans et Porshnev 1974: 143–146; Bayanov 1996:
123–130). Siberian wildmen are also viewed as an-
cestors of American hominids. Over the so-called
Bering Land Bridge both flora and fauna has mi-
grated to America for thousands of years, so why
not hominids (cf. Hopkins 1967: 451–454).
Almas Relatives
Close to almas both in meaning and form is al-
bast(y), from albin “demon, devil, evil spirit, sprite.
This linguistically related word exists in Mongolian
and is also very common in the Turkic languages of
Central Asia, the Volga region, Siberia, and Cauca-
sus. Among some Turkic peoples, albasty is a kind
of supernatural hero besides being classified as an
ill-willed demon. In Mongolian, albin em-e means
“she-devil, demoness’.” It is used also as an invec-
tive for women. Albin ghal is a “will-o’– the-wisp,
ignis fatuus” (Lessing 1960: 28; Räsänen 1969: 18).
There are two kinds of female albasty among
the Turkic Kazaks: yellow or friendly spirits, and
black or evil ones. Both have long hair and a hide-
ous appearance and can freely take animal or human
form. The friendly one just changes form and de-
ceives people. The evil albasty drinks human blood
during the night and causes death to weak persons,
and is especially dangerous for women giving birth
(compare with the almas of the Kalmyk Mongols,
above). Albasty can be killed by humans just like al-
mas, but is very much feared (Castagné 1930: 11–
16; Johansen 1959).
The Mongolian almas and Turkic albasty have
a couple of relatives outside Central Asia. They are
close in name and character and, therefore, must be
mentioned here. A wildman with almost the same
name is known in Kabardino-Balkaria in the north-
ern Caucasus. Almasty is defined as a “forest-man.”
The word is probably borrowed from the neighbour-
ing Kalmyk Mongols who tell of the alms, “witch,
female demon” (a more recent form of the word al-
mas). Another possibility for the origin of the name
are the little more distant neighbours of the Kabar-
dins and Balkars, the Kazaks. Among Kazaks, ex-
cept for the above-mentioned albasty there is also
an almast which means “demon.” In another Turkic
language, Teleut in southern Siberia, almys means
“hairy people, who earlier used to live in Altai” or
“evil spirits” (Räsänen 1969: 18; Ramstedt 1976: 7).
Turkic and Mongolian languages belong to the
same language branch and there are many common
words which stem either from the same root or are
loanwords, borrowed from close neighbours. Tur-
kic and Mongol peoples have lived side by side for
centuries in Central Asia and Siberia as nomads and
hunters-gatherers and more recently also as peas-
ants. Whether almas(ty) is a common Turkic-Mon-
golian word or a loanword we cannot say; the ques-
tion requires deeper linguistic research.
Why would there be relatives of almas in Cauca-
sia? Kabardins and several other Caucasian peoples
were deported to Central Asia in the 1940s during
the war, and were able to return only about twenty
years later. Marie-Jeanne Komann (1984) and her
Russian colleagues recorded almasty stories in the
Caucasus during the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly to
the early Mongolian almas, almasty was considered
a devil or demon and the local Islamic authorities
threatened people with it. Komann and Russian re-
searchers introduced the name almasty into crypto-
zoological literature and suggested it was a hominid
(e.g., Porshnev 1974). Today there are few reports of
almasty encounters in the Caucasus and the region
is dicult to access. Komann (1984: 83) gives a
declining almasty population as the main reason for
the diminishing reports, but it might also be that the
stories about hominids are no longer needed.
Wildmen are comfortable objects for the projec-
tion of fears and secure channels for feelings that
cannot be shown publicly. Encounters appear to
peak in Russia, Central Asia, and Caucasia when
stress levels in communities are high or shortly after
stress peaks. Very high levels of stress were present
in Kabardino-Balkaria in the 1960s, after the return
of the population. In the Soviet Union, the wildman
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7
boom occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, which came
right after the traumatic Stalin era. In the 1920s and
1930s, Mongolia and Kazakhstan experienced seri-
ous diculties because of Soviet oppression. Many
almas stories date here from the 1930s. For the no-
mads and peasants, stress was mainly caused by the
introduction of kolkhozes, which destroyed tradi-
tional values, possession rights, and family systems
that had existed for centuries.
Cryptozoologists such as Komann, who were
permitted by the Soviet authorities to visit isolated
areas, are crucial to the growth of wildmen stories.
They not only projected European concepts on lo-
cal folklore and changed it, but also gave local peo-
ple the right to feel and react in a way they felt was
secure. An encounter with a wildman could release
an avalanche of emotions both personally and in the
community, sometimes to a degree in which the per
-
son died or became insane (cf. Forsyth 1876–1877).
On the other hand, a foreign researcher who
looks for a certain story finds it, either because the
local people are willing to comply, or because she
or he interprets information in a certain way. There
is also the snowball eect: someone tells a story and
others join in, for dierent reasons. An elevated so-
cial status is often an element which contributes to
the amount of wildmen observations in a commu-
nity. A person who has met a wildman is feared,
but also admired and receives the privilege to work
with the respected foreigner. Komann (1984) men-
tions taboos and fears towards the “wildman-know-
er,” yet everybody in the village acknowledges a
changed social status. The “wildman-knower” be-
comes someone who has a story to tell to his or her
contemporaries and to the grandchildren. Later gen-
erations tell the story further, and also the descend-
ants are known as “a little special” (cf. Heuvelmans
et Porshnev 1974:
150–161).
Animal Men
Turkic kishi or adam, “man” and kiyik, “wild ani-
mal” form the basis for several combinations and
spellings which all mean “wild animal-men” or
“wildmen.” The names are common in Kyrgyz, Ka-
zak, and several other Turkic languages in Central
Asia (Räsänen 1969:
247). The wild animal-man is
since at least a century described as tall and hairy.
It runs with diculty, screeches, and eats raw meat,
vegetables, and grain. Its housing is a rock shelter
and the creature sleeps squatting. Kiik adam is re-
ported from the Altai Mountains, Kazakhstan, Kyr-
gyzstan, and Xinjiang in China (Svanberg 1988:
131; Lattimore 1929: 185 f.).
In comparison to almas, the kiik adam has not
been much researched. A wild animal-man was first
reported by the Russian zoologist V. A. Khakhlov
in 1911–1912. Two Kazak herders he met had seen
wildmen several times. One of them told that they
had seized a wildman with a lasso, but set it free
after realising it was not a horse thief. The other
had seen a female in chains (Porshnev and Shmakov
1958–1959). Very likely the latter is the same story
that Ingvar Svanberg had heard at the beginning of
the 1980s in Xinjiang from his Kazak informants.
The thief motif appears repeatedly. In 1948, the
Russian geologist M. A. Stronin saw a kiik-kish try-
ing to steal horses. In the same year, a Kazak herd-
er exposed a preserved hand of a wildman, which
had been killed by his grandfather when it tried to
abduct his grandmother. In 1963, however, crypto-
zoologist Porshnev was unable to locate the hand
(Heuvelmans et Porshnev 1974: 49–64, 150–161).
There are a few relatives to kiik adam in other
parts of Central Asia. Zhapaisy or yapaisy adam or
kishi with several local variations (yavei, yaboi, ya-
van, yabalik, zhabayi, zhapayi) is known in Pamir,
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Xinjiang, and parts of Uz-
bekistan and Kashmir. The Turkic name is usually
translated as “savage man.” A more correct trans-
lation is “covered man” in the meaning of “hairy,”
from the Turkic verb yap-/zhap-, “to cover” (Räsä-
nen 1969: 187). Geographically the name is very
widespread, reflecting so linguistic and cultural con-
tacts. In 1912 or 1913, such a wildman was report-
edly captured in Xinjiang and brought to a village
where it was fed with raw meat and then taken away
by the authorities. It was black and monkey-like in
the face, very strong, whistled and uttered guttural
noises, and smelled very badly, which caused local
people think it was an ape (Heuvelmans et Porshnev
1974: 139 f.). Chinese-speaking Muslims, called
Dungan in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and Hui in
China, told about a similar maoren, “hairy person,
which is pronounced mozhyn in the local dialects
of Central Asia. This kind of hairy person is also
known in Inner Mongolia and the Chinese Hubei
and Sichuan provinces (Tchernine 1970: 176).
Central Asian wildmen have often been ex-
plained as animals by local peoples, travellers, and
researchers alike. Bears, apes, and men are consid-
ered very close or related in most of Eurasia. Many
Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples held funeral cer-
emonies thus honouring bears like humans after a
successful hunt (Paproth 1976). Some of the wild-
men classified by Western cryptozoologists as hom-
inids among Mongols, Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and other
peoples in Central Asia are actually bears, and lo-
cal peoples define them as such (cf. Brunner 2007:
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8Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg
Anthropos 112.2017
34). Mongolian kümün görügesün (modern pronun-
ciation khün göröös) is one example. This creature
is known in Mongolia and Xinjiang (Przheval’skiǐ
1876: 249 f.). The name is a combination of kümün,
“man,” and görügesün, “wild, herbivorous animal,
game, beast, antelope,” together acquiring the folk
taxonomic meaning of “bear.” A black bear is called
Khara Görügesün; khara means “black” (Lessing
1960: 387, 501). Probably insucient knowledge of
Mongolian languages and folk concepts of the envi-
ronment among European travellers and researchers
has created the idea of a hominid, mainly because
of the word kümün, “man, person.” The word is of-
ten used in animal taxonomy in Central Asia and
Siberia.
Bear significance carries also geresun bambur-
she or görügesün bambursi, a combination of “wild
animal” and “bear cub during its first year” (Lessing
1960: 81). The name is Mongolian and not Tibetan,
as cryptozoologists generally believe. This creature
was reported to W. W. Rockhill (1891: 116 f., 150 f.;
1893: 669 f.) and W. M. McGovern (1924: 118–121)
during their travels in Tibet. It wore clothes made of
skins and threw stones on travellers. A bear conno-
tation has further the Kazak adam-ayu, “man-bear”
which is reported from the Tianshan Mountains at
the border of Kazakhstan and Xinjiang (Tchernine
1970: 178), and the Chinese renxiong, also “man-
bear.” The Chinese man-bear loves humans so much
that it licks their faces o. It can only be charmed
with music and dance, preferably by a naked per-
son. Owen Lattimore (1929: 185 f.) who heard of
wildmen in the Nanshan Mountains, Gansu prov-
ince (China), asked if they were the same as the
Chinese renxiong. The local people told him that the
hairy wild men were neither bears nor apes. They
were white, covered with hair, lived in caves, and
ate raw meat from animals they killed. Lattimore
later found that his colleague Przhevalskiǐ already
knew the tale and had proved that the “wildman”
was actually a bear.
It is not excluded, that there are bear or ape va-
rieties we do not know of in Central Asia. Most of
the mountains and deserts are mapped but not thor-
oughly explored because of their inaccessibility and
dicult climatic conditions. On the other hand, the
American explorer W. W. Rockhill (1894:
143 f.) in
1891 heard stories from local Mongols about “wild
men” called geresun kun (see above) who lived in
the Lop Desert in Xinjiang. These wild people al-
legedly made their beds of reeds and fed on wild
grapes. In fact, a people existed who extensive-
ly used reeds, both for housing and food: the Lo-
plyks at the Lop Nor Lake. The lake has since dis-
appeared; from the 1960s until the end of the 1990s
it was a Chinese nuclear testing area. Grapes did
not grow in the arid climate of the Lop Nor, at least
not in the nineteenth century, but the Loplyks sub-
sisted on plants found in the environment (young
reed shoots included) besides their main occupation
which was fishing (Ståhlberg and Svanberg 2010).
A hairy body combined with a hominid form is
the usual attribute for wildmen everywhere (Forth
2007: 263; 2008: 3). Yet in Central Asia and Siberia,
several peoples tell about creatures that have partly
metal bodies (Rozenfeld 1959:
59). Among these is
zes tyrmak, a hairy Tibetan creature. The name is
translated as “copper fingernail” and thought to be
Mongolian, but the name is actually Turkic (Sander-
son 1961: 321; cf. Räsänen 1969: 116, 49).
Conclusion
From an ethnological or folkloric point of view,
Central Asian wildmen are a wandering myth,
which also in their hominid form easily fit into lo-
cal knowledge systems. A young pupil in Tajikistan
was asked half a century ago what animals he knew.
The answer was “the wolf, the bear, the fox, the
hare, the adzhina,” the last being a wildman (Ro-
zenfeld 1959: 65).
The local ecological knowledge “database,” its
character and contents account for the inclusion of
wildmen among animals, as well as for regional var-
iations. For example, almas used to be a demon or
devil among the Mongols, clearly a part of the folk-
lore, but the dialogue with Russian and other for-
eign visitors changed it into a creature with certain
internationally distributed hominid characteristics.
For cryptozoologists it was a clear hominid. How-
ever, locally an almas was still to blame for dis-
appeared things and evil deeds, keeping it close to
the devil/demon significance the word carried be-
fore. There are also dierences between stories by
local peoples and visiting cryptozoologists. Gregory
Forth (2007: 262) is probably right in asserting that
images are indigenous and not only products of Eu-
ropeans, but in the case of Central Asia, the appear-
ance of foreign researchers created hominids out of
the local demons.
The local demons and devils had certainly al-
ready changed many times previously due to cul-
tural contact, and some demons were clearly im-
ported from neighbours. Central Asian wildmen are
very close to Chinese yeren, “wild person.” It would
be natural to look for the origins of at least some
of the Central Asian wildmen traditions in Chinese
sources. For more than two millennia Central Asian
nomads and settled Chinese have exchanged and
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Wildmen in Central Asia
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9
shared goods, politics, economy, culture, and peo-
ple. Chinese historical documents contain several
references to wildmen and some even classify dif-
ferent kinds of them, such as man-bear, hairy man,
and mountain monster. Almost anybody can be a ye-
ren. During a fairly recent expedition, a half-naked
European scientist was supposed to be a yeren by
horrified local peasants (Krantz 1997–1998).
Tibetan origin of Central Asian wildmen is also
plausible and requires research. The Mongols took
up Tibetan Buddhism in the late sixteenth century
together with folk traditions, demons, protective de-
ities, beliefs, medicine, and mythology. Mongolian
Buddhist Lamas studied in Tibetan monasteries un-
til the 1920s. The Czech researcher Emanuel Vlček
pointed out similarities between Tibetan, Mongo-
lian, and Chinese wildmen in 1959 and 1960. He
travelled in Mongolia in 1958 and asserted that he
found evidence of wildmen in Kanjur, a Tibetan col
-
lection of sacred books, and in a Tibetan multilin-
gual anatomic dictionary, printed in Beijing at the
end of the eighteenth century. Also in a similar book
from Mongolia there were wildmen depicted and
explained. In contrast to Mongols, who preferred
to keep almas at a distance, Tibetan doctors recom-
mended eating wildmen. Their meat was good for
mental illnesses and the gall bladder could be used
as medicine for jaundice. Tibetan medicine recom-
mended also blood rites on wildmen (Kirtley 1963);
this, however, was unknown in Mongolia. Vlček’s
work is important for drawing attention to the simi-
larities between Chinese, Tibetan, and Mongolian
wildmen, but in all other aspects it is wildly errone-
ous. For example, the names indicated do not refer
to the pictures and are incorrectly translated (Vlček
1959, 1960; Topley 1960; corrections by Bawden
1959).
In Russia and Siberia wildmen popularity has
passed its peak. Due to education, urbanisation,
globalisation, and cultural, economic, and politi-
cal changes, people have left the countryside and
forests and the relationship to nature is dierent
today than it was only some decades ago. Previ-
ously, northern Eurasia was full of stories about
all kinds of creatures, including human-like hairy
wild people. The Russian leshy was a forest man
comparable to the Turkic shüräle, a forest dweller
who had only three fingers and tickled his victims
to death (Räsänen 1969: 450; Harva 1927: 468).
These creatures were demons similar to the early
almas. Shüräle or shöräli was an important part of
the peasant or nomad life and integrated in the lo-
cal environmental knowledge of the communities.
People claimed they had met or knew someone who
had encountered such a forest creature, exactly like
Mongols, Kazaks, and other peoples in Central Asia
have asserted until recently.
Time has turned traditional knowledge into my-
thology. Shüräle stories now merely reflect an older
belief system and show the folkloric distribution of
the same myth or the same type of myth over lin-
guistic, religious, and cultural barriers. Russian and
Siberian creatures disappeared about a century ago
into children’s books, such as Abdulla Tuqay’s pop
-
ular Tatar tale “Shüräle” published in 1907. At pres-
ent, the same process takes place in relation to al-
mas, kiik adam, and other wildmen in Central Asia.
In most of Central Asia the processes of urbanisa-
tion and modernisation are still in progress and folk
beliefs and traditions continue to exist, but they are
changing fast. Hominids do not seem to appear any
more, except in specialised publications.
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  • Article
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    The Loplyks form a small ethnic group previously settled at the Lop Lake (Lop Nor) in the Tarim Basin. With an economy based on fishing, this semi-nomadic Turkic group adapted to the arid conditions and scarce biological resources at the fringe of the Taklamakan desert. In the late nineteenth century, foreign travellers observed that they could fulfil most of their material needs through the use of available plants, animals, and fish species. Anthropogenic pressure and climate change have dried Lop Nor and forced the Loplyks to turn into farmers. This article discusses their adaptation strategies from an ethnobiological viewpoint