Australia’s Aborigines … Did They See Dinosaurs?

Bunyip from Geelong Australia

The Bunyip, Burrunjor, Kulta and Yarru

by Rebecca Driver

Africa’s Congo jungle is becoming increasingly known as the reputed refuge of a mysterious creature called Mokele-Mbembe. The locals appear familiar with this creature, which they readily identify from drawings of fossil reconstructions as being like one of the dinosaurs. Few realize, however, that similar accounts occur in other parts of the world. Australian Aborigines have stories of encounters with huge, sometimes frightening monsters which range from what sound like dinosaurs to giant marsupials, also believed to have long become extinct.

The Aboriginal people

The term ‘Aboriginal’ is loosely applied to the people who were living in Australia at the time of European settlement 200 years ago. There were hundreds of different tribes scattered across the continent, varying in their language and customs.

Dreamtime monsters

The myths and legends of the Aboriginal people, including their accounts of the creation of the world, are known as the Dreamtime. Such stories feature monsters, of whom many are mythological. Others, however, may have reference to real creatures, the Aborigines even insisting on their past ‘flesh-and-blood’ existence. Some of them are reminiscent of animals regarded as prehistoric, which supposedly became extinct tens of thousands, or even millions of years ago.

Aborigines did not keep written records—their knowledge and traditions were passed orally from one generation to the next. Such oral traditions tend not to last more than a few hundred years without being distorted out of recognition. This would suggest that some of these animals may have still been living in Australia some two to three hundred years ago, or even more recently.

Such a conclusion may surprise many, but it would explain why documented encounters with similar monsters post-date the time of European settlement.

The Geelong Bunyip

For instance, the Geelong Advertiser, of Victoria, Australia, reported in July 1845 about the finding of unfossilized bone forming part of the knee joint of some gigantic animal. The paper reported showing it to an Aboriginal they regarded as particularly intelligent. He identified it immediately as a ‘bunyip’ bone, and a lithograph drawing of the creature was produced. In 1991, for a commemorative 150th anniversary issue of the Advertiser, the graphic artist Kevin McNulty sketched the picture … based on the text from the original newspaper report. [Update: See an archived copy of the 1845 report from the National Library of Australia at trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/94443733]

When the bone was shown to other Aboriginal people who ‘had no opportunity of communicating with each other,’ they all instantly recognized the bone and the picture as being of a ‘bunyip,’ a common word in some Aboriginal languages for a frightening monster. They gave detailed, consistent accounts of where a few people they knew had been killed by one of these. The creature was said to be amphibious, laid eggs, and from the descriptions, appeared to combine ‘the characteristics of a bird and an alligator’—i.e. a bipedal reptile. (Note that no crocodiles or alligators are found in Australia except in its far north—Geelong is deep in the south). One of the Aboriginals, named Mumbowran, showed ‘several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal.’

The description and sketch certainly fits well with some form of bipedal dinosaur.

A large number of Aboriginal stories of creatures of possible dinosaurian origin have been collected by Rex Gilroy, an evolutionist. Since we should be cautious about over-reliance on this particular source without independent confirmation, a large number of the ones he describes have been omitted. However, Burrunjor and Kulta, the accounts of which appear below, also feature in a book by zoologist Karl Shuker…

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image credit: Geelong Advertiser sketch of a bunyip seen at Barwon Lakes.