In 1929, the French National Academy of Sciences hosted a startling presentation. George Montandon, the Swiss-born enfant terrible of French anthropology, presented a paper positing the discovery of an anthropoid ape in South America. He cited as evidence the testimony of his friend, Swiss geologist François de Loys, and a photograph of a strange-looking primate propped upright with a stick. Montandon proposed this creature proved the existence of New World Apes, further extrapolating that it offered the “missing link” between man and ape. He named the creature after his friend, Ameranthropoides loysi – “de Loys’ American human-like ape.”
The story began in 1917, when a consortium of Venezuelan and Dutch oil companies hired de Loys to explore the Rio Tarra near the Venezuelan-Colombian border. By his own account, de Loys (just 25 years old but already considered an expert in his field) and his 30 colleagues encountered incredible difficulties between the rugged climate, deadly disease, ferocious fauna and Motilones Indians, who resented outsiders plundering their homeland. Indeed, the Motilones attacked de Loys’ men several times with guns and arrows (one European colleague who’d survived the Western Front called the Indians “worse than Germans”) and killed seventeen of them, injuring de Loys in the thigh with an arrow.
At some point, de Loys and his men rested near the river when, he claimed, they encountered two large, bipedal apes, at least five feet tall with reddish fur and no tails. The animals shrieked at the interlopers, throwing feces at them and waving tree branches in anger. De Loys and his men opened fire with their rifles, killing the lead creature, a female; the second, its mate, fled into the brush and was never found. De Loys afterwards posed the animal atop an oil crate, held in place with a stick, for a hastily-arranged photograph.
De Loys claimed, in a 1929 account, that his team recognized the animal’s extraordinary nature and tried to preserve its body. The slain creature measured at over five feet in height, making it far taller than any New World monkey, and possessed 32 teeth. “Its skin was afterwards removed,” he insisted, “and its skull and jaw cleaned and preserved.” Yet the skin rotted along the hike and was lost. A colleague claimed that de Loys’ cook used the skull to hold salt, then threw it away. Nor did de Loys note his discovery in his official report to his employers; at the time, he only mentioned the “Ape” in a letter to his mother. He only came forward at Montandon’s urging ten years later.
Even without its promotion as a “missing link,” de Loys’ Ape could have been an exciting zoological discovery. Old and New World Primates diverged millions of years ago, shortly after the continental shift; the former remained in Africa and Asia, evolving both into modern monkeys and higher primates (including humans), while others traveled to the Americas. Though Central and South America team with monkeys, no ape has ever lived in the New World. Thomas Henry Huxley, an early supporter of Charles Darwin, opined that “the difference between a New World Monkey and a chimpanzee is far greater than that between a chimpanzee and a man.”
Thus an American ape, missing link or not, would have overturned eight decades of zoological knowledge. Initially, it helped that South America had a longstanding oral tradition, from natives, South Americans and European explorers alike, of a large, apelike creature known as mono grande that stalked the forest. After all, numerous other unlikely beasts – Africa’s mountain gorilla and okapi, the Komodo Dragon of Indonesia – had been labeled native superstition until recently. Yet virtually every expert who examined de Loys’ photograph instantly cried fraud.
It’s amazing that anyone took these monkeyshines seriously. One can identify the “mystery” animal as a female white-bellied spider monkey (Ateles belzebuth), a species native to northwest South America. Its distinct light-colored markings, upturned nostrils, opposable but thumbless hands and feet, and distended clitoris (resembling a penis at a glance) are all characteristic of this species. The only difference is the “ape’s” lack of tail, an appendage easily hidden or amputated by a hoaxer. The lack of scale (say, a human or an erect tree) to prove the animal’s size, along with botanically dubious plant life (the stump of a banana tree, native to Southeast Asia, lurks inappropriately in the background), further suggests this photo was staged.
The most damning evidence comes from Eugene Tejera, a Venezuelan scientist who met de Loys during this expedition. In 1962, he sent a letter to Diario el Universal, a leading newspaper in Caracas, describing the true story. “De Loys was a prankster and often we laughed at his jokes,” Tejera wrote. “One day they [his Venezuelan friends] gave him a monkey with an ill tail, so it was amputated...He always walked along the side of his monkey, who died some time later.” Tejera was astonished to see a photograph of this same monkey in a French museum years later, presented as “the first anthropoid ape discovered in America.”
Even at the time, academic response was overwhelmingly negative. British anthropologist Francis M. Ashley-Montagu provided one of the more generous assessments: he argued, with classic British understatement, that de Loys’ account “is not sufficient to satisfy scientific standards of accuracy” while suggesting his colleagues “adopt…suspended judgment” until “further real evidence is forthcoming.” Montandon’s French colleagues weren’t so generous, with the Paris Academy of Science openly denouncing the photograph as a hoax. Even in an age where the Piltdown Man went largely unchallenged for several decades, Ameranthropoides loysi didn’t pass muster.
Aside from his 1929 article, François de Loys made little effort to capitalize off his “discovery.” Instead he toiled obscurely, if lucratively in his chosen field. He explored and excavated for oil in Turkey, Iraq, the United States (marrying an American woman) and elsewhere until his early death, apparently from syphilis, in 1935. His intent in staging the photograph may well have harmless, a prank that grew out of hand. His partner in crime, George Montandon, can’t be afforded the benefit of such doubts, considering his history as an advocate of racial science.
A physician in his native Switzerland, Montandon trained as an ethnographer in Hamburg and London. He joined several expeditions to Ethiopia, Japan and northern Europe, then served in World War I as a French Army surgeon. This experience inspired him to write a pamphlet suggesting that states could avert conflict through a “far-reaching reordering of nationalities,” transforming Europe’s multinational empires into racially pure nation states. This wasn’t dissimilar to Woodrow Wilson’s concept of “self-determination,” which smashed the Austrian, Ottoman and Russian Empires into dozens of countries after Armistice Day. (It also anticipated the “population transfers” of ethnic Germans and others which accompanied the end of World War II.) In 1919, he traveled to revolutionary Russia and fell in love with communism, returning to his homeland with radical politics and a Russian wife.
Montandon’s leftism didn’t last. By the time he “discovered” de Loys’ Ape, he’d divorced his wife, moved to France and gravitated to the Far Right, publishing treatises on “ethno-racism” that bastardized Darwin to show white Europeans were more highly evolved than “lower” races. In this, too, he was typical of his era, with advocates of “racial science” ranging politically from Adolf Hitler and John D. Rockefeller to Margaret Sanger and H.G. Wells. Sterilization and eugenics programs in the United States, Nazi Germany and elsewhere targeted the mentally ill, the physically handicapped and racial and religious minorities, along with political undesirables.
Yet Montandon’s bigotry developed into a unique strain, measured less along strictly racial lines than religious and national categories. He considered the French people not a race but an “ethnie…a natural human group determined by the totality of its characteristics, hereditary…and nonhereditary.” His theory of polygenism suggested that white and nonwhite humans evolved from different species altogether, for which de Loys’ Ape provided useful “evidence.” On one occasion, he argued the Ape was the ancestor of Native Americans; in another context, he claimed that a similar creature spawned modern Jews.
Despite the uproar over his preposterous Ape and his feud with anti-fascist anthropologist Paul Rivet, founder of Paris’s Museum of Man (Musée de l’Homme), Montandon retained his position through the patronage of scientist-politician Louis Marin. He worked at the Museum of Natural History over Rivet’s protests, then held the ethnology chair at the School of Anthropology. Where Rivet fled France during the Nazi occupation, Montandon flourished: Xavier Vallat, Vichy’s Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions, recruited him as an aide in July 1941. Thus, observe historians Michael Robert Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, “the crudest forms of phrenology and cranial measurement had arrived within in the commissariat.”
Thereafter, Montandon assisted Marshall Henri Petain’s government in crafting anti-Jewish legislation while teaching hate at Vichy’s schools. His tract Comment reconnaître le Juif? (How to Recognize a Jew?) became required reading in French universities, and inspired the notorious 1941 multimedia exposition, Le Juif et la France (The Jews and France). Montandon often played a hands-on role in Jew-hunting, personally examining Frenchmen and women suspected of Jewish ancestry. His surviving notes show extensive measurements of physical features (“average nose,” “feet slightly arched”), body language (“general facial expression: not specifically Judaic”; “gestures: slightly Judaic”) and genitals (determining whether circumcisions of males were “ritual” or “surgical”).
Montandon profited handsomely off this “scientific” enterprise, earning lucrative payment both from the Vichy government and test subjects willing to pay bribes. His German minders groomed him for a permanent chair at the Sorbonne, obviated only by the Allied liberation of Paris and his countrymen’s wrath. On August 30, 1944, several French Resistance operatives ambushed Montandon outside his home and shot him; one version of his death holds that he survived the initial ambush and sought refuge in German custody, dying several days later. Charles de Gaulle posthumously stripped Montandon of his academic credentials, consigning his grotesque career to oblivion.
Montandon’s inglorious end notwithstanding, de Loys’ Ape enjoyed a long afterlife; the photo’s striking nature and dramatic backstory outlived both of its creators. In 1951 another Frenchman, Roger de Courteville, reported several encounters with a similar beast in Venezuela. “A man-like creature was staring at me from a distance of only a few yards,” he wrote. “It had a dull-witted expression…the face was beardless, the skin dark…a mop of red hair hung over its forehead.” His story briefly captured public attention, until de Courteville presented his own photograph of the mysterious beast…instantly exposed as a poorly-doctored appropriation of de Loys’ original.
Bernard Heuvelmans, the founder of modern cryptozoology, devotes a chapter of his 1958 work On the Track of Unknown Animals to de Loys’ Ape. French by birth, Belgian by adoption, a trained zoologist and protégé of Serge Frechkop (a primatologist who argued that all animals began as bipeds), Heuvelmans took de Loys’ report and Montandon’s papers at face value, insisting that “the zoological problem of de Loys’ monkey demands a solution”; he mocked proponents of the spider monkey explanation, saying they “never had a good look at an ordinary spider monkey.” With a casual arrogance hardly warranted by the paper-thin evidence, Heuvelmans dismisses three decades of scientific consensus about the “ape” as immaterial.
Heuvelmans’ writings, dense in “scientific” detail but dubious in their analyses (nature writer David Quammen calls his work “heavily researched and encyclopedic” while adding that Heuvelmans “tends to be portentous and make overstated claims”), breathed life into de Loys’ Ape. The photograph appeared time and again in books about unsolved mysteries and “hidden animals,” occasionally surfacing in mainstream media, recycling de Loys’ tale without skeptical comment. Even more recently it has defenders, including paranormal researchers Gian J. Quasar (author of several books on the Bermuda Triangle) and Karl Shuker, who defended the photo’s authenticity in his early work only to reject it upon further research.
Yet this is far from consensus opinion. Ivan T. Sanderson, who unhesitatingly advocated phenomena from Bigfoot through UFOs, “vile vortices” and spontaneous human combustion, complained that “the harm done by this obnoxious effort has been widespread,” lamenting that “No serious-minded person…seeing this ridiculous picture and having heard the equally ridiculous claims made by some…can be expected either to lend any credence to or even listen to the account of others who state that they have met unknown creatures…in this country.” His critique is echoed today by Loren Coleman, who feels that Montandon’s dubious politics alone render the photograph irreparably damaged.
But if a picture is worth a thousand words, and those thousand words tell a fascinating story, the truth hardly matters. The Loch Ness monster’s iconic image remains the 1934 “surgeon’s photograph,” unmasked long ago as a toy submarine. The Cottingley Fairies retained a core of believers for six decades until the girls behind them admitted to their hoax. Innumerable ghost photographs remain popular, from the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall to the SS Watertown’s oceangoing spirits, despite being honest photographic mistakes or deliberate fakes.
As long as François de Loys’ photograph exists, simultaneously striking and silly, some credulous individuals will insist that Ameranthropoides loysi remains a mystery. Context and racism aside, she’s become the rare primate still discussed by humans a century after her death. How many other monkeys can say the same?
Sources and Further Reading
The controversy surrounding de Loys’ Ape is well-covered. For books, see Jerome Clark, Unexplained! Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena (1998); Bernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals (1958) and Robert Silverberg, Scientists and Scoundrels: A Book of Hoaxes (1965). Clark and Silverberg present skeptical perspectives; Heuvelmans, despite his acceptance of the story’s authenticity, provides useful background on the case.
Articles consulted include: David Bressan, “De Loys’ Ape Was a Well-Played Anthropological Find” (Forbes, 31 January 2016); Loren Coleman, “A Proto-Nazi Hoax: An Ape in Green Hell” (Cryptomundo, March 2007); Darren Naish, “De Loys’ Ape and What To Do With It” (Scientific American blog, 17 July 2014); and Angel L. Viloria, Franco Urbani and Bernardo Urbani, “François de Loys and a Wrecked Finding: The History of an Anthropological Controversy” (Intercenia, March-April 1998; in Spanish).
For George Montandon’s career, see Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850–1950 (2013); Michael Robert Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (1981); and Martin S. Staum, Nature and Nurture in French Social Sciences, 1859–1914 and Beyond (2011).
Correction: Thanks to user rev-skarekroe for correcting my comments on Karl Shuker, who has repudiated the photograph’s authenticity in the past few years. Apologies to Mr. Shuker for mischaracterizing your position.