Down through the years, I’ve investigated
a number of mystifying animal artworks, depicting species before they were
officially discovered by science, or in locations far removed from where they
are officially known to exist. Examples from the former category include
various anachronistic representations of kangaroos (one of which I documented
in my book The Unexplained, 1996);
and the following case is a prime example (but one hitherto undocumented by me)
from the latter category. So I am greatly indebted to correspondent Cristian
Nahuel Rojas Mendoza for very kindly bringing it to my attention, on 17
December 2022, and which I lost no time in subsequently investigating – thanks, Cristian!
The work of art containing the portrayed out-of-place
animal in question is a magnificent yet surprisingly little-known pictorial encyclopaedia
in the form of a spectacular mural, entitled Quadro de Historia Natural, Civil y Geografica del Reyno del Peru (‘Painting
of the Natural, Civil and Geographical History of the Kingdom of Peru’), or QHNCGRP for convenience hereafter in this
present ShukerNature blog article of mine. Consisting of numerous miniature oil
paintings and accompanying text on a wood panel, it measures a very impressive 128
x 45.25 inches (325 x 115 cm).
QHNCGRP was authored by Basque-born
but (for three decades) Peru-based scholar José Ignacio Lequanda, who
commissioned French artist Louis Thiébaut to produce the paintings illustrating
it, and it was completed in Madrid in 1799 (click here
for an extensive article by Daniela Bleichmar documenting its history and
Today, this unique creation is held and
displayed at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain (constituting
Spain’s national museum of natural history), which has produced an exquisite, lavishly-illustrated website devoted
specifically to it (click here to visit the
website). I strongly recommend that you access this site while reading my
article here, in order to appreciate fully the nature, context, content, and
visual beauty of this truly extraordinary, combined work of art and scholarship,
and in particular the two items from it under consideration here.
of QHNCGRP in its entirety – click to enlarge for viewing purposes (© Museo
Nacional de Ciencias Naturales – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair
Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
Containing a grand total of 194 individual
images, QHNCGRP presents a picture-driven
history of the peoples, animals, and plants of Peru (or, in a few cases, Peru’s
South American environs). At its centre there is an annotated map of the
country, depicting, describing, and delineating its various administrative
divisions in different colours, as well as a picture of the mine
of Hualgayoc or Chota, emphasizing the significance of mining to Peru at that
Constituting the outermost border or
frame of QHNCGRP is a series of 88
miniature paintings, each depicting a different Peruvian bird and plant, plus
four corner miniatures portraying Peruvian insects and reptiles. And running horizontally
directly below the uppermost edge of this ornithologically-themed border is a
row of 32 miniatures portraying various human forms, including indigenous
peoples and Western couples in various costumes.
Below these, and forming a second,
internal frame, is a series of numerous compartments containing Lequanda’s tiny
but voluminous handwritten text (he also added a descriptive label beneath each
animal miniature, and considerable text around the mine picture). Within this
second frame are not only four large and four smaller pictures depicting Peruvian aquatic animals but also (split into a left-hand block and a right-hand block of 30 each) a series of 60 miniature paintings, again depicting Peruvian animals. Well, 59 of them
As for the 60th: This is the creature
portrayed in the miniature present at the right-hand end of the top row in the right-hand
block of 30 animal pictures. It seems to have been painted with especial
precision by Thiébaut in comparison with certain other of the animals portrayed
by him in QHNCGRP, and was labeled here
by Lequanda as a mountain-abounding ‘Dominican monkey’.
so-called ‘Dominican monkey’ miniature painting in close-up; and also shown (arrowed,
top row) in situ within QHNCGRP
– click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)
In reality, however, as anyone even
remotely versed in mammalian identification will readily confirm, this
particular creature, its distinctive monochrome form being both instantly recognizable
and wholly unmistakable, is actually a black-and-white ruffed lemur Varecia variegata, the species depicted in
the photograph opening this ShukerNature article, and which is of course
endemic to Madagascar! No lemurs of any kind occur anywhere in the New World.
So why is there a portrait of a
Madagascan lemur in QHNCGRP, which is
exclusively devoted to Neotropical natural history and culture?
The most reasonable explanation, indicated
by Lequanda’s accompanying text (and also noted by Bleichmar in her afore-mentioned
article), stems from his great familiarity with the contents of Madrid’s
prestigious – and exceedingly prodigious – Royal Natural History Cabinet, which
was founded in 1771 and opened to the public in 1776. For within its collection
of zoological specimens was none other than a preserved example of the
black-and-white ruffed lemur. As this collection would have been consulted by
both Lequanda and Thiébaut during their joint preparation of QHNCGRP, one or both of them presumably
assumed mistakenly that the lemur specimen was of South American origin, and
thus its striking appearance was incorporated accordingly within QHNCGRP. But that is not all.
There is a second animal miniature in QHNCGRP that also attracted my interest
and attention when perusing the latter’s artworks. If you want to seek out this
picture in QHNCGRP, it’s the second
miniature along in the fourth row within the right-hand block of 30 animal
miniatures. Or, to make things simpler, here it is:
so-called ‘Nonga’ miniature painting in close-up; and also shown (arrowed, fourth row) in situ within QHNCGRP – click to enlarge for viewing purposes (public domain)
According to Lequanda’s accompanying
text, the Nonga lives on the banks of the River Huallaga (whose source is in central
Peru), and is a nocturnal creature greatly feared by the Indians, but which
according to Lequansda seems to be a forest spirit rather than a real entity.
When I first looked at this creature, I
thought straight away that it resembled a tree sloth in basic outward morphology.
But tree sloths do not stand upright, nor are they greatly feared by natives,
and far from being forest spirits they are very familiar members of the corporeal
animal community throughout the Neotropical zone.
However, their extinct relatives the ground
sloths did stand upright, might well be greatly feared by natives due to their very
large size and huge claws, especially if they happened to be ill-tempered
creatures, readily becoming aggressive if threatened, and, like many other belligerent
beasts, may indeed be deemed by their human neighbours to be supernatural
spirits as much as flesh-and-blood animals.
So could this miniature by Thiébaut be a
depiction of a modern-day, scientifically-undiscovered ground sloth? Certain South
American cryptids, such as the ellengassen and (especially) the mapinguary, are
already looked upon by some cryptozoologists and zoologists as potentially
constituting surviving ground sloths.
of a ground sloth (public domain)
Unfortunately for such romantic
speculation, however, the depicted creature’s tiny tail is much more comparable
with that of a three-toed tree sloth (two-toed tree sloths are tailless) than with
the fairly long and very sturdy caudal appendage exhibited by bona fide ground
sloths, which they used for support and balance when squatting upright.
Consequently, my personal opinion is that
this mystifying miniature painting was based upon a preserved three-toed tree
sloth, but whose normal behaviour of hanging upside-down from tree branches was
not known to Liébaut, so he portrayed it incorrectly as a bipedal beast
instead, thereby inadvertently recalling its officially extinct terrestrial
Nor are a misplaced Madagascan lemur and a suspect sloth of the terrestrial variety the only zoological oddities to be found in QHNCGRP – click here for a continuation of this investigation, in which I reveal all manner of additional animals of the decidedly anomalous kind lurking incognito within its miniature masterpieces!
Nahuel Rojas Mendoza for alerting me to QHNCGRP
and, in so doing, adding another very intriguing zoogeographical anomaly from the
art world to my archive of such examples. For an extremely extensive account of putative
living ground sloths, be sure to check out my book Still In Search
Of Prehistoric Survivors.