The bunyip is a legendary animal said to inhabit small rivers, watering holes and swamps in Australia.
Australian Aboriginal stories tell of a water spirit that was greatly feared, the modern translation is usually given as a devil or evil spirit but this might have changed since contact with Europeans.
Description of Bunyip
In contemporary Australian culture the term is often used to mean an impostor or pretender and was even used by a Prime Minister to insult members of the opposition. The word has also found its way into some place names with a town called Bunyip and the Bunyip River.
The bunyip has been described in some detail but there is a wide variety of physical descriptions and indeed considerable regional variations within Australia. Some have said it resembled a huge starfish whilst others have with a duck-like bill and tusks like those on a walrus. Still other descriptions recount a creature with flippers, a horse-like tail, crocodilian head and even with a face resembling a dog.
Clearly these various descriptions are not the same creature and some theorise that the word could have been used by local people to describe a number of different creatures, some cryptids and other perhaps not.
There is also a theory that it could be a sort of racial memory past down of some of the large marsupials that used to roam Australia but are now extinct. There are some similarities with many of the animals described in Aboriginal Dreamtime and some of the extinct megafauna that used to exist on the continent.
The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is the largest meat eating marsupial known to have existed and certainly matches some of the more terrifying desciptions of the Bunyip, though its habitat would not really have matched the reports.
Other large marsupials included the Diprotodon, a huge creature that was nearly 10 feet long and over 6 feet high at the shoulder. Interestingly it does have a couple of teeth that could be described as tusks and when fossils have been found of the creature local aboriginal people have identified them as that of a bunyip.
The Diprotodon lived on Australia for over a million years and only went extinct about 46,000 years ago, though some put that figure a little later. Since most of these large marsupials went extinct just as humans arrived on the continent, it’s not hard to see the link between humans arrival and them being wiped out. It also gives some weight to the idea these memories could have been passed down, especially in a culture as rich with aural memories as that of the aboriginal Australians.
There have not been many actual sighting of live creatures, though when westerners first started settling the country they often reported any mysterious sound or unknown animal as a bunyip.
However, there have been a number of remains found that some claim are that of a bunyip. The first of these was back in 1818 when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan uncovered some very large bones at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales. The bones reminded them of something like a hippo and some have said they could have been bunyip remains, though others have pointed out the similarity the Diprotodon has with these large creatures.
In 1830 George Rankin discovered some fossils that appeared to be that of a large four-legged creature much bigger than a cow. These were discovered in Wellington Caves and later confirmed to exist by Thomas Mitchell. Later the naturalist Sir Richard Owen went on to identify these as the remains of Diprotodon and Nototherium. The later is a smaller relative of the former and the wombat we see today is a distant relation of both.
In 1847 a skull was found in the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales and the finder reported that locals all thought it was a bunyip skull. This discovery and its reporting in the press also resulted in a spate of vague sightings.
1845 Discovery and Report of Historical Attacks
The 1845 skull discovery led to some locals providing historical reports of bunyip attacks. Including one where a woman was killed by the creature and a man who claimed to have survived an attack, suffering chest wounds from its claws.
He described it as a cross between a bird and an alligator with a long jagged bill and an alligator like body. It was said to crush its victims and swam like a frog in water but walked on its two back legs on land, being about 12 feet high when doing so. Interesting that it sounds a bit like a description of a dinosaur, as much as anything.
1853 William Buckley Reports Seeing Bunyips
William Buckley was an escaped convict who spent his time on the run with the Wathaurong people, who lived in the region around Lake Modewarre. He reported seeing a remarkable aquatic animal with grey feathers and about the size of a calf. He also reported it could be found in the Barwon River and that it had killed.
Buckley also attributed magical or supernatural abilities to the bunyip.