Sketchbook Page 35: B is for Bunyip

April 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Bunyip skull – based on an illustration published in The Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science, 1847.

Bones from a Bestiary part 2: B is for Bunyip

The bunyip, or kianpraty, is a large mythical creature from Aboriginal Mythology, said to lurk in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds, and waterholes. The origin of the word bunyip has been traced to the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia. However, the bunyip appears to have formed part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, although its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations for the creature known as the bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Various written accounts of bunyips were made by Europeans in the early and mid-19th century, as settlement spread across the country.

During the early settlement of Australia by Europeans, the notion that the bunyip was an actual unknown animal that awaited discovery became common. Early European settlers, unfamiliar with the sights and sounds of the island continent’s peculiar fauna, regarded the bunyip as one more strange Australian animal and sometimes attributed unfamiliar animal calls or cries to it. It has also been suggested that 19th-century bunyip lore was reinforced by imported European memories, such as that of the Irish puca.

A large number of bunyip sightings occurred during the 1840s and 1850s, particularly in the southeastern colonies of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, as European settlers extended their reach. The following is not an exhaustive list of accounts:

Hume find of 1818 One of the earliest accounts relating to a large unknown freshwater animal was in 1818, when Hamilton Hume and James Meehan found some large bones at Lake Bathurst in New South wales. They did not call the animal a bunyip, but described the remains indicating the creature as very much like a hippopotamus or manatee. The Philosophical Society of Australasia later offered to reimburse Hume for any costs incurred in recovering a specimen of the unknown animal, but for various reasons, Hume did not return to the lake.

Wellington Caves fossils, 1830 More significant was the discovery of fossilised bones of “some quadruped much larger than the ox or buffalo” in the Wellington Caves in mid-1830 by bushman George Rankin and later by Thomas Mitchell. Sydney’s Reverend John Dunmore Lang announced the find as “convincing proof of the deluge”. At the same time, some settlers observed “all natives throughout these… districts have a tradition (of) a very large animal having at one time existed in the large creeks and rivers and by many it is said that such animals now exist.”

First written use of the word bunyip, 1845 In July 1845, The Geelong Advertiser announced the discovery of fossils found near Geelong, under the headline “Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal”. The newspaper continued, “On the bone being shown to an intelligent black (sic), he at once recognised it as belonging to the bunyip, which he declared he had seen. On being requested to make a drawing of it, he did so without hesitation.” The account noted a story of an Aboriginal woman being killed by a bunyip and the “most direct evidence of all” – that of a man named Mumbowran “who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal”. The account provided this description of the creature:

“The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, [it is said that] its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.”

Shortly after this account appeared, it was repeated in other Australian newspapers. However, it appears to be the first use of the word bunyip in a written publication.

The Australian Museum’s bunyip of 1847 In January 1846, a peculiar skull was taken from the banks of Murrumbidgee River near Balranald, New South Wales. Initial reports suggested that it was the skull of something unknown to science. The squatter who found it remarked, “all the natives to whom it was shown called [it] a bunyip”. At the same time, however, the so-called bunyip skull was put on display in the Australian Museum (Sydney) for two days. Visitors flocked to see it, and The Sydney Morning Herald said that it prompted many people to speak out about their “bunyip sightings”.

William Buckley’s account of bunyips, 1852 Another early written account is attributed to escaped convict William Buckley in his 1852 biography of thirty years living with the Wathaurong People people. His 1852 account records “in… Lake Moodewarri [now Lake Modewarre] as well as in most of the others inland…is a…very extraordinary amphibious animal, which the natives call Bunyip.” Buckley’s account suggests he saw such a creature on several occasions. He adds, “I could never see any part, except the back, which appeared to be covered with feathers of a dusky grey colour. It seemed to be about the size of a full-grown calf… I could never learn from any of the natives that they had seen either the head or tail.”

Buckley also claimed the creature was common in the Barwon River and cites an example he heard of an Aboriginal woman being killed by one. He emphasized the bunyip was believed to have supernatural powers.

See also: Bastet

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