10 Realistic Explanations Behind Famous Legends & Cryptids

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Humanity is full of amazing myths. While most of these are just false legends, some of these simply must have some basis in fact. While these 10 are by no means meant to be definitive and conclusive explanations, some of them might be the result of just extraordinary human imagination or just made up. So let’s begin.

14Chupacabras

Likely Explanation: Sick Dogs

Most common description of the chupacabra is a dog-like creature, like the one defeated by Erik Estrada in the ‘Battle of the Alamo’. In the specific case of the Cuero chupacabra, the specimens were found to be canines suffering from mange.

Mange is a type of skin disease caused by parasitic mites, which burrows under the skin, causing inflammation and blocks the blood supply to the hair follicles, resulting in the hair loss and skin infections. Blood constriction leads to fatigue and general exhaustion such that they often struggle to survive. The remains most alleged chupacabra specimens, when subjected to DNA testing, are revealed them to be sickly dogs, coyotes, and raccoons.

Most of the chupacabra’s alleged preys are found to contain plenty of blood when autopsied, despite their vampiric tendencies. The original chupacabra which was reported in Puerto Rico in 1995 was bipedal with a spiked back and had little resemblance to the later canine interpretation.

It did resemble the alien-human hybrid creature Sil from the movie ‘Species’, which was released in 1995. Its original witness, Madelyne Tolentino, had seen that film a few weeks prior to her alleged sighting. She even said in interviews that the creature bore a remarkable resemblance to her chupacabra sighting.

Another explanation that could have contributed to further sightings in 1995 might be the escaped batch of rhesus monkeys in Puerto Rico who had a penchant for walking on their hind legs.


13Phantom Cats

Likely Explanation: Released Pets and Military Mascots

Phantom cats are, put simply, large felines reported in places that they shouldn’t exist. In the United Kingdom, this began with a series of sightings throughout the ’70s, with the particularly ferocious Beast of Exmoor allegedly responsible for killing 100 sheep in 1983. That massacre resulted in a £1,600 bounty and even the dispatch of a squad of Royal Marine snipers, but these came to nothing.

While many sightings can be explained as abnormally large or exaggerated house or feral cats, some seem to defy this categorization. For these, it is thought that after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act prohibited the keeping of dangerous animals, many private collectors made the irresponsible decision to release their animals into the wild. This is supported by how smaller foreign cats such as lynxes and an ocelot as well as a tame puma have been captured or killed in Britain. However, the limited lifespan of such cats makes more recent reports less explicable—though the released animals may have bred with locals.

In Australia, meanwhile, there have been numerous reports of panthers or pumas, particularly in outback Victoria and New South Wales. A more ambitious theory suggests the marsupial lion, which is generally thought to have gone extinct along with the rest of Australia’s megafauna some 40,000 years ago. More plausibly, it has been suggested that US servicemen smuggled in pumas to serve as mascots when they served on Australian bases in World War II. From here, they escaped or were released and bred.

Regardless of their origin, the Australian big cats are on the cusp of moving from cryptozoological myth to recognized fact. A 2001 Freedom of Information request showed the New South Wales government had serious concerns, and a later report conceded that “it seems more likely than not … that such animals do exist in NSW.”


12Mermaids

Likely Explanation: Manatees

For centuries, mermaid sightings were regarded with the same credulity as sightings of any other exotic animal. None other than Christopher Columbus himself even claimed to have seen them; one of his crew recounted how their admiral spotted three mermaids, though they were “not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.” Many people now attribute these mermaid sightings of the past to manatees.

Both manatees and their Pacific cousin, the dugong, have neck vertebrae that allow them to turn their head in a human-like manner, and can sometimes be seen frolicking in the shallows.

For anyone who’s ever seen an actual manatee, it’s hard to believe these creatures could be confused with the distinctly half-human form of a mermaid. From a distance, however, and in the eyes of a lonely sailor, well… people see what they want to.


11Cyclops

Likely Explanation: Elephant Fossils

Fossils really did a number on the ancient Greeks. They had no way to know what they were looking at. Imagine seeing the skull of an elephant in ancient Greece and not worrying about one-eyed giants for the rest of your life.

With the nasal cavities often damaged to appear as a single, centralized hole, the skulls of mammoths and mastodons have all the characteristics of the mythological Cyclops. In fact, the island of Sicily, where Homer’s Odysseus met the famed cyclops Polyphemus, was a hotbed for the fossilized remains of the giant, prehistoric elephants.


10Zombies

Likely Explanation: Drugged Slaves

Most of the population of Haiti is descended from African slaves, and many people follow voodoo, which is based on the religions of West Africa. In voodoo, a zombie is a dead person brought back to life by a priest called a bokor. These “walking dead” have no free will and must obey their masters, who force them to work as slaves, toiling on farms from sunrise to sunset. No one outside of Haitians took these tales of zombies seriously until one actually appeared!

Clairvius Narcisse had been “dead” for almost 20 years when he suddenly reappeared. He claimed that a bokor had drugged him so that everyone thought he was dead—before digging him up after his funeral and putting him to work as a slave on a farm.

Hearing the story, Dr. Wade Davis traveled to Haiti to investigate. He learned that the bokors used a substance called “zombie powder,” which he analyzed and found to contain poisonous puffer fish and the skin of poison toads. He believes that these substances make victims appear dead with hardly any breath or heartbeat.

The victims are dug up after burial and given other dangerous drugs to confuse them and make them forget who they are.


9Unicorns

Likely Explanation: Rhinos and Narwhals

The Elasmotherium was a relative of the woolly rhinoceros, which ranged the Russian steppe during the ice ages. It was up to 6 meters (20 ft) long and weighed up to 4 tons but, unlike its cousin, the Elasmotherium had only a single horn. Fossil evidence is spotty and can only be dated to 50,000 years ago, but some have it surviving until the end of the last ice age some 10,000–11 000 years ago. Furthermore, the oral traditions of the Evenks people of Siberia, as well as occasional Chinese and Persian sources, suggest it may have survived in pockets for even longer.

While it didn’t come into contact with European populations, if the later estimates of extinction are correct, the Elasmotherium may have coexisted with humans in the eastern end of its range for some 25,000 years. It is postulated that a strong oral tradition led memories of the creature to be passed down from generation to generation and eventually become the mythical Chinese unicorn known as zhi.

In Europe, meanwhile, unicorns arose from the eighth-century Greek Ctesias’s book on India, in which he managed to conflate a wild donkey, a tamed Asian rhino, and (possibly) a Tibetan antelope. He ascribed the creature numerous magical and medicinal qualities, which encouraged the trade of African rhino horns in Europe.

The final touch was completed by Roman naturalist Aelian, who changed the nature of the horn from smooth (like a rhino) to a spiral. As a result, narwhal tusks were eventually confused with unicorn horns and became prized—Queen Elizabeth paid £10,000 for one in the 16th century, and the Danish coronation throne constructed in the 17th was composed of narwhal tusks.


8Vampires

Likely Explanation: Rabies, Tuberculosis, Porphyria

Several diseases have been put forth to explain vampire myths. Porphyria can cause sensitivity to sunlight, be exacerbated by garlic, and make the teeth and gums taut (thereby accentuating the teeth). The claim that porphyria sufferers instinctively crave blood, however, is untrue.

Rabies is another popular explanation, mainly because it is spread by biting, and rabid humans have been known to bite. Dr. Juan Gomez-Alonso built on this, claiming that the aversion to garlic and light could be caused by hypersensitivity, a symptom of the disease. Their nocturnal habits can also be attributed to the effect rabies has on the sleep cycle. Furthermore, the animals most often associated with vampires—wolves and bats—are also susceptible to the disease and often infect humans.

The vampire scares in 19th-century New England, meanwhile, can be explained by tuberculosis. Often before dying of this, someone would infect their family members, and when those family members only began exhibiting symptoms after their loved ones’ deaths, people sought a supernatural explanation. They came to the conclusion that the dead were preying on their family from beyond the grave and literally sucking out their life force. Thus they began exhuming and burning corpses. Elsewhere, suspected vampires were staked, decapitated, or weighed down with bricks before they were reburied. A poor understanding of decomposition likely contributed to these beliefs, with fluids of decay misinterpreted as fresh blood.


7Tutankhamun’s Curse

Likely Explanation: Media Sensation

Archaeologist Howard Carter became world-famous after discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. However, one by one, people involved in the discovery died.

First, Lord Carnarvon, who funded the trip, died in Cairo after being bitten by a mosquito. As he did, the lights of the city went out. Other deaths followed. A scientist who X-rayed the mummy died of an unknown illness, a member of the excavation died of poisoning, and a visitor caught pneumonia and died after going to the tomb.

This may seem like strong evidence that the mummy’s curse had been unleashed, but it was all driven by a press desperate for stories about one of the greatest discoveries of all time. They pounced on the idea of a curse. A few people might have died, but many people were involved in the discovery. The numbers that died were no more than to be unexpected. In fact, the person who should have been the most obvious target of such a curse, discoverer Howard Carter, lived on for many years, dying at age 64.


6Amazon Warriors

Likely Explanation: They Likely Existed

The Greek legends are full of stories of a heroic race of warrior women, the Amazons. They fought for the Trojans during the Trojan War, attacked Athens during the Attic War, and even founded the city of Ephesus. Each year, these fierce warriors procreated with a neighboring tribe, keeping any resulting baby girls and getting rid of the boys.

The legends are full of appeal, and Greek pottery is awash with images of scantily clad Amazon warriors. However, until recently, nobody took the stories seriously. That is, not until archaeologists in Russia uncovered the graves of a group of women buried with their weapons and showing combat injuries.

The skeletons of the women also showed them to be unusually tall for their time. These warrior women of the Russian steppes were obviously a startling sight to the Greeks who encountered them.


5Dragons and Griffins

Likely Explanation: Dinosaurs

Belief in dragons is one of the most widespread myths, having evolved independently in China, Europe, Australia, and the Americas. A leading theory posits that stories of dragons arose from primitive people misinterpreting dinosaur fossils. The fourth-century Chinese historian Chang Qu wrote about the discovery of a dragon two millennia ago, illustrating the mystery such a discovery would have for ancient people. Some recent discoveries have added weight to this theory.

Dracorex Skeleton

The 66-million-year-old Dracorex, with its long muzzle and spiked visage, strongly resembles dragons and is named as such. Stanford scholar Adrienne Mayor, who has done extensive research in this area, suggested the Dracorex could have inspired the dragon-like unktehi of Sioux mythology (the specimen was discovered in Dakota).

Qijianlong Skeleton

Meanwhile, the extremely long-necked Qijianlong has been associated with Chinese dragon myths. It has been speculated that people may have come across the neck vertebrae embedded in the earth and then extrapolated its appearance from their knowledge of crocodiles. Indeed, it is known that the Chinese misattributed dinosaur bones to dragons—for at least two and a half millennia, they’ve been grinding up fossils for medicinal use in dragon tonics.

In the Gobi Desert of neighboring Mongolia, meanwhile, well-preserved fossils of the Protoceratops may have helped inspire griffins. This hornless relative of the Triceratops had a beak (hence the griffin’s bird-head) and a quadrupedal body, while the thin frill could break easily and come to resemble a griffin’s ears, and its elongated shoulder blades could be misinterpreted as wings.

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