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Posts Tagged ‘Bernal Diaz del Castillo’

One of my favorite cryptozoology rabbit holes is the story of the “onza,” a supposed late-surviving coursing cougar or “American cheetah.” Onza is Spanish for cheetah, and there have been skinny, long-legged cougars from Mexico that have been claimed as onzas.

One of the earliest indications that such an animal existed in historic times supposedly come from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who took over Mexico with Hernan Cortes. While living in relative luxury on his own personal fiefdom in what is now Guatemala, Bernal Diaz wrote an extensive account of his exploits in the taking of”New Spain” from the Aztecs and other Meso-American peoples.

His account of the court of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (known as Montezuma in the US) also includes an account of the emperor’s menagerie. Advocates for the onza as a late surviving American cheetah point a line the the text where Bernal Diaz discusses the “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf.”

I don’t know exactly what Bernal Diaz meant by cougar that looked like a wolf, but the really interesting thing is that this is not the full line.

The full line is “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf, called here Adive. “

“Adive” is a word that entered Spanish through North African Arabic, and it refers to the golden jackal. Well, the African golden wolf as we know it now.

Bernal Diaz is talking about wolf-like creatures called “adives” in New Spain, and although no one can make sense of his lion that looked like a wolf description. In an aside, he actually made mention of the coyote, and this must be the earliest mention of coyotes in a Western text.

My guess is Bernal Diaz was talking about a jaguarundi, which does look like an holy hybrid of a wolf and a cougar. This animal is sometimes called in Onza in part of Latin America, and it is also part and parcel of the late surviving American cheetah legend.

He could have also seen a Mexican wolf, and for whatever reason, he didn’t think of it as a wolf like existed in Spain. Instead, he may have classified it with the cougar, for it seemed so exotic to be a true wolf.

Bernal Diaz would have known these adives from his life in Guatemala, and he would have seen them in the Yucatan and during his adventures in Central Mexico.

Bernal Diaz wrote his account in 1576, when he was in his 80s. This account, even though it is just an aside, is the first mention of a coyote, and it predates the most famous early account of the “Indian fox” in Francisco Hernandez de Toledo’s Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana . Hernandez de Toledo was on his scientific expedition for the King of Spain at roughly the same time that Bernal Diaz mentioned the adive, but his account of the animal was not published until 1651, when he had been dead for decades.

So I would argue that Bernal Diaz was the first person to mention a coyote in Western literature, even if almost everyone missed his account as a mere weird word in an account about cougars and jaguars.

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