The lau was a cryptid reported from the marshes of the White Nile, in what is now South Sudan, described as an enormous serpentine animal with facial protuberances such as barbels or a crest. While it has been incorporated into the story of neodinosaurs in Africa, it is more often speculated to be a kind of enormous catfish, or, historically, a snake. It may be synonymous with the lukwata of Lake Victoria.
The lau was first mentioned in 1923, by Henry Cecil Jackson, who reported that two types of python (Python sebae) were known to live in Nuer country, while a third, the lau, which he thought could be imaginary, was rumoured. Jackson believed the Shilluk people knew it as the nyāl, a name the Nuer used for pythons. Naturalist John Guille Millais (1865 – 1931) later investigated stories of the lau while travelling the Nile, in particular receiving information from a Malakal telegram operative and hunter named Stephens. At this time, the Dinka people of Kilo claimed to still hear the booming of the lau on occasion. The lau was also later investigated by Captain William Hichens.
After reading Bernard Heuvelmans' account of the lau in On the Track of Unknown Animals (1955), former Governor of Bahr el-Ghazal (1948 – 1953) Thomas Richard Hornby Owen (1903 – 1982) wrote to Heuvelmans in 1959 to give him information on the lau, which was known to the Dinka people as jâk-anywong ("punishing spirit") or simply jâk. Owen published some of the information the following year, in Hunting Big Game With Gun and Camera in Africa (1960). The jâk-anywong was heavily mythologised, as it was described as a three-mile long animal with quarter-mile whiskers, which it used to bleed boatmen to death. However, Owen also described a possible first-hand sighting. The lau was reportedly common in the swamps of the Bahr al-Arab and Bahr el Ghazal, as well as the Adar Marshes and the Bahr el Zeraf, Lake No, and many of the wetlands between Malakal and Rejaf. Owen described its favoured habitat as calm, deep water with abundant water lillies and marsh grasses.
According to the stories collected by Jackson, the lau is a sort of python of gigantic proportions, which can grow up to 40' or longer, with a notably thick body. However, it is not always said to be so large, and is sometimes described as no longer than 12', smaller than many rock pythons. Stephens gave larger dimensions, claiming that it was said to be between 40' and 100' long, with a body as big as a donkey's or horse's. Unlike the python, the lau is said to have light brown or dark yellow skin. The Nuer described it as having some kind of protuberances, though their exact nature varied; some said it had a short crest of hair, reminiscent of the crest of the crowned crane (Balearica regulorum), while others describe it as having long hairs with which it grabs its victims. Stephens' informants agreed with the latter version, claiming that the lau had large tentacles or thick, wiry hairs on its head. It has a horny protuberance on its underside, between the umbilicus and the tail, about 3'' long.
The Nuer described it as inhabiting holes in riverbanks and swamps, and leaving distinctive furrows when it travels over the land. During the rainy season, it is said to rumble like an elephant. The Nuer feared it greatly, and claimed that the glance of a lau means death, though they also often used supposed lau bones as talismans. It shares some of its behavioural traits and cultural connotations with the lukwata of Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.
In 1914, a large lau was allegedly killed by Shilluks in the Adar Marshes, near a place called Koro-a-ta. Stephens acquired some neck bones from a Shilluk named Bilaltut, and sent them to Jackson, who in turn sent them to the British Museum. According to Stephens, no identity was provided by the museum, although Jackson told Millais that they might have belonged to an ordinary rock python. Jackson had previously referred to these bones himself.
Captain William Hichens acquired a wooden carving of a lau's head from sculptor Mshengu she Gunda of Iramba, near the Wembare Swamp, in Tanzania's Singida Region. Mshengu, who had hunted in the Nilotic swamps and near Lake Victoria, firmly believed in the lau, arguing that Hichens should see the animal as he himself had seen Hichens' motorcar. Bernard Heuvelmans and Roy P. Mackal identify the carving as a dance mask, and Mackal argues that Hichens' photograph of it "contributes little towards the identification of the creature".
Jackson and Stephens both collected a number of minor or undated sightings, as well as the afformentioned 1914 killing. Jackson heard that a 12' specimen had been seen in the Bahr al Zeraf some years before 1923, and reported that the largest individual he had heard of was a more than 40' lau seen and killed near Wau some forty years previously.
According to Stephens, a telegraph company employee named Abrahim Mohamed claimed to have seen a lau killed near Raub, at a village named Bogga, during the time of a well-known telegraph inspector identified only as Bimbashi (Major) "B." A Zande man named Rabah Rinbi of Wau reported that a similar monster had been killed in the marshes near his village. Stephens also claimed to have met a Belgian administrator at Rejaf, who...
Owen sent a description of a possible lau encounter to Heuvelmans in 1959, which was later published in his books Hunting Big Game With Gun and Camera in Africa (1960) and the posthumous Sudan Days (2016). According to Owen, while by the Bahr al-Arab one hot day in March 1947, one of Owen's companions shot a duck, which fell into the water. As Owen's Dinka boy refused to retrieve it out of fear, the man who had shot it dived in to do so...
Finding the lau's description "strangely contradictory," Heuvelmans argued that "lau" was a term applied to any large, serpentine water animals, and that the cryptozoological lau was in fact a composite cryptid based on observations of such animals. The lau's name was already confused from its first attestation, as Jackson recorded that, while the Nuer and Dinka called it lau, the Shilluk called it nyāl—a term used for pythons in the other languages. Stephens, on the other hand, claimed that the Shilluk, Nuer, and Dinka, all use the name lau, whereas Owen wrote that jâk-anywong was the Nuer term. Heuvelmans identified a number of serpentine animals, mostly fishes, which he believed had inspired the lau.
Heuvelmans suggests that the lau's crest may have originated in observations of the Nile bichir (Polypterus bichir), which, like all bichirs, has a row of prominent, crest-like dorsal fins all along its back. While it is not large, it is vaguely serpentine in shape, and its fins are sharp enough to lacerate flesh. The large, snake-shaped marbled lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus) of the Nilotic wetlands may also have influenced the lau, as it hibernates burrowed beneath mud, and can be extremely ferocious when disturbed. Furthermore, it is capable of adopting the posture of a striking snake by lifting itself up with its fins. The largest marbled lungfish ever caught was around 6''' in length, making it the largest lungfish in Africa. Some of the lau's features, such as its alleged tentacles and its habit of snatching men from canoes and bleeding them, are reminiscent of the freshwater octopuses reported from elsewhere in Africa, including from the nearby Uele Basin, which Heuvelmans explained as manatees.
However, most of the lau's features are found within the catfishes (family Siluridae), many species of which exist in the muddy waters of the Nile and its lakes and marshes. The "hair" or "tentacles" of the lau are extremely suggestive of the barbels or "whiskers" of a catfish, which give the group their name. Certain African catfishes, such as the African sharptooth catfish (Clarias gariepinus), are also capable of breathing air, and consequently of moving on land. To facilitate their breathing air, these catfishes possess two long air sacs, which produce audible rumbling noises, explaining the lau's anomalous (for a fish) ability to vocalise. The sharptooth catfish itself also spends the dry season in burrows, emerging only during the night, which is also a feature of the lau. While many catfishes are famously aggressive, the belief that the lau can strike a man down at a glance may have been inspired specifically by the electric catfish (Malapterurus electricus), which is capable of generating electric shocks of between 300 and 400 volts, too weak to kill a man in one, but still memorable. While many Nilotic catfish are not particularly serpentine, Heuvelmans argued that there is a tendency towards elongation in the catfishes, which is particularly marked in the eel-like West African genera Channallabes and Gymnallabes.
However, no known catfish could explain the lau in whole, as no African catfish reaches its size. The largest is the vundu (Heterobranchus longifilis) of the Nile, a 5' catfish which may also be involved in the lau's identity. However, giant catfish are cryptids in their own right, being reported from all around the world, including the African nations of South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Heuvelmans argues that the absence of truly giant catfishes in Africa's vast waterways is striking, given the fact that catfishes are often the largest fishes in Europe, Asia, and America. Subsequently, he argued that the lau could be an undiscovered species of giant marsh-dwelling serpentine catfish. Initially, Heuvelmans did not find the explanation strictly necessary, arguing that a confusion of various serpentine fishes could create an acceptable lau. Heuvelmans felt that the lau's enormous size may have been borrowed from both the marbled lungfish and the semi-aquatic African rock python (Python sebae), which may grow to a length of 20' or more, and which is known to attack man, albeit rarely. However, he eventually concluded that the lau may indeed have been an undescribed serpentine catfish of gigantic size.
William Hichens and Bernard Heuvelmans considered the possibility that the lau could be the same kind of animal as the lukwata, which, according to Hichens' description, had several features in common with the lau. Heuvelmans also identified the lukwata as a nonexistent composite, although he believed that one of its major components could indeed have been a giant catfish, thus supporting Hichens' theory. Roy P. Mackal alternatively suggests a connection with the nguma-monene, a reptilian cryptid of the Republic of the Congo which is similar to the giant Ethiopian lizard, reported from marshes in eastern Sudan.
Notes and references
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1978) Les Derniers Dragons d'Afrique, Plon, ISBN 978-2259003872
- Heuvelmans, Bernard (1955) On the Track of Unknown Animals, Routledge, ISBN 978-1138977525
- Jackson, Henry Cecil "The Nuer of the Upper Nile Province," Sudan Notes and Records, Vol. 6 (1923) – Online
- Millais, J. G. (1924) Far Away Up the Nile – Online
- Hichens, William "African Mystery Beasts," Discovery: The Popular Journal of Knowledge, Vol. 18, No. 216 (December 1937) – Online (Wayback Machine)
- Eberhart, George M. (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology ABC-CLIO, Inc. ISBN 1-57607-283-5
- Lane, Frank (1939) Nature Parade
- Mackal, Roy P. (1987) A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe, Brill, ISBN 978-9004085435
- Owen, Richard John Hornby (2016) Sudan Days, 1926-1954
- Heuvelmans, Bernard "Annotated Checklist of Apparently Unknown Animals With Which Cryptozoology Is Concerned", Cryptozoology, No. 5 (1986)