Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ukumar and bears or Homo erectus?

I have already written about the "Yeti" in the southern parts of South America , (Jan 18, 2011), but I will go over this subject again since several cryptozoology blogs and books [2] mention hairy ape-like men in the High Andes and some cite an event reported in the Puna region in Salta, Argentina, in 1956, at the small village of Tolar Grande (try googling "tolar grande 1956 sighting" and see the results).

Yeti and the media

The context is always important when you look at repeated reports of similar phenomena in a given period of time (for instance witches in the middle ages, UFOs in the 1950s and 60s).

The Yeti burst into the public eye and mind in the early 1950s: footprints were reported by Eric Shipton in 1951, and the team that were the first to conquer the summit of Mount Everst, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay also reported them on the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. [1]. Later, in 1954 an expedition was sent to find one alive, funded by the English newspaper, the Daily Mail.

So it is not surprising that the Yeti was something that would crop up when strange hairy mountain beings were reported in the fifties. Also, the early 1950s was a period when UFOs began gaining public attention and newspapers published sightings weekly.

Cerro Macón

Cerro Macón (5.611 m - 18,396 ft.) also known as Icomán is a mountain located in the Province of Salta in northwestern Argentina (24° 27' S, 67° 15'W) it is part of the Cumbres del Macón Range of the Andes Mountains.

It is located in between the enormous salt flats of Pocitos and Arizaro and juts out above the surrounding extremely high Puna plateau which in this area is about 4,100 m high (13,440 ft.); it is an ancient sacred site for the local native Americans.

On its summit, there is a mound of stones 1.4 m (roughly 5 ft.) high, where the local natives leave their offerings (coca leaves, cigarettes) as well as two rectangular platforms 0.8 m (nearly 3 ft.) above ground level, these were evidently built during the period of Inca domination in the late fifteenth Century AD.[3]

The following map shows the location of Cerro Macón in the Puna, Salta province, Argentina. The village of Tolar Grande is at the tip of Route "27" and is set at 3.528 m (11,567 ft.) above sea level. It has only 148 inhabitants and was built in a lonely spot next to the railway station of the Salta - Antofagasta railroad.

Ver mapa más grande

The events of the mid 1950s

Below is a summary of what happened in the mid 1950s, I have found an interesting website [4] which has posted the actual cuttings from a local newspaper. I have translated the relevant parts.

  • July 17, 1956. The "El Tribuno" daily, of Salta city, reported that people had seen, close to Macón Mountain, "enormous human foot prints that are bigger than the size of those of elephants", it added that cigar shaped aircraft had been seen in the Puna skies as well as a "mysterious crash reported on the slopes of Cerro Macón, of which nothing else has been heard about to date". In other words, a Roswell accident in the Puna!
  • July 18, 1956. Same newspaper. An engineer by the name of "Audio Level Pitch" (odd indeed, sounds like an electronic device) saw "tracks going towards the imposing summit of the mountain, which are of a formidable size and that by logic deduction cannot belong to a human being or the animals of the region [...] the tracks are very similar to those of the "abominable snow man". The 50's context: Yetis and UFOs in one story. A newspaper seller!
  • July 19, 1956, Same source. The witness' name changed to "Claudio Level Spitch" . The tracks were spotted in the "cold sand and snow" , and are similar to those of the Yeti, but, must be of extraterrestrial origin since there was a "crash on the slopes of the Macón Mountain"
  • July 27, 1956. El Tribuno. A man named Ciriaco Taritolay, an animal driver from the Escoipe Canyon area (south of El Tolar Grande, and an access to the southern part of the Puna. Map of this area), saw at the entrance of the "Agua Chulla" Canyon, a "supernatural being", the man "remembered the descriptions he had read in EL TRIBUNO about the Yeti Man and thought that it may be Snow Man" , bearing this in mind he chased the creature with his shot gun but it quickly got lost in the hills. He described it as follows: "Tall, sturdy, its body covered with hair resembling frost, its feet 45 to 50 cm (18 - 20 in.), and very agile".

Comments on these incidents

The odd name of the source, Audio Level Pitch, loudly says "hoax". So I belive it was made up by some bored reporter at the El Tribuno. UFOs and Yeti were hot eye-catchers at the time, so it would have tempted someone to write about them.

The final article though it actually confirms that the eye witness read about the Yeti in the EL TRIBUNO!, points towards another local mythical being a hairy ape man, or, more correctly, the "bear-man".

The Ucumar

I will skip all the more recent authors who cite this book which I will mention below, and all the websites that copy and paste. I will go directly to the source, a treatise on Argentine popular myths written by Dr. Berta Elena Vidal de Battini, an anthropologist and sociologist who gathered local lore from direct sources all across the country, in the 1950s, tales, myths and popular stories which she published in her ten volume work "Cuentos y leyendas populares de la Argentina" (see sources below where you can read the digital book). [5]

Dr. Vidal de Battini specifically mentions the Ucumar in the stories she compiled (#2304 to #2310), the date is given at the end of each entry; all are in the early 1950s:

  • "The Ucumar is like a bear, like a bear-man. They say that it lives in places deep within the canyons, in the caves in the cliffs. They say he is stubby and has a pot belly. He has a long beard and his feet and legs like those of bears... the Ucumar steals women and takes them to live with him and he also nabs children. They say he has small but bright eyes. There are many cases in which the Ucumar has stolen women and had children with them. They say that after some time the wife and child run away from the Ucman and come to live with the woman's family". 1953. Salta.
    Comment. Notice how he compares it with a bear but calls him bear-man, who can mate and have offspring with humans.
  • "The Ucumar is an animal thal looks like a man, its body is completely covered with long black hair. It lives in the forest in uninhabited areas. The people fear it...". 1950.
    Comment. This person also mentions that it kidnaps women.
  • Calling it Ucumar: "On some nights, screams could be heard at the tops of the hills... [a man, in the forest stopped to drink at a stream and heard his dogs bark] he saw a being that resembled a man with long hair that covered his face, which he lifted to be able to see... he had the aspect of a hairy, long haired man". 1952
  • Calling it Ucumari: "it is a creature like a big man, that always goes about on two feet. The arms and legs are hairy or woolly and the face is very similar to that of a person". 1952. The story teller reports that it also steals women to have children with them.
  • Calling it Ucumare: "it is a small man, with his body covered with hair and his feet turned backwards... it is a monster-man, with extraordinary strength. The Colla women have told that they have had to fight with them to avoid being carried off whenever they come across one. They say that he has stealed women, taken them to the forest and that they have never returned" . 1958.
  • "Ucumar is a ugly creature that takes off people. If it is a male it will steal women; if it is a female it will take of the youths... Once a Ucumar female took a young man with her to the deepest jungle and put him in a cave, blocking the entrance with a stone. After some years she had a baby with the man." 1952.

Dr. Vidal de Battini outlines the main thread of all these stories: a bear that kidnaps women and has children with them. The bear-man is indeed the image of a real bear that lives in the Andes but is quite rare in northern Argentina. The stories about Ucumar were known by all those that lived in this area in the 1950s.

The bear that originates this myth according to Vidal de Battini is the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), the only bear found in South America. A shy jungle beast found from Venezuela to Bolivia on the eastern slopes of the Andes, in the tropical rain forest, and infrequently spotted in Argentina.

It can appear man-like since it, like all bears, can stand up on two feet (see a excellent National Geographic photograph of a standing spectacled bear)

The following image also shows a standing spectacled bear and, a Native American dressed up to resemble it!, more below: [6]

ukuku dancer and spectacled bear
An ukuko - ukuku dancer and a spectacled bear. From [6]

Ukuku "dancers" in Peru

During the Catholic festivity of Corpus Christi, at the Catholic Sanctuary of "Señor de Qoyllorit’i", at Mawayani, in Quispicanchi, close to Cusco, Peru, there are dances and celebrations. One group of "dancers" (they don't actually dance, but accompany the dancers) are men are known as "paulucha", "ukuko" or "ukuku".

They use costumes that make them look bear-like (see photograph above). The dress is called an "unku", which is a kind of long tunic with woollen fringes from which bells and mirriors hang. The man wears a balaclava called "waqollo" that gives his face a bearish look, and carries a whip. He does not dance, actually he follows the dancers and walks around in a clumsy manner. [6]

Their name comes from the native Quechua word for bear, "ukuku". And it originates in an ancient native myth.[6] According the myth, the ancestor of the ukuku was the son of a bear and an Indian woman. He was half man, half animal. He protects humans from the "condemned" that roam around the mountains. These are "living dead", zombies that have been fated to walk the slopes due to the sins that they comitted (especially incest) when they were human. Interestingly the ukuku has a "falsetto" shrill voice, a female voice in a male body.[7] How did our distant relatives the H. erectus vocalize? did they have a squeaky voice?

Bears in the Puna?

The spectacled bear is found in northern Argentina, in Jujuy and Salta, but in the jungles a the foot of the mountains that cordon off the high plateau of the Puna. Its habitat is a jungle known as the "Yungas" ecostystem, with a subtropícal climate. [8]

The Puna (where Mount Macón and Tolar Grande are located, as well as the Escoipe Canyon) is a very arid place, with scarce vegetation and high altitude (averages 4,000 m - 13,100 ft.). No jungle here, only rocks, cliffs, sand flats, boulders, sand, cacti and dry grasses. Rainfall is scarce.

Bear or hominid?

Probly the myth moved from the jungles of the lowlands to the arid high plateau with the natives in Pre Hispanic times. Alternatively the Inca from Peru may have brought their Ukuku myth with them when they conquered the area in the 1450s. Or, the myth may be local and refer to an endemic hominid that lives in the Puna (it could hunt the local camelids: llama, vicuña and guanaco or the taruca deer).

The bear myth seems to have pervaded the Natives of the southern tip of South America, and is found among the Mapuche in Patagonia: see my post on Patagonian bears.

In any case, the myth may or may not refer to a bear. Those who Vidal de Battini interviewed seeme to make it clear that it was bear-like. But they did not say that it Was a bear. Perhaps some grotesque interpretation of a hominid led them to compare it with a bear.

The fact that it can mate with women and men, means that it is a hominid very close to us, modern humans, very likely a H. erectus.


[1] Edmund Hillary. Epitaph to the elusive abominable snow man. Life Magazine. pp. 72. Jan 13, 1961

[2] George Eberhart, (2002) Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology. ABC-CLIO, pp. 565

[3] María Constanza Ceruti. (2997). Prospecciones en sitios de alta montaña en el noroeste andino argentino: informe preliminar. 49th Congreso Internacional Americanista, Quito, Ecuador. July 7-11, 1997.

[4] Caso Cerro Macon.

[5] Vidal de Battini, Berta Elena, (1960). Cuentos y leyendas populares de la Argentina Vol. 8. Alicante, 2010 pp. 823

[6] Carlos Olivera. (2011). Los ukukos en Qoyllorit’i June 01, 2011

[7] Fernando Martínez Gil, Gerardo Fernández Juárez. La fiesta del Corpus Christi. Univ de Castilla La Mancha. pp 353

[8] Del Moral J. Fernando, Bracho Andrés E. Indicios indirectos de la presencia del oso andino (Tremarctos ornatus Cuvier, 1825) en el noroeste de Argentina . Rev. Mus. Argent. Cienc. Nat. [revista en la Internet]. 2009 Jun [citado 2012 Mayo 12] ; 11(1): 69-76. Disponible en:

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2012 by Austin Whittall © 

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