Some Hollywood types from Universal Studios had come to the village of Wolfordisworthy, North Devon, to meet the Centre for Fortean Zoology people during their Weird Weekend 2007 conference. Nick Redfern’s book Three Men Seeking Monsters had been ‘optioned’ by Universal. As it was about Redfern and his CFZ colleagues Jonathan Downes and Richard Freeman (see below), Universal wanted to meet the three men, just in case the script ‘option’ ever got as far as having a film treatment that needed to be written. Downes said of his previous TV appearances, “Thank God for Harry Potter - everyone thinks I’m Hagrid.’
The Saturday session of Weird Weekend is always a twelve-hour endurance marathon, and this year’s (Saturday 18 August) was no exception, with an overwhelming parade of speakers.
Dr Karl Shuker, a shining star in cryptozoology’s firmament, showed up to launch Extraordinary Animals Revisited, an update of his classic book on mystery animals. ‘Crypto-books have a habit of becoming as elusive as the animals in them,’ said Dr Shuker of the tendency of cryptozoology books to go out of print. When I got back to London later, there was an email from Amazon telling me about Extraordinary Animals Revisited, which it wrongly attributed to Downes not Dr Shuker.
Despite being held at Zurich Airport in the belief that his ‘hand exercisers’ were some kind of weapons of mass destruction, star speaker Grigory Panchenko was on next, the first Weird Weekend speaker from outside the English-speaking world.
Mr Panchenko works as a recruiter of Russian science personnel in Hanover, although his background is genetics. Science in his native Ukraine, he says, “is dead.” In his spare time he is the president of a Ukrainian cryptozoological organisation. His talk was advertised as The Russian Snowman, but the Russian snowman he is hunting is, in fact, neither Russian, nor a snowman. It lives in the Caucuses, mostly in Georgia, and is known locally as ‘almasti.’
Unlike the ‘almas’ hairy man reported in Mongolia, or the apparently similar ‘aubasti’ reported in Central Asia, which are supposed to be like yetis, the almasti mystery humanoid that Mr Panchenko is pursuing is ‘more advanced…. Like Home Erectus, of the genus Homo, but not Homo Sapiens.’ It uses tools and makes basic clothes, like belts, out of natural materials, and has been known to steal clothes of washing lines or from rubbish dumps, and to wear them. Mr Panchenko described reports of almasti wearing a pair of trousers, holding the waist with one hand and stuffing potatoes it was digging up down the waist with the other hand, using the trousers as a sort of sack to carry off potatoes. He ever heard of an almasti seen around for several years that was wearing a discarded military hat.
Unlike the vast forests of the Pacific Northwestern USA, that are supposed to hide Bigfoot, or the empty snowfields of the Himalayas, allegedly home to the Yeti, the almasti are ‘forced to live next to humans’ in the Caucuses mountain chain that stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea for 1200km, an area populated by modern humans for a very long time. ‘How can it (the almasti) eat in such an unusual environment?’ asks Mr Panchenko. It occupies the ‘same niche as a bear, it’s omnivorous, plants are the leading part of its food.’ Almastis often ‘borrow food from human neighbours.’ As well as neatly digging out potatoes, they eat nuts, almonds, horse manure (for its vitamins) and sometimes steal newborn foals and cows. They sometimes milk cows or mares into their mouths, although there are fewer horses that are left to graze freely in the region now. Frogs, lizards, toads, rats, hares, salt left out by shepherds for sheep to lick, and eggs stolen from chicken coops are also part of the almasti diet. Apart from foals and calves, it doesn’t seem to hunt much.
The almasti don’t seem to need much food to stay alive either. A pilfered loaf of bread will last an adult almasti three days, and it drinks rarely and little. It can live of cornfields for two or three days at a time. The almasti are ‘much more mobile than chimpanzees’ and ‘wander seasonally’ – they disappear from some territories for the winter months, reappearing around harvest time. They are ‘mainly evening, night creatures’ and Mr Panchenko says that ‘if you saw an almasti yesterday, you won’t see them for a year.’ It hides from humans and moves ‘slowly, not in a hurry.’ The almasti seem to smell human scents, and then stay away from it. ‘You hear them a lot, females and juveniles avoid you a lot… Forceful adult males sometimes throw stones if you approach them.’ The almasti is ‘very shy despite its great strength’ and sometimes ‘treats humans friendly.’ The almasti makes a noise like a male chimpanzee, and it also whistles. Mr Panchenko has heard its screams and whistles four times on three expeditions, and says that, when afraid, the almasti has a high-pitched scream that ‘sounds like a woman who saw a mouse.’ Several witnesses have ‘heard them murmuring.’
Mr Panchenko and his team have found almasti remains, mostly in caves, including a shin bone and ‘a very large, very strange collar bone’, and he has talked to locals who told him they found a ‘very strange skull with picanthropus characteristics.’ The shin bone is currently at the University of Paris for DNA analysis. Some locals have promised him they will give him some alleged almasti teeth for investigation, but Mr Panchenko feels these may turn out to be bear’s teeth. He’s come within 10 ft of a teenage almasti, who didn’t know he was there, but says his camera was out of batteries at the time. He first started hearing about the almasti on his military service in 1986, when he met Georgians who had seen it.
Mr Panchenko’s team have heard over 2,000 stories of almasti sightings, but the animals are rare. Even in the thinly-populated Caucus mountains, there is ‘one almasti to 100 or 1000 people.’
Post-Soviet Georgia has many abandoned collective farms, and encounters with almasti often happen in these, and other, abandoned building in the Caucuses, as almasti shelter in them. There’s a report of a farmer who left his horse alone in a big stable, and next morning he found that his horse had moved to the other side of the stable, and a great pile of hay near where the horse had stood had been beaten down. Some people in remote communities have come home and found that jewellry and other items have been picked up and put back again, apparently by almasti.
Young almasti look ‘almost like human children’. Around the late 1990s, there were only reports of older almasti, and there were fears that the species was nearing extinction, but this threat appears to have been averted, with reports starting up again of ‘children and teenage’ almasti. A recent German expedition by Marojan Kaufman heard almasti stories which they realized were about almasti children seen earlier who had now grown up, and heard reports of new almasti children having being born.
The almasti also share the Caucuses with three cryptid reptiles, much to the fascination of the CFZ’s reptile specialist Richard Freeman, who is a former chief keeper for reptiles at Twycross Zoo. There’s a giant 30ft-long Caucasian snake like a boa constrictor that mostly lives near water. With disastrous Soviet agricultural policies in Central Asia, this may be dying out. Mr Pachenko feels this creature may have given rise to Central Asian lake monster stories. There are also stories of a crocodile-like monitor lizard – smaller than a Komodo dragon – and a hairy snake with hairy scales.
Mr Pachenko emphasized that, even though an adult male almasti could be as tall as a ‘medium-sized Bigfoot’, it was ‘more progressive’ than such Yeti-like animals, and had ‘burials without rituals – like chimpanzees with grass and stone’, although it often died alone, leaving its bones in caves. He’s convinced that the Yeti-like almas in Mongolia also exist, with a population of about 200, but equally convinced that ‘in our lifetime they will all be gone.’