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Review: Joyner, Graham C. (2002) Scientific Reaction to the Evidence for the Yahoo or ‘Australian Ape’ 1882-1912.
Does anyone have a copy of this or any other of Joyner's publications that they want to offload?
the Yowie-Ocalypse
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This booklet is an intriguing read. Joyner has a passionate interest in nineteenth-century accounts of the ‘Yahoo’ (sometimes known, erroneously he argues, as the ‘Yowie’) or Australian Ape. Here he investigates the failure of Australia’s scientific establishment to take account of evidence of this creature, focusing on two specific incidents in 1882 and 1912. Joyner has researched these accounts extensively, and his use of both published sources (mostly newspapers, especially local ones) and unpublished sources (particularly Australian Museum correspondence) is serious, carefully directed and impressive in its detail.

In 1882, McCooey, a collector for the Australian Museum, conducted a campaign to interest the museum in the stories of the Australian ape, and to have them fund an expedition for him to collect a specimen. He claimed to have seen the animal, and also to know the location of a skeleton of this ‘most uncouth and repulsive-looking creature’ (p. 5). The museum rejected these proposals. The second incident concern some plaster casts taken from ‘Yahoo’ footprints in the Monaro in 1912, which were examined and dismissed by Edgworth David at the University of Sydney. To Joyner’s mind the ‘consequences were disastrous’, that is, David prejudiced the possibility for scientists to investigate these reports with any degree of open-mindedness.

Joyner is determined to reassess the validity of the original reports of the presence of an ape-like animal in the Australian bush. Although he does not make his own views explicit, he is clearly sympathetic to these original reports. He has collected such accounts for many years, having deposited a collection of them in the National Library as long ago as 1973. In this alone Joyner has provided an invaluable service for those interested in the more fantastical or mysterious elements of Australian national history.

Joyner devotes considerable space to detailing the events, the persons involved and the reliability of their observations, essentially on the basis of the correspondence between these and other observations that he has gathered. While this is an interesting argument, it seems to me that Joyner underestimates the power and reach of stories which take on a mythopoiec quality and may become very widespread in a culture (such as colonial Australia, with its high degree of social change and personal mobility), without necessarily being able to trace linear routes of influence between one account and another. Thus his argument that these were independent, but highly correspondent, accounts needs further analysis,

For Joyner, the accounts of an Australian ape are no more implausible than other, more famous quirks of Australian nature which were greeted with scientific skepticism, including ‘the platypus’s eggs, marsupial reproduction and the Queensland lungfish’ (p. 25). Indeed Joyner’s key argument is that scientific skepticism may act to blinker investigation of natural phenomenon, by demanding particular varieties of evidence that may be impossible to obtain. In making this argument, Joyner invokes some interesting speculation about the nature of language and knowledge, and points out that a scientific rejection of evidence may, as it indeed proved in the case of the platypus, rest on inadequate imagination as much as it does on an inadequate body of evidence.

Although Joyner’s argument has merits and provides much further food for thought, (particularly in relation to Aboriginal categories and words for natural phenomena), it does not prove entirely persuasive in this context. To my mind, the evidence for the ‘Australian ape’ remains largely of a legendary nature. The investigator who wishes to argue otherwise has a very significant burden of proof to establish the claim.

Brigid Hains
School of Historical Studies
Monash University
Historical Records of Australian Science, 2003, 14.