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Megalodon

Edward Guimont
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: In 1999, the TV movie Shark Attack depicted an attack by mutant great white sharks on the population of Cape Town. By the time the third entry in the series, Shark Attack 3, aired in 2002, mutant great whites had lost their lustre and were replaced as antagonists with the megalodon: a giant shark originating not in any laboratory, but history, having lived from approximately 23 to 3.6 million years ago. The megalodon was resurrected again in May 2021 through a trifecta of events. A video of a basking shark encounter in the Atlantic went viral on the social media platform TikTok, due to users misidentifying it as a megalodon caught on tape. At the same time a boy received publicity for finding a megalodon tooth on a beach in South Carolina on his fifth birthday (Scott). And finally, the video game Stranded Deep, in which a megalodon is featured as a major enemy, was released as one of the monthly free games on the PlayStation Plus gaming service. These examples form part of a larger trend of alleged megalodon sightings in recent years, emerging as a component of the modern resurgence of cryptozoology. In the words of Bernard Heuvelmans, the Belgian zoologist who both popularised the term and was a leading figure of the field, cryptozoology is the “science of hidden animals”, which he further explained were more generally referred to as ‘unknowns’, even though they are typically known to local populations—at least sufficiently so that we often indirectly know of their existence, and certain aspects of their appearance and behaviour. It would be better to call them animals ‘undescribed by science,’ at least according to prescribed zoological rules. (1-2) In other words, a large aspect of cryptozoology as a field is taking the legendary creatures of non-Western mythology and finding materialist explanations for them compatible with Western biology. In many ways, this is a relic of the era of European imperialism, when many creatures of Africa and the Americas were “hidden animals” to European eyes (Dendle 200-01; Flores 557; Guimont). A major example of this is Bigfoot beliefs, a large subset of which took Native American legends about hairy wild men and attempted to prove that they were actually sightings of relict Gigantopithecus. These “hidden animals”—Bigfoot, Nessie, the chupacabra, the glawackus—are referred to as ‘cryptids’ by cryptozoologists (Regal 22, 81-104). Almost unique in cryptozoology, the megalodon is a cryptid based entirely on Western scientific development, and even the notion that it survives comes from standard scientific analysis (albeit analysis which was later superseded). Much like living mammoths and Bigfoot, what might be called the ‘megalodon as cryptid hypothesis’ serves to reinforce a fairy tale of its own. It reflects the desire to believe that there are still areas of the Earth untouched enough by human destruction to sustain massive animal life (Dendle 199-200). Indeed, megalodon’s continued existence would help absolve humanity for the oceanic aspect of the Sixth Extinction, by its role as an alternative apex predator; cryptozoologist Michael Goss even proposed that whales and giant squids are rare not from human causes, but precisely because megalodons are feeding on them (40). Horror scholar Michael Fuchs has pointed out that shark media, particularly the 1975 film Jaws and its 2006 video game adaptation Jaws Unleashed, are imbued with eco-politics (Fuchs 172-83). These connections, as well as the modern megalodon’s surge in popularity, make it notable that none of Syfy’s climate change-focused Sharknado films featured a megalodon. Despite the lack of a Megalodonado, the popular appeal of the megalodon serves as an important case study. Given its scientific origin and dynamic relationship with popular culture, I argue that the ‘megalodon as cryptid hypothesis’ illustrates how the boundaries between ‘hard’ science and mythology, fiction and reality, as well as ‘monster’ and ‘animal’, are not as firm as advocates of the Western science tradition might believe. As this essay highlights, science can be a mythology of its own, and monsters can serve as its gods of the gaps—or, in the case of megalodon, the god of the depths. Megalodon Fossils: A Short History Ancient peoples of various cultures likely viewed fossilised teeth of megalodons in the area of modern-day Syria (Mayor, First Fossil Hunters 257). Over the past 2500 years, Native American cultures in North America used megalodon teeth both as curios and cutting tools, due to their large size and serrated edges. A substantial trade in megalodon teeth fossils existed between the cultures inhabiting the areas of the Chesapeake Bay and Ohio River Valley (Lowery et al. 93-108). A 1961 study found megalodon teeth present as offerings in pre-Columbian temples across Central America, including in the Mayan city of Palenque in Mexico and Sitio Conte in Panama (de Borhegyi 273-96). But these cases led to no mythologies incorporating megalodons, in contrast to examples such as the Unktehi, a Sioux water monster of myth likely inspired by a combination of mammoth and mosasaur fossils (Mayor, First Americans 221-38). In early modern Europe, megalodon teeth were initially referred to as ‘tongue stones’, due to their similarity in size and shape to human tongues—just one of many ways modern cryptozoology comes from European religious and mystical thought (Dendle 190-216). In 1605, English scholar Richard Verstegan published his book A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities, which included an engraving of a tongue stone, making megalodon teeth potentially the subject of the first known illustration of any fossil (Davidson 333). In Malta, from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, megalodon teeth, known as...
Keywords: history / video game / Native American / illustrates / media / giant / featured a megalodon / mammoths

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