By Karl-Hans Taake
From 1764 to 1767, in the historical region of Gévaudan, located in southern France, and in adjacent areas, about one hundred children, youths, and women were killed by a so-called “Beast”. Numerous other humans survived the attacks, many of them seriously injured. The series of attacks has been confirmed by a great variety of historical documents and is not called into question by scientists.
Historians claim that wolves, or a hybrid of a wolf and a domestic dog, had attacked the victims; the “hybrid-assumption” is based on the description of a canid, shot in June 1767, that was said to have strange morphological characteristics. However, a critical evaluation of historical texts, including the publications of the French abbots François Fabre and Pierre Pourcher, revealed that neither this animal, nor any other wolf killed in Gévaudan, had anything to do with the attacks of the Beast. Nevertheless, there were, indeed, a few attacks of rabid and non-rabid wolves on humans in Gévaudan at that time.
Statistics of Beast Attacks
John D. C. Linnell et al., who published in 2002 a review of wolf attacks on humans, present the age distribution of human victims of wolves from the 18th to the 20th century. In their tables the attacks of the Beast are included, since they are considered as wolf attacks. However, if the table row “France 1764-1767” is excluded and analysed separately (nearly all data in this row refer to victims of the Beast), the following emerges: The Beast’s data show a drastic shift towards higher age. Grown-up victims of the Beast are proportionally six times more frequent than grown-up victims of wolves. Children under the age of ten, in contrast, are only represented by a third compared to the data for wolves. The victims of the Beast were older on average and therefore able to defend themselves more powerfully, they were heavier and energetically more “lucrative”. The Beast’s data are significantly different from the wolves’ data. Since the average prey size normally increases with the body size of predators, the data present indirect, but, nevertheless, clear evidence that the witnesses of that time had not exaggerated: they had encountered an animal that was much bigger than a wolf.
Wolf Attacks in Gévaudan
“An 18th-century engraving of Antoine de Beauterne slaying the wolf of Chazes.” (Source: Wikipedia)
About 95 percent of the carnivore attacks on humans in Gévaudan during the years 1764 to 1767 can be attributed to that single animal that was referred to as la bête: The Beast. There is no doubt that the remaining attacks were executed by rabid and non-rabid wolves. Wolves were a common species at that time and therefore easily recognized by the rural population.
Wolves Labelled as “Beast”
From 1764 to 1767, more than a hundred wolves were killed in Gévaudan. Half a dozen of these wolves were thought to be the Beast. However, surviving victims, helpers of the attacked humans, and hunters of the Beast had described a carnivore that was very different from a wolf. Therefore, several tricks were applied to change a killed wolf into the Beast. One wolf was said to have appeared as big as a donkey; brown fur portions in wolves were described as reddish; the Beast’s dark line along its spine was interpreted as the usual saddle-shaped patch on a wolf’s back; pieces of cloth were (very probably) manoeuvred with a stick into a dead wolf’s stomach and so on.
Descriptions of the Beast
The reports of the eyewitnesses provide details about the Beast that cannot have been invented because they add up to a coherent picture.
There can be no reasonable doubt that the Beast was a lion, namely a subadult male. The description of size, appearance, behaviour, strength – it all fits together: the comparison of size with a bovine animal; flat head; reddish fur; a dark line along the spine occasionally occurring in lions; spots on the sides of the body that appear especially in younger lions; a body that becomes conspicuously sturdier from the rear towards the front; a tail which appears to be strangely thin (since shorthaired); a tassel on the tail; enormous strength that allowed the animal to carry off adult humans and to split human skulls as well as to jump nine meters [30 feet]; the use of a rough tongue to scrape tissue from skulls so that these appeared as if they were polished; roaring calls described as terrible barking; a paw print of 16 centimeters [6 inches] length; using claws during an attack; attacking big ungulates by jumping on their backs; throttling victims, that is: killing by interrupting the air flow; a preference for the open country.
The Beast disappeared around the middle of the year 1767 from Gévaudan, after poisoned baits had been placed there on a large scale. Since 1764 it had suffered a dozen or more gunshot wounds, some of the shots fired at close range, whereas wolves were often fatally struck by a single shot.
Lions were, in 18th Century France, a well-known species, but most people had at best seen only stylized representations of males with well-developed manes, e.g. as heraldic animals. The people in Gévaudan certainly had no idea of the appearance of a subadult male with its developing mane and its “Mohawk haircut”. Nevertheless, the dragoon officer Jean-Baptiste Boulanger Duhamel, one of the hunters of the Beast, was very close to the solution when he wrote in January 1765: “This animal is a monster whose father is a lion; it remains open what the mother is.” The attacks of the Beast of Gévaudan are only one of several series of attacks of bêtes féroces (wild beasts) in France during the 17th and 18th centuries – at a time when menageries, where exotic animals were displayed, had become fashionable.
Karl-Hans Taake is a biologist and a former academic assistant of the University of Osnabrück (Northwest Germany), where he wrote his doctoral thesis on behavioural ecology. He published zoological research papers, contributed to manuals about mammals, edited and translated books on biology, and was the scientific editor for a universal encyclopaedia.