Wednesday, 18 January 2017

A Pliocene big cat in Suffolk

Dreams are strange things - such spontaneous flights of invention which I could hardly conceive in my daytime life.

This morning, just before waking, I got up and pulled back the curtains. Instead of the usual startled muntjac or rabbit dodging away into the laurel  bushes I saw something much larger and more disturbing. About the size of a spotted hyaena; its neck and legs quite long; its tail short; a glowing pelage of yellowish fur speckled all over with small brown marks; its head like a panther or lion, but profile more elongated and somewhat thicker or bearded under the chin - I couldn't quite see, as it was moving away from me. It had a smooth and fluid pace.

I wanted to bang on the window to get it to look round, in order to see the head; however. I awoke before that was possible. It was gone.

Astonished, I ruminated on what I had just seen. A large felid of some sort, seen padding into a patch of Neogene laurel forest. It was very similar to the extinct big cats of Pliocene / early Pleistocene age. How about the scimitar-toothed cat Homotherium or the dirk-toothed cat Megantereon?

Its head was similar to a Megantereon cultridens illustrated here, although I couldn't see the canine teeth. Its body shape was also similar (see here) but the tail was shorter and the canines not clearly visible. Its size was similar to M. cultridens pictured here, but not as large as Homotherium here.
My verdict? A dream representation of an extict felid species, closest to the genus Megantereon which became extinct in Europe about 900,000 years ago. The representations of M. cultridens by artists such as Mauricio Anton diverge from mine in having fur with much bolder spotting; the canine teeth more prominent; the tail slightly longer.

Early Middle Pleistocene fossils of Homotherium have been found in Suffolk (Pakefield) and West Runton and possibly Sidestrand (Norfolk), but no Megantereon - the closest finds are from France.

Mandible of Homotherium sp. from Pakefield / Kessingland cliffs, Suffolk.
Figured in Backhouse, J: 'On a mandible of Machaerodus from the Forest Bed'; Quarterly Journal
of the Geological Society of London, no. 42.  Scale: 10 cm. Note the wide fossa between canine and premolar, where the elongated upper canine tooth descended.

My friend Matt Salusbury (Mystery Animals Suffolk) collects information about big cat sightings in East Anglia. I doubt he will add my unique 'sighting' to his database, although he could add this new information to the body of mythopoeic knowledge that has lately grown up around big cats. Perhaps he can start a new database for 'Dream Sightings', and thus add the Bungalow garden to the oniric mythic geography of East Anglia.

"A myth is a public dream, a dream is a private myth", said Joseph Campbell. [1]

While dreams appear as highly subjective phenomena, Carl Jung argued for their potential for revealing elements of the transpersonal, ancestral, unconscious 'objective psyche' present in archetypal patterns. The symbols appearing in dreams may have their roots in the archaic human mind. "Just as the body bears the traces of its phylogenetic development, so also does the human mind. Hence there is nothing surprising about the possibility that the figurative language of dreams is a survival from an archaic mode of thought".[2] Not just 'mode of thought' but perhaps the dream-thought itself may be archaic. It is likely that big, powerful predators left their mark in the ancestral psyche, and the numinous power which my dream cat possessed argues for its archetypal associations. It is up to me to meditate upon the many meanings that radiate from this symbolic animal and its dream setting.

One further thought: I don't think that paleontologists and reconstruction artists should dismiss the idea that Megantereon may have had an evenly brown-spotted pelage; it is normally represented as having a variety of leopard-like botches and mottlings or tiger-like stripes.Who's to say that some mysterious ancestral memory may not have visited me in the half-light of a winter dawn? A notable and archetypal dream image certainly did.

[1] - Cited in: 'Private Myths - Dreams and Dreaming', by Anthony Stevens; Hamish Hamilton, 1995.                
[2] - 'General Aspects of Dream Psychology', in: Jung, CG: 'Dreams'; Ark Paperbacks, 1982