In Mayan folklore, cave cows were massive animals with lizard-like bodies, black hair and a white mane. By far the most popular explanation of the cave cow’s identity is that they’re a relict population of ground sloths, due to their similar appearance and cave-dwelling behaviour. Their description as being lizard-like may come from dermal ossicles that covered the skin of ground sloths, which were hard and warty, like a lizard’s skin, but could also refer to the general shape of a ground sloth, which is vaguely lizard-like. Others speculate they may be misidentified spectacled bears, as they, like the cave cow, have black fur, a white mane and large claws, although none are known to live in Belize.
The cave cow was thought to be purely mythical until French naturalist François Blancaneaux and his servant, Joe encountered one. After his retirement, Blancaneaux and Joe visited the remote Belizean village of El Cayo near the Guatemalan border.
While Blancaneaux was resting under the shade in a savannah-like clearing, he asked Joe to investigate a palm tree in a stand of thick scrub he noticed was occasionally swaying back and forth, as if something was pushing on, or rubbing against it. As Joe reached the palm, Blancaneaux heard him scream. He ran to the palm, only to find Joe’s mutilated carcass. After Joe died, Blancaneaux followed the creature’s tracks, which he described as “almost exactly like the thumb and first two fingers of a gigantic human hand, each digit armed with a great claw” before coming to a cave. He and a party of locals attempted to find the cave again, but were unsuccessful, as it was “literally honeycombed with caves, and covered in dense virgin bush.”
In 1932, archaeologist Thomas Gann was leading a British Museum expedition to the Azul River on the border between Belize and Mexico when he spotted a large creature covered in black hair with a whitish mane running through a swamp on its knuckles like an ape.
The last known sighting of a cave cow was in 2015 by a pair of tourists honeymooning in Belize. When they were walking through the jungle to get to the Xunantich Mayan Temple, the guide pointed out a “cow”, which they never actually saw, but could see saplings and bushes being flattened as it moved through the jungle. Although the guide called it a cow, whatever animal they were seeing was clearly much too large and powerful to simply be a farm animal.