Descriptions of the bunyip vary wildly, variously incorporating scales, fur or feathers, a variety of colours including black, brown and green, and varied sizes and shapes such as a humanoid, a seal or a large dog. Aboriginal legend generally regards them as water spirits (the word bunyip is generally translated as ‘evil spirit’, although this varies across the more than 200 different languages used by the indigenous peoples of Australia), but other stories suggest that they are a corporeal animal.
One aspect of the story that remains consistent, however, is that they inhabit bodies of water, including swamps, creeks and billabongs, and prey on those foolish enough to stray too close, particularly children. In this regard, they resemble other ‘drowners’ found in folklore worldwide, such as the Japanese kappa, Scottish kelpie or the water witch known as ‘Jenny Greenteeth‘ from Northern England. In this regard, bunyip likely draw much of their inspiration from a common purpose of folk creatures living in water worldwide: to warn children away from dangerous bodies of water, or to account for otherwise unexplained drownings.
Tales of the bunyip first passed from Aboriginal peoples to European settlers during the early 19th century. The earliest written account from a European witness came in 1818, when explorer Hamilton Hume claimed to have found the bones of a strange, aquatic creature on the shore of Lake Bathurst, describing them as resembling a hippopotamus. While the Philosophical Society of Australasia offered to cover Hume’s costs to retrieve the remains, they were not recovered.
In 1830, fossils were found in the Wellington Caves by explorer Thomas Mitchell. However, they were later identified as fossils of extinct marsupial species Nototherium and Diporotodon. It was not until 1845 that a written account refers specifically to an unknown animal as a bunyip, again following the discovery of fossils. The Geelong Advertiser reported that on seeing the bones, a local native identified them as those of the bunyip, claiming that one such creature had been responsible for the death of a woman some years earlier.
Two years later, the Australian Museum took delivery of a deformed skull that appeared initially to be unknown to science, with the man that had discovered it claiming that every aborigine he had shown it to had identified it as a bunyip skull. It was soon identified as the deformed fetal skull of a calf or foal. In 1852, escaped convict William Buckley, who had lived amongst the Wathaurong tribe for thirty years, claimed to have witnessed a large animal that dwelt in waterways, although never seeing more than its back as it broke the surface.
As previously referenced, the fossils of Pleistocene marsupials such as Diprotodon appear to be the most likely explanation for enduring stories of the bunyip. Believed to still survive in Australia until as recently as 46,000 years ago, it is likely that the Aboriginal peoples retain some cultural memory of the species. Others believe that small populations endure in the remote areas of Australia. Seals have also been recorded relatively far inland in Australian waterways, another potential progenitor of stories regarding a strange water creature.