East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Hunting the Kamongo in the Black Lagoon

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I was home alone for lunch, so I cooked myself a bowl of rice, and then I watched The Creature from the Black Lagoon, from 1954. Because it’s a movie I like, because it’s been a long time since last I watched it, and because in a couple of weeks I’ll have to record a podcast about it and I want to sound smart and say intelligent stuff.

And as I was quietly enjoying the show, something suddenly … ah!

In the movie, the characters are sailing upriver along the Amazon in a boat called “Rita”, and the resident marine biologist is talking about the Amazon jungle, that’s just like jungles were back “in the Devonian age, 150 million of years ago.”

And my brain goes, well, no, the Amazon jungle is not at all like the Devonian and… wait, 150 million years?!

The Devonian is a geological period that falls between the Silurian (420 million years ago) and the Carboniferous (360 million years ago). It does not take a degree in paleontology (that I have) or a doctorate in geology (ditto) to know that – you just need to check out a frigging encyclopedia… because they did not have Wikipedia in 1954, but they did have big fat encyclopedias.

This is the sort of poor research that really really peeves me.
Because it would be so easy to get it right – OK, the Devonian is not an age, and the environment was nothing like the Brazilian jungle, but at least get the numbers right.
Or if you, for whatever reason, feel more at ease with the 150 million years figure, then call it Jurassic. Still completely different jungle, but hey…

Anyway, as it usually happens, once you have caught someone short on something, you start paying more attention. And so, when later in the movie Julia Adams mentions the “kamongo” or “komongo” (the pronunciation is not clear), a living fossil, a lungfish hailing back to the Devonian (aha!) that’s been found in the Amazon river.

Now as we’ve seen there’s a lot of fast-and-loose, throwaway science in this movie, but I had never heard of this kamongo/komongo fish before, and it sounded … (OK, wait for it…) fishy.
So I had to check.

It took me a while, an expedition across the Big Pile of Stuff to the Geology & Paleontology shelves, and then some Google action, but in the end it was an interesting and intriguing way to spend the after-lunch hours.

I can’t find mention of a kamongo or komongo among the lungfish in the only book on the subject on my shelf – but hey, I have the internet handy, right?

And so kamongo it is, and it is the title of a book, published in 1932 – Kamongo or, the Lungfish and the Padre, written by one Homer W. Smith.
Smith was a physiologist, and a specialist in kidney functionality and diseases, with a sideline in popular science, and a staunch supporter of empiricism and agnosticism.
In his book…

a scientist returning to the United States with a cargo of lungfish for kidney experiments delivers a monologue to an Anglican Minister on how evolution shapes organisms

(Source: Wikipedia)

In case you are interested, the book can be borrowed via the Internet Archive. It was also made available to the Armed Forces during WW2…

And my bet it’s from a serviceman’s copy of the book that the name slipped into the screenplay of the movie – but alas, dear Julia Adams, the problem is “kamongo” is a Swahili word meaning “lungfish”… and used for the Marbled Lungfish in particular.

It is a fish of considerable size, reaching a length of up to 2 meters and a weight of 17 kilograms, though most specimens do not exceed 130 centimeters in length.
Lungfish is usually consumed fresh, although it can be preserved with different techniques. Once caught, the fish is eviscerated, filleted, and sliced. It can be preserved by salting, hot smoking, or through frying the slices in vegetable oil. The latter technique is more common in the northern part of the Rift Valley. The fish slices are then used to prepare soups, stewed, or fried again and served with starchy foods (ugali, porridge, etc.) and leafy vegetables.

(Source: the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity)

So, kamongos are found in Africa, not in South America.
But hey, nice try – and I’m willing to cut a lot more slack to Julia (later Julie) Adams than I’m willing to do to her male counterparts.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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