Crocodiles are fascinating and fearsome creatures, and along with sharks today they are at the top of the food chain in the Animal Kingdom. Adult crocs have almost no natural enemies, apart from humans. Crocodiles are some of Earth’s oldest inhabitants, descending about 94 million years ago from the non-avian reptiles—pseudosuchians—that appeared 248 million years ago. In addition to crocodiles, pseudosuchians included those archosaurs that were more closely related to crocodiles than to birds.
Image: Lesotho blanket depicting four crocodiles on a black background. This blanket may only be used by the royal house. (Collections Department, National Museum)
As their long existence suggests, pseudosuchians, and crocodiles in particular, have some unique features that ensured their survival through several major natural disasters, which severely impacted the Earth’s biodiversity. Massive volcanic eruptions at the end of the Triassic, that is approximately 200 million years ago, wiped out many, but not all, then dominant pseudosuchians and allowed the dinosaurs and pterosaurs to thrive. However, 66 million years ago a meteorite, which slammed into the sea near Mexico and resulted in what is today known as the Chicxulub Crater, caused a mass extinction that eradicated the dinosaur population, but spared the crocodiles! By that time, they already established themselves in aquatic habitats and looked pretty much as they do today.
What likely saved the crocodile for millions of years is its ability to adjust to ever-changing and often adverse natural circumstances with adaptations developed during a slow process of evolution. Over time, the crocodile transformed its skin into a bony armour that covers most of its body, developed strong jaw muscles, a powerful immune system, behaviour to control its body temperature and advanced metabolism that helps utilize nearly all the food the crocodile consumes, which is why crocs can go for over a year without having a meal. Under extreme conditions, they can shut down and live off their fat reserves and muscle tissue for a long period of time. Their stomach is the most acidic of all vertebrates and crocs can eat almost anything, as they are able to digest bones, horns, hooves, shells, and so forth – nothing is left behind. The hard objects help to grind coarse food and crocs will sometimes deliberately swallow pebbles to aid the process. This habit would later play a role in some of the cultural practices connected with crocodiles.
In this article, the focus is on the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), which is often also referred to as the African Crocodile. Given its appearance and extraordinary characteristics, it is unsurprising that the crocodile occupies an important place in the cultural practices of several groups across Africa, starting from Egypt all the way down to South Africa. Since ancient times, the crocodile has been playing a significant role in the Egyptian society. Not only was it associated with Sobek, a divine protector and healer, but there is also evidence that crocodiles were bred as pets for the royal courts, as well as for their fat that was used as a medicine to alleviate physical aches, stiffness and even baldness. Due to the crocodile’s sacred status, this muti was most likely reserved for royalty only. The Ancient Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses was quite impressive, with approximately 1500 names, but not fixed as new gods would appear and others would cease to be worshipped. Sobek had quite a long standing in the Egyptian pantheon from circa 2686 BCE up to the end of the Roman period at 350 CE – that is over 3000 years! Sobek was often depicted as a human with a crocodile head, but also in its natural form with no human features. It is, therefore, not strange that many of the excavated tombs contained mummified crocodiles. Over time, Sobek merged with other gods which served to lend him more power. During the reign of Amenemhat III (19th–18th centuries BCE; Twelfth Dynasty), for instance, Sobek was fused with Re-Harakhti (a solar deity) into Sobek-Re and depicted with a crocodile body and a falcon head.
Much further south we find another cultural group, the Venda, intimately connected to the crocodile. The Venda, or VhaVenḓa, people live in the present-day Limpopo Province in South Africa, almost on the border with Zimbabwe. The Venda have a close spiritual association with water creatures and spirits, and Lake Funduzi, among others, features prominently in their stories. Lake Funduzi is situated at the foothills of the Soutbansberg, and a legend narrates that the lake was created by a curse when a passing leper was refused food and shelter in the village. The village was flooded and disappeared under the newly formed lake. Lake Funduzi does not only have a legendary white snake (python) but also a white crocodile, which guards the ghosts of the Venda ancestors who reside beneath the water surface. Venda chiefs would eat food cooked with pebbles from a crocodile’s stomach during their installation ceremony in order to take on the powerful attributes of crocodiles. In the Venda culture, the crocodile is expressly associated with leaders.
Image: Lesotho coat of arms: Fenn-O-maniC – Own work, Wikimedia Public Domain
Right on the Free State’s doorstep is the landlocked country, the Kingdom of Lesotho. The Bakoena is one of the largest clans in Lesotho and its coat of arms bears a crocodile on a shield, flanked by two Basotho ponies. Ponies are a major form of transport for many in the rugged mountainous terrain of Lesotho, but this is not the natural habitat of the crocodile. The crocodile is, however, symbolic of the Bakoena’s place of origin in the region between the Mariko and Limpopo rivers, which are full of crocodiles. In Sesotho and Setswana, Bakoena literally means ‘people who venerate the crocodile’. Moshoeshoe I, the first king of Lesotho, was from the Bamokoteli (Mochuli) branch of the clan. Bakoena beliefs in terms of the crocodile are very similar to those of the early Egyptians. It is revered as a god, but whereas Egyptians would sometimes kill crocodiles for medicinal purposes, the Bakoena believe that killing a crocodile would adversely affect rain patterns, leading to either total drought or flooding. In addition, the crocodile is considered to be the Bakoena’s godly father, so the deliberate killing of a crocodile amounts to murder.
The Lesotho coat of arms does not feature on its national flag, but it does decorate the royal standard. Lesotho is famous for its blankets and one design in particular has a crocodile motif, but that may only be worn by royalty. The National Museum has a beautiful collection of carved wooden crocodiles and a mummified crocodile head that served as a sheath for a dagger and is currently on display in the museum.
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