Giraffe ghosts are a phenomenon alleged by the Humr people of Sudan. They emerge after one consumes umm nyolokh, a drink made from giraffe liver and bone marrow.
The Humr are a tribe within the Arabic-speaking Messiriya, themselves a part of North Africa’s Baggara (cattle herder) people. Humr inhabit the narrow belt of savannah between Lake Chad and the White Nile. Although many now live in cities, Humr traditionally herded cattle and supplemented their diet by hunting elephants and giraffes.
Scottish anthropologist Ian Cunnison (1923 – 2013) documented Humr customs in the early 1950s on behalf of Sudan’s government. He described umm nyolokh, a ‘delicious drink’ made from grounded liver and marrow of giraffes. Its consumers, according to Cunnison, experienced dreamlike visions of phantom giraffes walking the horizon. He did not try it himself. Cunnison believed the ‘ghosts’ were hallucinations, though as giraffes do not contain psychedelic properties, he attributed them to placebo.
From ‘Hunting the Giraffes’, Sudan Notes and Records (1958):
“I have already mentioned the drink umm nyolokh of giraffe liver and marrow, which many regard as the supreme moment of the expedition. It is said that a person, once he has drunk umm nyolokh, will return to giraffes again and again. Humr, being Mahdists, are strict abstainers and a Humrawi is never drunk (sakran) on liquor or beer. But he uses the word to describe the effects of umm nyolokh upon him. (It is also used for a man’s condition on drinking large quantities of sour milk, which results in a breakdown of inhibitions.) I can only assume there is no intoxicating substance in the drink and that the effect it produces is simply a matter of convention though it may be brought about subconsciously. Its warmth, its delicious taste, and consistency produce an effect of physical contentment on Humr, and probably do to whoever drank it.
It is followed frequently by dreams of giraffe, and I have heard a man wake shortly after drinking it shouting “giraffe on your left”. This was regarded as a typical effect. In the waking state, also, men swear they see giraffe through the forest or over the plain where there are none at all. In the absence of any physiological explanation, these phenomena may perhaps be regarded as an indication to which the Humrawi’s being is permeated with thoughts of giraffe.”
Richard Rudgley’s ‘Encyclopedia of Psychedelic Substances’ (1998) pulled Cunnison’s observations from obscurity. Rudgley speculated the visions came from Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in the umm nyolokh. Both Sudan’s giraffe species – the Kordofan and Nubian – eat an acacia tree containing DMT.
The theory holds that the psychoactive chemicals were stored in the giraffes’ liver and marrow, which in turn was consumed as umm nyolokh. The only known psychedelic animals are species of fish and frog, though mammals can store chemical compounds in their bloodstream after consuming hallucinogens. Siberian shamans used to eat magic mushrooms and produce hallucinogenic urine.
DMT elicits amorphous visions which differ according to the person seeing them. Of all hallucinogenic compounds, it is the most powerful and least understood. Shamans and the esoterically inclined believe its visions are not the product of one’s mind but glimpses of phenomena ‘out there’, independent of the viewer and imperceptible in regular, waking consciousness. Such thought aligns with the claim of giraffe ghosts though is near impossible to prove by scientific methods. In either case, it is likely cultural presuppositions which inform the specific vision of giraffes rather than the fact that animal filters the DMT.
Cunnison was the only person to write about umm nyolokh first hand; no one else reported it since. While the Humr are far from an obscure hunter-gatherer band, their way of life has changed since the 1950s, as savannah turns to desert. Today both Nubian and Kordofan giraffes teeter on the verge of extinction. Whether their ghosts still walk, or if they ever did, we simply do not know.
Sources: Giraffe Conservation, The Guardian, Ian Cunnison – Sudan Notes and Records (1958), Richard Rudgley – Encyclopedia of Psychadelic Substabces (1998)