National Geographic

“Bigfoot” Unmasked

Bigfoot is an all-American monster. The mythical ape – a bastardized version of the Yeti – has supposedly been spotted in every state in the union except Hawaii (because that’d just be silly) and has been co-opted into a spokesape for jerky, pizza, and beer. Americans ripped off an existing tall tale, created hoaxes to bring the fiction to life, and ultimately tapped into Sasquatch’s pop culture appeal to make a quick buck. As far as cryptozoological legends go, Bigfoot is a great American mascot.

I’m sure Bigfoot believers are already bridling at this post. There is a very active community of Sasquatch devotees who are certain that there is an as-yet-unrecognized species of ape wandering through North America’s forests. They’d prefer that we forget the multiple hoaxes and turn our attention to personal anecdotes and what they claim as physical evidence for the critter. The most common tangible thread is hair. That would make some sense. A furry ape traipsing through the bushes and briars would have to leave some hairs behind. But are these mystery tufts truly indications of Bigfoot’s reality? Science says no.

Earlier this month, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Institute of Human Genetics researcher Bryan Sykes and colleagues published the identity of 30 hair samples said to have been shed by “anomalous primates”, including hairs believed to belong to Bigfoot. The team didn’t find any evidence of elusive apes.  Genetic analysis of 18 “Sasquatch” samples – collected from locations from Texas to Washington – turned out to be from much more familiar beasts. The “Bigfoot” hairs, Sykes and coauthors concluded, came from raccoons, sheep, black bears, porcupine, horses, canids, deer, and cows.


[Sasquatch isn't real, but the creature's pop-culture cred is good for selling jerky.]

Bigfoot isn’t the only legendary ape around, of course. Sykes and colleagues also tested hair samples purported to be from the original mythical hominoid, the Yeti of the Himalayas, as well as the lesser-known Almasty of Russia and Orang Pendek of Sumatra. There was no inexplicable “cryptid” evidence in any of the samples. The Orang Pendek hair came from a tapir, while the Almasty fur originated with bears, horses, cows, and raccoons.

But the researchers did find something unexpected. One of the Yeti hairs once grew on a goat-like ungulate called a serow, in line with a previous study, but two of the samples best matched genetic sequences from a polar bear that lived in the Himalayas over 40,000 years ago. This could be a sign that there is an unrecognized species of bear in the Himalayas, of recent polar bears in the area that have a darker hair color to make them look like brown bears, or of hybrids between polar bears and brown bears, Sykes and coauthors suggest. Then again, the mitochondrial genes the researchers zeroed in on weren’t informative enough to distinguish between dogs, coyotes, and wolves in other sampled hairs, meaning that launching a hunt for a new bear species on the genetic evidence along would be a tad premature. Perhaps the odd bear hairs are simply from Himalayan brown bears that have undoubted contributed to the legend of the Yeti.

As the Sykes paper and journal commentor Norman MacLeod both point out, the new study doesn’t absolutely disprove the existence of Bigfoot and company. But the paper does add to the crushing pile of non-evidence. With all the alleged sightings out across almost the whole of North America, you’d think there’d be so many populations of Bigfoot that you’d regularly find them raiding garbage in suburban neighborhoods or at least leaving behind some tangible sign of their existence in America’s woodlands. They haven’t. If Bigfoot lives anywhere, it’s in our imagination – a symbol of the wild, the unknown, and how our species is excellent at turning superstition into advertising.

For more commentary on Bigfoot and other cryptids, check out my 2012 op-ed in Slate and this interview with KUER’s Radio West.

References:

MacLeod, N. 2014. Molecular analysis of “anomalous primate” hair samples. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 20140843.

Sykes, B., Mullis, R., Hagenmuller, C., Melton, T., Sartori, M. 2014. Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot, and other anomalous primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 281: 20140161

There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Norbrook
    July 17, 2014

    Not surprising, really. It would be really impressive if there were a Bigfoot, and there would be mass excitement in the scientific community. However, with the decades of not having a body, skin, or bones found yet, the odds of there being one is slim to none.

  2. Jerrold Alpern
    July 17, 2014

    Donald Prothero, on skepticblog, also has a recent post on this new study: http://www.skepticblog.org/2014/07/16/bigfoot-and-yeti-dna-results-are-in/#comments .

    Unfortunately, Bigfooters are devout followers of Hebrews 1:11, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Showing them the evidence of things seen is a harder task than that of Sisyphus. At least he reached the top of the hill once every day.

  3. David Bump
    July 17, 2014

    Other things for which there is no evidence (or no more than, as with Bigfoot, anecdotes; blurry or suspicious photos and videos, prints, etc.): psychic powers, the exact actual affect of human activities on global climate conditions, UFOs, alien life of any sort, the possibility of a living thing forming under any conditions other than reproduction or engineering (and we have to cheat and borrow from living things for the latter), the course of evolution from stromatolite-forming bacteria to all the major phyla. Any of you people laughing at the Bigfoot believers clinging to belief in any of those?

  4. Jerrold Alpern
    July 17, 2014

    David,

    There is overwhelming evidence from many, many sources and lines of inquiry for both anthropogenic global warming and evolution. Scientists do not “believe” in these, they accept the evidence for them. There is no such evidence for Bigfoot. And scientists do not laugh at Bigfoot believers, they simply demand evidence, which has never been forthcoming. “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens.

  5. David Bump
    July 17, 2014

    Well, there’s evidence for Bigfoot in the form of all those people who claim to have seen it, there are all those footprints, there are the blurry photos and videos. Tell me just how much difference there is in believing in something and “accepting the evidence” when the evidence you accept sums up to vague handwaving. The skeptics of AGW (and isn’t the favored phrase now “climate change”?) and evolution simply ask for real evidence — not just that there’s been a warming, but that a significant amount of it is due to human activity. For all I know, it may be, but whenever the controversy comes up there’s more heat than light coming from the proponents, so I have my doubts. As for evolution, the ethos of science since about the beginning of the 19th century has demanded that some form of gradual evolution of life took place, as the only plausible “scientific explanation,” so ALL of the evidence has been interpreted as “for” it, and any permanent lack of evidence was reasoned away in advance by Charles Darwin and all who’ve followed his footsteps. Name one other field of science with that legacy.

  6. Tristan Scott
    July 17, 2014

    For Sasquatch to exist, there would have to be a large extant population to maintain a significant genetic pool. These animals would have to feed, mate, bear young, and nest somewhere, leaving at least as much evidence as bears, cougars, deer, or any other large North American mammal – yet all that anyone has ever produced are vague and unconfirmed sighting stories, blurry photos and videos that could easily represent people [with or without costumes], easily-faked footprints, and hair that doesn’t belong to anything unknown. There are no tales of family groups, no findings of feeding or nesting sites, and no witnesses that report young individuals, ever. There simply isn’t any reliable, testable, valid evidence to prove the existence of any non-human primate in North America [or anywhere else Sasquatch/Yeti is supposed to live], despite hundreds of searchers looking very hard for such evidence over a period of decades. Unless/until something tangible shows up [a body, actual verifiable and clear HD video, or something like bones or hair that are from such an animal], it is nothing more than an urban legend.

  7. Jerrold Alpern
    July 17, 2014

    Sorry, David, your “evidence” for Bigfoot is nothing but anecdotes and faked videos. Your criticism of the evidence for evolution and AGW is meaningless without specifics. Describing scientific evidence you don’t like as “vague handwaving” is not an argument. Neither is a meaningless criticism of Darwin and 150 years of scientific confirmation of his theory. The onus is on you to disprove evolution and AGW, not on anyone else to disprove you.

  8. David Bump
    July 17, 2014

    We can’t even get anecdotal evidence of the history of evolution, it’s all assumed from imaginary lines of faith connecting fossils or similarities in DNA, and there have been hoaxes and gross errors that were used to support belief in it. As to the handwaving, I was just pointing out that you didn’t offer any specific examples; and in fact, every time I get specific examples from evolutionists, they don’t actually show that organisms could evolve beyond some minor adaptations such as getting bigger or smaller, changing colors or color patterns, or other minor variations which could never produce dynamically complex new parts, no matter how extreme or how many were combined. The theory has been accepted for 150 years, but please cite what ever actually confirmed that organisms could change much more than has been produced by directed breeding programs. Why should I have to disprove evolution when it’s never been proved? That salt is sodium and chlorine has been proved, that lightning is electricity has been proved, that a machine can carry humans in the air under control has been proved, but nobody has ever confirmed or proved that a microbe could be the ancestor of mankind.

  9. David day
    July 18, 2014

    Come to my biology class for a semester and you’ll learn about evidence for evolution from many disciplines. DNA, cellular, molecular, morphological, fossil, embryological, etc. evolution has consistently made predictions that were validated. For 150 years. The evidence is overwhelming, but significant understanding of biology and chemistry makes it much easier to understand and appreciate.

  10. Brad
    July 18, 2014

    I think David’s on to something here. Bigfoot, with its extreme lack of testable or empirical data, is infinitely more plausible than almost two centuries worth demonstrable scientific fact. DNA, fossil records, gene mutations, bacterial resistance, and all other facets of testable biological functions related to natural selection have no bearing in reality. Darwin and is co-conspirators dreamt up this elaborate, oddly scientific, get rich quick scheme to persuade the masses that…um, that, shit, oh yeah, that
    Bigfoot isn’t real! Checkmate bitches I’m a skeptic! Look out world, I’ve got your number.

  11. Jerrold Alpern
    July 18, 2014

    “Climate Change: Evidence and Causes”, https://royalsociety.org/~/media/Royal_Society_Content/policy/projects/climate-evidence-causes/climate-change-evidence-causes.pdf , is a joint publication of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, the foremost scientific organizations in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively. It contains 20 Q&A’s documenting AGW.

    “15 Evolutionary Gems” is a paper from Nature, one of the two foremost scientific publications in the world. It contains 15 empirically validated examples of evolution by natural selection.

    If you disagree with the specifics of either of these publications, please submit a detailed, point by point refutation, supported by evidence-based research published in peer-reviewed journals. If you will not, or cannot, do this, do not bother with any further postings on this thread. False allegations that science is based on imagination and faith are irrelevant here. You must respond with scientific evidence to the current scientific research in these matters. I repeat, the burden is on you to disprove the science, not on scientists to disprove your claims.

  12. Jerrold Alpern
    July 18, 2014

    Sorry. I forgot to include the Nature reference: http://www.nature.com/nature/newspdf/evolutiongems.pdf .

  13. Donald
    July 19, 2014

    Why Jerrod? They didn’t.

  14. Jimmy Hopper
    July 20, 2014

    David,
    You seem to have religious fervor in your arguments. I assume you follow Ken Ham and his ideology. I am a devout Christian and I agree that there is solid evidence for evolution. The Carholic Church has clearly stated they agree that there is overwhelming scientific evidence to support evolution.

  15. todd
    July 22, 2014

    Without the animal attached to the hair it’s a unknown hair. There is zero evidence to support Bigfoot. To support all the sightings across the country there would literally have to be tens of thousands of bigfoots but yet they continue to outsmart even the latest of technology . Photos , videos , unknown hairs , noises in the night , and footprints are not proof of BF . There is no fossil records . Bigfoot is a mass halicination that’s been passed down from generation to generation …A MYTH !. Hope you guys find him …happy hunting . Lol

  16. Alfred Dimaggio
    August 4, 2014

    After More than 50 Years of active searching by millions of bigfoot fans, millions of hunters, trackers, and loggers, nothing in terms of verifiable physical evidence. Hmm, how could they all have come up empty handed in the Pacific North-West?

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