As a child I was terrified and fascinated by Bigfoot, the Yeti and their other hairy kin. I grew up in the 1970’s where my access to knowledge beyond children’s encyclopedias came exclusively from my parents and TV. So I guess my first encounter with Bigfoot was through the Patterson-Gimlin movie being shown on TV alongside photographs of the Lock Ness Monster, Cottingly Fairies and UFOs.
The grainy, color, 8mm film simply rooted me to the spot. Why the short footage should have scared me so much is puzzling. By the time I was 6 I knew what a Wookie was and had seen all the Planet of the Apes movies, so I was fluent in suspending disbelief when actors got into monkey suits. And while I didn’t have many critical faculties as a child I knew a genuine looking home movie could easily be faked. I can’t be sure, but I imagine on asking my father (all source of sober skeptical knowledge in my house) he told me it was probably a guy in a suit but, and here’s the rub, he couldn’t be 100% sure there weren’t really apemen still out there. The fear and wonder probably came from the possibility planted in my 6-year-old mind, that out there somewhere there just might be a real, live Sasquatch walking around and these adults (who I assumed had the world under control) can’t agree on whether they exist, where they are or if they are friendly.
Good science and the internet have largely done for Bigfoot in the past 35 years. Plenty of good academics have spent time considering the matter as seriously as the pathetic evidence warrants. Any talk that there is some conspiracy out there, not taking the matter seriously is bunk. If any palaeoanthropologist, archaeologist, zoologist or geneticist thought there might be a chance Bigfoot was roaming Humbolt County, we’d all be going Yeti on each other to be the first to find it.
For me, the absence of any convincing footage of any living Californian hominin on You Tube is just about all the proof you need in our digital media age. The advent of near universal camera ownership on the U.S. West Coast and mass circulation of footage through the internet means that every biological and physical wonder possible is being captured everyday. Yet still our best footage still seems to be that from a 1960’s forestry worker who just happened to take a camera into the Redwoods during the 1960’s. Should the Sasquatch be roaming the home state of the Googleplex, Microsoft, Silicon Valley and Apple Corp it would be tantamount to proof in the existence of Gods with a delicious sense of irony.
So there’s a press release this week by Dr Melba S. Ketchum who claims to have sequenced the DNA of Bigfoot. From a sample (origin unknown) she has determined that Bigfoot is a hybrid between a modern human and an unknown hominin. The press release has been made ahead of any peer-reviewed paper or publication of the genome sequence itself, the only basis the scientific community would have for really engaging with the claims, and so we can anticipate another little whirlwind of sensational tabloid coverage and internet speculation. I will be astounded if this turns out to be anything other than more bunk.
But dismissing claims like this and rolling our eyes to Darwin every time these claims emerge isn’t perhaps the most constructive path. As part of an academic community that studies the real evidence for hominins which lived alongside our species, and perhaps especially in the year we celebrate the centenary of Piltdown Man, I think it’s time we examined our articulation with and responsibility for the public interest in crypto-hominins. It would be easy and lazy to say that only role our science plays is in helping the public discern between fact and fiction, debunking the hoaxes and delivering the evolutionary truth but for two reasons I think this is simplistic and disingenuous.
Firstly we need to recognize that the public interest in our science in many cases stems from the same deep reasons that their exists a public appetite for Bigfoot stories. When we conjure from the dry dust a picture of a world in which our species walked alongside other human species, don’t we tap into those same parts of the human imagination that play with the idea that those species might just hang on in the remote corners of the planet? The media narratives that get woven around our important scientific discoveries play into this hugely When it is the discovery of a new species through fossils (Floriensis) or DNA (Denovisians), the impact of the story rest firmly on the element of surprise and often of the recent timing and overlap with our own species in time and space. Simply put it’s that we had no idea we were sharing the planet with species X until we made this discovery a few months ago that creates the strength of the narrative. We also enjoy playing with the language of cryptozoology and fairy tale, affectionately naming our fossils ‘Little Foot” or “The Hobbit” but then expect the public and media to discern when someone on the fringe is shouting “Big Foot” or “Yeti”.
It would be an interesting subject for evolutionary or analytical psychologists to consider. For example, it would be interesting to know the degree to which evolutionary science of anthropology from its beginning in the 19th century, fostered in the collective human psyche, in a Jungian sense, the space for the apeman to grow, alongside aliens, as one of the mythic forms of the modern industrial age. From Enkidu, to the Satyr and Medieval Woses, the wildman has long existed as a powerful mythic archetype. It’s unreasonable to assume that the science which delivered real evidence for existence of other humans species might not also have sparked the resurgence of our own subconscious wildmen. Going deeper, it would also be interesting to know the evolutionary value in our cognitive ability to invoke the presence of other humans species out of the darkness and unknown. Is it too fanciful to consider that, after a couple of million years sharing our landscapes with other species of Homo, we might not be cognitively preconditioned to read unknown environments for the presence of others and try to understand them. If so we might find that the drive and energy to discover our true evolutionary past might be born in the same dark corners of the subconscious that gives life to imaginary wildmen from a few strands of hair.