An American black bear, one of the many identities of "Bigfoot."
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Photo by Brian Switek.
An American black bear, one of the many identities of "Bigfoot."

“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