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Is Bigfoot Real?

As most readers will know, Bigfoot (also known as Sasquatch or, in Tibet, the Yeti) is a giant bipedal ape-like creature allegedly sighted by thousands of people throughout North America. Sightings are most frequent in the Pacific Northwest, but Bigfoot has been encountered in many other states. Bigfoot got his name from casts of footprints left by the creature—prints much larger than an adult man would leave.

Bigfoot embarked on the path of being American’s most famous cryptid when, in 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin purportedly caught a genuine Sasquatch on film in Bluff Creek, CA. The “Patterson Film” is, to date, still the best evidence for Bigfoot—presuming the controversial film is genuine. But in more recent times, Bigfoot researchers claim to have recovered physical samples (hair, feces/scat) that yield DNA that cannot be identified by any known animal. But before we talk about that, what do researchers think Bigfoot is?

Is Bigfoot Real? Some Theories

The dominant theory among believers as to Bigfoot’s identification is that we’re dealing with a rare, yet-to-be recognized North American primate. The leading candidate is that Bigfoot is a related to an extinct 10-foot-tall ape species known as Gigantopithecus Blacki. This massive species is thought to have slipped into extinction 100,000 years ago. A related perspective speculates that North American Bigfoot is related to the Yeti of Asia (itself a mystery) and migrated to North America across the Bering land bridge along with humans.

The lack of any fossil record for apes in North America makes this explanation problematic. But this absence isn’t conclusive. Forests, presumably the natural habitat of such a species, are not known for preserving an abundance of fossils.

Another theory is that Bigfoot is not an ape at all, but a species of human. Researchers who favor this view suggest Homo Heidelbergensis (a human ancestor that supposedly went extinct a half million years ago) is a possible candidate. Homo Heidelbergensiswas known to stand seven feet tall and have the muscular build many Bigfoot witnesses report. The flaw in this approach is that Homo Heidelbergensisused stone tools and buried its dead, elements foreign to Bigfoot sightings.

A third theory is not necessarily even biological—that Bigfoot is some sort of supernatural entity. This theory has both the convenience and curse of operating outside the realm of testability—and if this is the case, what are we to do with the footprints, hair samples, and scat that have been recovered? Spirits would not seem consistent with that sort of material.

Lastly, many theorize that Bigfoot is simply a myth, a mixture of unintentional misidentification of some known animal or outright hoaxing.

Is Bigfoot Real? Has Bigfoot DNA Been Recovered?

Shocking news that Bigfoot DNA had been isolated and tested exploded in 2012. The central figure in the development was Dr. Melba Ketchum. Her own veterinary laboratory, DNA Diagnostics, issued a press release about the testing that read in part:

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch,” living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

Almost immediately professional biologists and geneticists detected anomalies in both the study and how it was released to the world. Sharon Hill (CSICOP) summarizes the announcement’s aftermath:

The study was said to include sequences of twenty whole mitochondrial genomes. “Next generation sequencing” was used to obtain three whole nuclear genomes from “purported Sasquatch samples.” The mitochondrial DNA was identical to modern Homo sapiens, but the nuclear DNA was described as “a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species.” Thus, the researchers concluded from this DNA data that not only does the North American Sasquatch exist but that it is a hybrid species, “the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.”

This announcement enthralled the press but annoyed many cryptozoology and science observers because it came with no published paper and no data, only a long and shady history of partnerships, projects, and promises. Ketchum promised the paper would soon follow. When it finally did appear, nearly three months later, it was less than impressive, made no sense evolutionarily, and sparked new controversies about her personal responsibility, the ethics of publishing, and what was going on behind the scenes with this project.

To make matters worse, Dr. Ketchum had prior involvement with unscrupulous figures in the world of Bigfoot research, most infamously “Tom Biscardi of Searching for Bigfoot, Inc., involved with the infamous 2008 Georgia ‘Bigfoot in a freezer’ hoax, who collected DNA samples for her project” (Hill, “Project”; Lindsay).

Is Bigfoot Real? The Failure of the Bigfoot DNA Testing

Ketchum has insisted she planned to publish the results of her tests under peer review. That never happened, though, because on November 23, 2012, news of her study was leaked on Facebook by Igor Burtsev “the self-appointed head of the Russia-based International Center of Hominology” (Hill, “Project”).

The exposure prompted Ketchum to forego peer review and release her research in the form of a paper entitled, “Novel North American Hominins, Next Generation Sequencing of Three Whole Genomes and Associated Studies.” As Hill notes:

The paper analyzed DNA from a total of 111 high-quality samples submitted from across the continent, appeared in the inaugural issue of DeNovo: Journal of Science (2/13/2013). The coauthors were: Ketchum, P.W. Wojtkiewicz, A.B. Watts, D.W. Spence, A.K. Holzenburg, D.G. Toler, T.M. Prychitko, F. Zhang, S. Bollinger, R. Shoulders, and R. Smith.

The paper describes the conclusion stated earlier in the November pre-paper press release, that both the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA were sequenced. The mitochondrial DNA, inherited from the maternal side, was human. But the nuclear DNA was not. This consisted of a “structural mosaic” of “human and novel non-human DNA”. . . .

Regarding the origins of DeNovo, Ketchum said on the day of the paper release that an unnamed journal had accepted the paper after peer review was completed, but their lawyers advised them not to publish due to the disreputable topic. Instead of continuing to shop the paper to other sources, she decided to acquire the rights to this unnamed journal, suspected to be the Journal of Advanced Multidisciplinary Exploration in Zoology. Looking into the history of that journal, investigators found it was registered under Ketchum’s name on January 9, 2013. This led to serious ethical questions about self-publishing. The DeNovo website was created on February 4, 2013, just nine days prior to the release of the paper. (Hill, “Project”)

Obviously, self-publishing in the world of science is highly suspicious. Nevertheless, credentialed specialists did devote time to analyzing Ketchum’s study.

David Winter, a PhD in evolutionary biology, repeated the sequencing of Ketchum’s studies and found several flaws. For example, he noted that some of the sequences were far too short to be the result of hybridization. This alone makes Ketchum’s claim implausible (Hill, “Blinded”). Leonid Kruglyak of Princeton, a geneticist, noted, “The [phylogenetic] tree in Fig 16 [of Ketchum’s paper] is inconsistent with known primate phylogeny and generally makes no sense” (Cossins).

Not surprisingly, more reputable Bigfoot researchers such as Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics, University of Oxford, and Dr. Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University not only refused to endorse Ketchum’s claims, but distanced themselves from her. Their own efforts to isolate genuine Bigfoot DNA have also failed, though without the drama of Ketchum’s.

The end result is that there is no actual evidence of Bigfoot DNA, which in turn means indisputable evidence for Bigfoot has not yet been obtained.

Resources:

Sharon Hill, “The Ketchum Project: What to Believe About Bigfoot DNA ‘Science’,” CSICOP.org, Skeptical Briefs vol 23:1 (Spring 2013)

Robert Lindsay, “Bigfoot News,” Nov 17, 2011

Sharon Hill, “Breaking bio on the Ketchum Sasquatch sequences,” Doubtful News, February 26, 2013

Dan Cossins, “Bigfoot DNA is Bunk,” The Scientist,February 15, 2013

B. C. Sykes, R. A. Mullis, C. Hagenmuller, T. W. Melton, M. Sartori, “Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281 (2014)

C. J. Edwards and R. Barnett, “Himalayan ‘yeti’ DNA: polar bear or DNA degradation? A comment on ‘Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti’ by Sykes et al. (2014),” Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282 (2015)

Haskell Hart, “DNA as Evidence for the Existence of Relict Hominids,” The Relict Hominid Inquiry5 (2016):8-31

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