Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sasquatches And Yetis: An Overview

Some of the most well-known alleged creatures investigated by cryptozoology are, undoubtedly, the supposed undiscovered bipedal primates reportedly seen around the world, including such fabled beasts as the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, of North America, and the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, of Asia. These alleged creatures are highly controversial, with their existence being widely regarded as unlikely by much of the scientific community, albeit with some notable exceptions, such as Grover Krantz and Jeffrey Meldrum. The proponents of their existence are quite zealous, passionately defending their supposed evidence against the arguments of the skeptics. In this article, I will examine this situation from a neutral perspective, arriving at a conclusion on this topic at the end, starting with an exercise in vicariously seeing what goes on in the minds of witnesses, from a first-person perspective:

I am walking through the dense, temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, heading back to camp after collecting and purifying drinking water from a creek. All of a sudden, behind a bush, I see something I cannot quite identify; coming closer, I see that it is a hair-covered mass, which proceeds to leap out from the underbrush and stare at me. I am stunned; it is quite tall, appearing to ambulate in the manner of a human. It stares me in the face for what seems like an eternity, before finally strolling off into the dense green cacophony of thickets, never to be seen again. After it leaves, I look down at the ground, seeing footprints. Spilling plaster into them, I take the casts home to show everyone. It has been a frightening, yet massively rewarding, day for me; I got the fright of my life upon seeing this creature, but now I have the privilege of being able to say that I have set my eyes on the notorious Bigfoot.

This scenario is by no means singular or unique. Since at least about sixty years ago, if not earlier, witnesses have reported coming face-to-face with creatures resembling upright-walking, bipedal hairy primates in various locales, ranging from the snow-covered peaks and valleys of the Himalayas, that mountain range formed by the collision of the former continent of India with Asia earlier in the Cenozoic Era, to all parts of North and South America, to even places such as Australia, where a similar creature known as the Yowie has been reported to roam the Outback.

Besides sightings and videos, including some famous examples, such as the Patterson-Gimlin Film, the evidence most often marshaled by supporters of these creatures' supposed existence consists mainly of footprints, excrement, and hairs. Recently, numerous hairs alleged to belong to anomalous primates from around the world were tested by hominid geneticist Bryan Sykes and colleagues. They arrived at the conclusion that the hairs came from a wide variety of known animals, ranging from ungulates to bears, with some hairs from the Himalayas, reportedly from a Yeti, being found by said study to belong to an as-of-yet unknown variety of Polar Bear. A subsequent study by Eliecer E. Gutierrez and Ronald H. Pine arrived at the conclusion that the hairs likely came from the known Himalayan Brown Bear, with there being no reason to suppose that they came from anything else.

Another study found that the reported range of Sasquatch encounters in North America where sightings were most frequently reported matched up nearly perfectly with the known range of the American Black Bear, Ursus americanus. The authors, reflecting on their findings, noted that the idea that two sympatric species of large mammals with reportedly similar superficial appearances and habits would inhabit the exact same region left them incredulous.

Reality television programs such as Finding Bigfoot on Animal Planet have now added fuel to the fire with their claims of investigating these reported creatures scientifically, while, with all due respect to the people involved in the series, their investigations are a prime example of what I consider to be the pseudoscience which mars cryptozoology and gives it a bad reputation among the scientific community. The investigators on that program repeatedly perform strategically-placed calls to attempt to attract Sasquatches with them, subsequently interpreting any response they get, however vague, as said Sasquatches responding to their communication. First of all, they need to provide evidence that these calls they are using are really Sasquatch calls, and how we can know they are such, if Sasquatch has not even been confirmed to exist, let alone discovered or studied in any intensive detail. Second, it seems to me like they too readily employ confirmation bias when it comes to interpreting their findings. Since they have the mindset that they are communicating with Bigfoot, they interpret any calls they hear as coming from Bigfoot, automatically, despite the lack of any solid evidence, whatsoever, that this is, in fact, the case.

Another recent event in the community of Bigfoot advocates was the claims by Melba Ketchum and colleagues that they had found Bigfoot DNA. However, Ketchum et al.'s study was published in their own scientific journal that had been purchased by Ketchum herself months earlier, without passing through the rigorous process of peer review necessary to cement its findings as scientifically sound. The process of publication of the article was also marred by scandalous events, including one researcher's insistent claims that he had photographed the face of a Sasquatch, really nothing more than a Chewbacca mask. Ketchum concluded that Sasquatches resulted from a hybridization event between humans and another unknown hominid species in the Pleistocene, about fifteen thousand years ago.

After all of these different avenues of investigation and recent events that have occurred surrounding Yeti and Sasquatch research, I must say that, as someone who once passionately thought that the evidence supported the existence of a species, or several species, of closely-related unknown bipedal primates inhabiting the Palaearctic and Nearctic ecozones, and possibly the Australasian one, as well, I have now drifted to a more skeptical point-of-view on these cryptids, given that the evidence that seemed most compelling to me in the past has now been tested, and, with the exception of Ketchum et al.'s controversially-derived results, genetic evidence of unknown primate presence was not detected.

What really caused me to reexamine my views and take on a more skeptical position, though, were two main reasons. One reason was the study comparing the distribution of Sasquatch sightings to the distribution of American Black Bears, which really impressed on me what a coincidence this would be if a Sasquatch was a real unknown primate species, as well as the study of alleged Yeti hairs carried out by Bryan Sykes et al., and the subsequent follow-up study conducted by Eliecer Gutierrez and Ronald Pine. As much as I wanted it not to be true, because of how much it dampened my hopes of discovering a real new species of bipedal, hairy hominid roaming the forests of North America and Asia someday, I had to admit that Occam's Razor supported misidentifications of ursids as being one of the most common reasons for reported Sasquatch and Yeti sightings. I myself have seen videos of bears walking bipedally, and it is striking how similar their method of ambulation can appear to that utilized by hominids. A witness could very easily be forgiven for mistaking a bear walking upright on its hind legs for a Bigfoot or a Yeti, especially if they were walking through an area of wilderness where Bigfoot or Yeti sightings have been reported in the past, and they were expecting to see one, creating a psychological condition in which they were more likely to interpret any large bipedal furry creature glimpsed by them as said cryptid.

The other reason was the fact that, as pointed out previously by American physical anthropologist and Sasquatch proponent Grover Krantz, since people have reported sightings of similar creatures to the Yeti and the Sasquatch all over the world, with sighting reports implying that they have nearly a cosmopolitan distribution, this undermines the credibility of the case that they furnish evidence of an actual species of undiscovered primate. The more widespread the sightings are around the world, and the more random their distribution appears to be, the less likely the putative existence of the creatures seems. Indeed, such worldwide distribution would seem to hint at common universal factors in the human psyche perhaps playing a role in the phenomenon of reported sightings of these creatures.

Overall, I am still open-minded, and I think it is still possible that Sasquatch, Yeti, and their ilk might, indeed, exist and are roaming the wilderness at this very moment. I just do not see enough evidence to cause me to commit to such a hypothesis at the moment. Meanwhile, there are still some other mystery primates whose potential existence is, I think, grounded in plausibility, such as the Orang-Pendek of Sumatra, which has the advantage of having reports of it be confined to a specific geographical locale, being described as sounding like a real, ordinary animal, rather than a mythologized beast, as the others sometimes sound like, the presence of fossil evidence at said locale which might be of pertinence (the "Hobbit", or Homo floresiensis), and the fact that it seems to inhabit a feasible-sounding habitat for a creature of its description.

The topic of mysterious primates in cryptozoology has attracted much controversy and consternation over the years, and I doubt this trend is going anywhere anytime soon. I remain open-minded about the whole situation, and trust me, I would be ecstatic with joy if I turned on my television set or looked in my newspaper tomorrow morning and saw that a Yeti or a Sasquatch had been captured, proving the existence of a new hominid species roaming the temperate ecozones of the Earth's Biosphere. Secretly, I hope my newfound skepticism is totally wrong, and, indeed, I would love nothing more than for it to be proven wrong. After all, at heart, I am a romantic in all things, not least the zoological, and few things, if anything, can captivate me more than the thought of new species of exotic animals, hidden for ages, being discovered in our own backyards.

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