Mysterious Species Are Out There, So Why Not Bigfoot?

The state of the universe.
Nov. 23 2012 10:00 AM

Why Are Bigfoot Rumors So Persistent?

Inside the search for North American’s supposed Sasquatch man-ape.

Sign on Pikes Peak Highway.
Sign on Pikes Peak Highway

Photograph by Ashish S. Hareet/Wikimedia Commons.

Jeff Meldrum wants to search for Bigfoot by using a remote-controlled blimp. Because when you’re looking for a mythical creature famous for eluding all who search for it, a giant, buzzing, looming balloon is clearly the way to go. Meldrum, a tenured Idaho State University anthropologist who established his career studying primate foot anatomy before shifting his focus to monsters, expects he’ll have to raise $300,000 to get the project airborne. He’s trying (and so far failing) to get funding from private sources. (No surprise that his home institution wants nothing to do with the endeavor.) That’s a lot of money and effort for what will undoubtedly turn out to be a collection of blurry photographs that look like Instagram snapshots from a visit to the Pacific Northwest woods.

I loved reading breathless tales of encounters with the Yeti, Loch Ness Monster, Jersey Devil, Bigfoot, and other cryptids as a child, but those stories have never been supported by anything more substantial than an out-of-focus snapshot or embellished campfire story. And in the case of North America’s legendary nonhuman ape, the picture historians and sociologists have pieced together is that Bigfoot and other shaggy humanoids are cultural inventions that we have repeatedly conjured so that there’s always something wild and mysterious in the woods. Stories about Bigfoot began to proliferate after expeditions in the Himalayas in the 1950s reported ambiguous Yeti footprints—none of which have been convincingly attributed to a Gigantopithecus descendant or other prehistoric hominid holdover. Sasquatch fans have since done a bit of retconning by claiming Native American stories and dubious historical encounters as part of their mythology, but the trail is clear. Bigfoot is not a monster but a meme.

This hasn’t swayed the cryptozoological faithful. They are convinced that monstrous beings must be out there, just out of reach. If you browse the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization website, for example, you’ll find more excuses than hard evidence. Despite the ubiquity of smartphone cameras and the accessibility of camera traps, there are no clear photographs of the mythical ape. The site asserts that sightings are fleeting because Sasquatches are smart enough to avoid unwanted pictures, and photographers are often overcome by the “initial confusion and/or fear during their sighting.” As for the lack of a body or bones: “No serious work has ever been done to look for remains of surviving wood apes in areas where they are rumored to reside,” the BFRO website says, and blithely states that “No one should expect remains of such an elusive species to be found, collected and identified without some effort.” Even for Sasquatch advocates, seeking the remains of their beloved legend is just too much work.

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If Sasquatches were real, there would be ways to detect the creature’s existence. For one thing, there would be a fossil record of large apes moving into North America, probably from Pleistocene Asia. But fossil nonhuman apes have never been found in North America (the sole candidate turned out to be a misidentified peccary tooth.) Field biologists study elusive living species by using camera traps, analyzing genetic data from scat, and following footprints. There should be a wealth of compelling evidence from such sources—but all we have are an abundance of purported sightings. Given the number that Sasquatch clubs busy themselves with, I should be able to look out my window each morning and see Sasquatch families raiding my trash cans for leftovers. Bigfoot aficionados protest that they have found tracks, hair, and other evidence. But photos of mangy black bears and footage that would make even the director of Cloverfield nauseous from all the shaking show nothing more than a lack of rational skepticism.

For all the time that Bigfoot hunters spend in the woods and swapping stories, and considering their bluster at not being taken seriously, they seem to show no interest in approaching their subjects scientifically. Maybe Sasquatch hunters and other cryptid seekers don’t want to try legitimate, field-tested methods for tracking the objects of their fascination. Better to try unconventional, unsound methods like blimps—which keeps the possibility of mystery alive.

Bigfoot is hardly the only faith-based monster. Young-Earth creationists launch trips to the Congo in search of living nonavian dinosaurs and collect far-fetched accounts of living pterosaurs from around the world. If you’ve decided to ignore the entirety of science in preference for a 6,000-year-old Earth where Tyrannosaurus was created on the same day as Adam and Eve, I suppose the concept of an Apatosaurus crashing through the forests of the Congo Basin doesn’t seem so fanciful. And who could forget sea serpents? Even though many sightings of marine monsters were undoubtedly inspired by giant squid, seals, and other familiar creatures, amateur naturalists and ardent cryptozoologists claim that scaly, serpentine monsters still scull through the deep.

Not all monster sightings are hoaxes or hokum. In some cases, people are hearing or seeing something in the water, the night sky, or the woods. A faithful monster hunter is likely to interpret the snap of a twig or a strange aquatic shape as supporting evidence. It’s pareidolia, a wilderness Rorschach test.

One of my favorite creatures in the monster pantheon is Cadborosaurus. The monster got a lot of play in the books I picked up as a kid because there was a clear photo, even if the photo depicted nothing more than a partially-digested mess extracted from a sperm whale’s belly and slapped onto the dock of British Columbia’s Naden Harbor Whaling Station in 1937. The gooey string appears to be a creature with a horse-like head, sinuous body, and ragged tail flukes.

The carcass was most likely a decomposing shark. As the “Montauk Monster,” “San Diego Diablo,” and similar cases have shown, raccoon and opossum carcasses can be easily mistaken for aberrant creatures. Decomposition makes fools of us all.

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