on 1 December 2012
Sasquatch or Bigfoot is a legendary creature supposedly living somewhere in the forests and swamp lands of North America. Mainstream science regards Bigfoot as an ancient superstition turned into a kind of urban legend, and has relegated it to the same status as that of UFOs, ghosts and post-mortem Elvis sightings. Meanwhile, people on the ground keep encountering the creature. It's usually described as huge, hairy, ape-like and (sometimes) threatening. If Bigfoot is a real animal, it would presumably be an unknown species of ape. While the elusive beast has been reported from all over North America, there is a concentration of Bigfoot sightings in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia.
"Sasquatch: Legend meets science" is a book by Jeff Meldrum, one of the few scientists who take the Bigfoot phenomenon seriously. There is also a film with the same title, available free on Youtube or on DVD from Amazon. The book is much better than the documentary, which simply summarizes some of the book's findings. In Meldrum's opinion, Sasquatch or Bigfoot is a real, flesh-and-blood great ape.
I admit that his arguments for its existence are surprisingly strong! I had a kind of conversion experience when reading it. If science has missed a huge, hairy and (I presume) smelly ape in the Evergreen State, who knows what else it might have missed? The return of the Christ in the etheric?
OK, that was in-house self-irony.
On a more serious note, "Sasquatch: Legend meets Science" is a competent summary of the pro-Bigfoot position. Since the author is a scientist, a few chapters are somewhat tedious and technical, but all chapters can be read by the interested layman. I was surprised by the large amount of suggestive evidence that could point to Bigfoot being an actual unknown animal: dermal ridges visible at the plaster casts of footprints, hair samples which doesn't match those of any known animal, "dynamic" footprints which look logical if made by an actual creature, and (of course) the Skookum print and the Patterson-Gimlin film. (I'm more sceptical to the Freeman video and the Memorial Day video.)
This would be more than enough to launch an expedition in search of some obscure subspecies of hog or antelope in the Asian underbrush, so why doesn't science take Sasquatch seriously? Here, we are obviously dealing with some kind of sociological processes at work. To be fair to the sceptics, there is a continuum between "natural" Bigfoot sightings and "supernatural" ones (including the inevitable UFOs and channelled messages), making it tempting to dismiss the whole phenomenon as a silly superstition or gigantic hoax. While my "Fortean" vein isn't overtly hostile to the fringier aspects of the BF phenomenon, I nevertheless understand why mainline scientists (or even mainline non-materialists) might feel uncomfortable with a phenomenon that looks "occult". However, the bits and pieces of evidence presented by Meldrum (all of them down-to-earth and completely boring from a Fortean standpoint) do deserve a fairer hearing than hitherto given - at least in principle. In practice, it might (ironically) be a good thing that mainstream science disbelieves in the Sasquatch, considering what usually happens to unknown hogs and antelopes if they are detected (clue: check the local bushmeat market). The same fate seems to have befallen the Bili ape, a previously unknown and somewhat peculiar chimp population in the Congo.
But back to mainframe. What I found most persuasive in Meldrum's case is that the "legend" of Bigfoot is so consistent over time, in a manner difficult to square with an exclusively sociological explanation. The Bigfoot antics reported by many eye-witnesses are remarkably consistent with primate behaviour. Yet, great apes are supposed to have been unknown to Native Americans before the arrival of White settlers. Many aspects of ape behaviour weren't mapped until the 20th century, and some may not be widely known among laymen even today. So why has these supposedly cultural constructs of the Pacific Northwest looked like apes and behaved like apes since time immemorial? Maybe because they actually *are* apes? Ceremonial masks from Native tribes showing the Sasquatch have ape-like features, and so have traditional Sasquatch sculptures. The Sasquatches are reported to espouse ape-like aggressive patterns, including hurling small rocks at intruders. Meldrum himself has been attacked in this manner several times. (I don't think misidentification with a black bear is likely in this case - unless U.S. bears have occult powers and can levitate rocks!) It's precisely this "biological" consistency which suggests something more than the Ivory Billed Woodpecker might be unaccounted for in the U.S. forests...
Even seemingly illogical traits turn out to be biologically possible on a closer look, such as the nocturnal habits of Bigfoot. The chimps at Rabongo in Uganda are largely nocturnal, suggesting it's possible for apes to turn to such behaviour if necessary. Nor are the origins of Bigfoot a deep mystery - a gigantic ape (Gigantopithecus) is known from the fossil record of East Asia, and could conceivably have reached North America in prehistoric times (so did the Red Panda). Meldrum believes that Gigantopithecus was omnivorous, which would also square with the reported habits of Bigfoot. The author also points out that most ape fossils have been found outside the tropics, perhaps suggesting that the original habitat of the apes was subtropical or even temperate. On a more daring note, Meldrum suggests that the weird ability of Bigfoot to scare people or make them feel nausea is due to infrasound. Some animals, apparently, do use infrasound to communicate or even to stun their pray.
That being said, I still have a lingering suspicion that there might be something more to the Bigfoot-Sasquatch phenomenon than simply an unknown ape in the West Coast rainforests. As already mentioned, there doesn't seem to be a neat way of distinguishing "natural" eye-witness reports from "supernatural" ones. The strange ability of the Sasquatch to instil fear in humans (and other animals?) could perhaps be explained by infrasound, but how far can you take these naturalist explanations before they become too exotic? How does one explain that a Bigfoot runs in front of a speeding car, when no other cars are in sight? Why doesn't this supposedly reclusive animal simply wait for the only car on the highway to drive by, and then pass the road undetected? How does one account for the vanishing acts of this creature, or its constant appearances outside its logical geographical range? My favourite example is the White (sic) Sasquatch observed in a town on Rhode Island! That's on the...ahem...East Coast.
Personally, I'm more or less convinced that Associate Professor Jeffrey Meldrum's "Sasquatch: Legend meets Science" has solved one part of the mystery at hand. Or at least pointed out a perfectly reasonable working hypothesis. However, I also feel that there might be other aspects of the problem that are less easily solved within a strictly naturalist framework...