Bigfoot Files

bigfootfilesCONTAINS SPOILERS

While the natural world has plenty of bizarre creatures, and ones yet to be discovered, this programme was covering “cryptiods”, creatures which have been heard of, but aren’t confirmed to exist.

We have all  heard of some famous ones, the most well known for us here in the UK is the Loch Ness Monster. I vaguely recall an episode of a Rupert Bear cartoon where someone discovers Nessie and intends to display her in a zoo, and Nessie tells Rupert that she’s sad that she’ll be a fact rather than a mystery from then on. I think that’s the appeal of cryptoids for many people. These creatures almost certainly are mythical, but it’s fun to imagine the possibility that they may exist, and if you saw them you’d be in an exclusive club and it’ll be something to tell people.

The scientific community doesn’t generally take cryptozoology seriously, and many are afraid they won’t be taken seriously if they do. In this documentary though, which focused specifically on cryptological hominoids, Oxford university professor Bryan Sykes, notable as being the first person to ever recover DNA from ancient human bone, aimed to use DNA testing on the most credible samples thought to be of alleged giant humanoid ape creatures said to exist in the wilderness, and find out what species they were, and if it was an undiscovered one. The series was broadcast on Channel 4 and presented by Mark Evans, which is always a plus point for me as I really like him, and have enjoyed programmes he has presented before such as Inside Nature’s Giants and Easter Eggs Live.

The first episode, focused on the Yeti, said to be in the Himalayas. It is also known as The Abominable Snowman in western culture, and it has many different names throughout the Himalayas.Yeti is its name in Nepal, while in Bhutan it is known as Migou, in Ladakh it is known as Tengmo and in Tibet it is known as Chemo.

The Yeti became well known in the West because of a memorable photograph by British mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951. He started an expedition which included Edmund Hilary who would go on to be the first man to climb Mount Everest. Indeed the purpose of the expedition was to find a route to Everest. During this expedition, Shipton found a huge human-like footprint in the snow, and decided to photograph it, which became a news phenomenon at the time.

But the Yeti has been part of the culture of Sherpas in Nepal for centuries. One, Sona Hisa Sherpa, claimed to have witnessed a Yeti attack 50 years ago and called it “an animal of God” like any other. Apparently the existence of the Yeti it is widely considered a fact there, and there have been creatures thought to be Yetis which have been killed and stuffed. Two of the samples tested in this programme were this.

One was from mountain guide Christophe Hagenmuller, who in 2003 came across a village which claimed to have a stuffed Yeti which had been killed in the 1970s. Hagenmuller described it as looking like “a mix of a wolf and a bear”, and took a sample of the hair which he sent to Bryan Sykes to test.

The other sample was a very weird looking creature  which was said to be shot and killed in the Himalayas as part of a Nazi expedition in 1939. It also looked like a mix-and-match creature, it had a body like bear, but the fur was like a grey wolf and the face was a bit like a baboon’s. On the whole it certainly didn’t look any known animal, but it didn’t look very convincing or real either. Bryan Sykes pointed out that the face looked like it was made of clay, and noted the teeth had clearly been inserted in the wrong way round as we could see the roots. But he took a sample nonetheless.

Mountaineer Reinhold Messner had an encounter with a creature which seemed like a Yeti in 1986, and set out trying to research the mystery behind Yetis. He believes what is thought to be the Yeti is actually a type of bear, and put forward the idea that the Shipton photograph may be the result of a bear doing a “double-step”. When a bear walks on all fours the footprint of its front paw may be stepped over by the print of its back paw and the two prints overlap and appear as one large footprint in snow or mud.

The programme tested this with an American grizzly bear named Brutus, grizzlies being technically the same species as the brown bear, the only bear in the Himalayas known to live in high altitudes. Brutus did indeed do a double step footprint which was set in plaster, and ended up looking extremely similar to the Shipton photograph.

 Bears also have the ability to stand and walk upright, and it’s certainly likely that someone out in the wilderness seeing a bear standing upright in the distance and possibly obscured by trees, fog, the darkness of night may well translate that sight into their brain to be some kind of ape-like humanoid rather than a bear. Add that to shock and fear they may be experiencing and adrenaline kicking in. In the Himalayas and other areas with high altitude oxygen is thin, and that causes the brain to become short of it for people who aren’t used to the environment, and lack of oxygen to the brain causes headaches and sometimes hallucinations. All things considered, it is perfectly understandable why someone may genuinely believe they have seen a monstrous creature even if it’s something fairly normal.

But what did the results say? The Nazi sample turned out to be inconclusive. But two of the other samples had a shocking result. They turned out to be a perfect match for a polar bear! Not only that, an ancient polar bear thought to have died out 40,000 years ago. Bryan Sykes had a couple of theories as to how this could be. One was that the “Yetis” are hybrid bears, polar bears and brown bears which have crossbred. These hybrids are often unusual as they have a mix of physical and behavioural traits from both species, so may be perceived to be monstrous. Another possibility is that there could be an undiscovered species of bear in the Himalayas that is a missing link from where brown bears and polar bears diverged into separate species. So while the Yeti might not exist as we “know” it, there could an unknown type of bear that is the basis for the legend out there.

 The second programme was on Sasquatch, also known as Bigfoot. Bigfoot seems to be the most well known cryptoid in the United States, he certainly seems to be a big tourist attraction. In this programme alone we saw lots of merchandise showing what a big hit he is. There is even a cage waiting to house him should he ever be discovered!

Sightings of it are reported around the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Stories of Bigfoot and an entire sasquatch species go way back to Native American tales, but what really kickstarted the 20th/21st century obsession with it was when bulldozer driver Jerry Crew found some huge footprints near the construction site he was working on in Willow Creek, California, in 1958. However in 2002, after the death of Crew’s boss Ray Wallace, it was claimed by Wallace’s family that he constructed wooden feet to make the footprints. The other famous Bigfoot sighting not even mentioned in this documentary was the Patterson film in 1967 which was said to show a female sasquatch walking past and looking at the camera briefly. My personal belief is that it’s a man in an ape costume, but if so, it’s a very good ape costume for the time. It may be difficult to get the film rights to use that clip however, and in any case like the footprint Jerry Crew found, whether it’s a hoax or not it’s not something that DNA analysis can prove as there is no sample. There are many samples believed to be from Bigfoot or sasquatch though, and even more sightings, and the programme got to interview some of the people claiming to have seen Bigfoot.

One was of a self-confessed “sasquatch killer” named Justin Smeja. Smeja claimed while he was out hunting he spotted an adult and a juvenile sasquatch and managed to shoot the juvenile one. He found it bleeding to death, then when it died he was worried about possibly being convicted of murder if it turned out to be a primitive human, so he buried it.When he went to dig it up three weeks later there was nothing left of it except a piece of flesh, which he sent to Bryan Sykes for testing, along with blood scrapings from his boot. Mark Evans when interviewing him found it difficult to comprehend. By his own admission, as a vet and an animal lover he wasn’t keen on the bloodlust of Smeja, but he also was sceptical of his story. I wasn’t keen on the bloodlust either, and I too was sceptical of the story. It sounded a bit convenient that was so little left of the body that it wouldn’t be indentified easily, but then why go to the trouble of getting it tested more thoroughly? Evans got Smeja to give as description of the creature he found to former FBI forensic artist Robyn Burcell, and the picture she drew showed an ape-like face. After Bryan Sykes performed the test, the result came back as a black bear, and he couldn’t find any traces of blood whatsoever on the boot. Mark Evans asked Smeja outright if it was a hoax, which he denied, and he seemed devastated by the test results. It’s not unheard of, for example, for people who honestly believe that aliens have visited Earth to create films with fake flying saucers and try and pass them off as real, and even to convince themselves that it is real. Whether that is the case here I don’t know.

Other people interviewed included Vietnam war veteran Dan Shirley and his friend Garland Fields who claimed to know where a clan of sasquatch were and to be able to communicate with them by knocking on trees. They demonstrated this on camera, and there was a thumping sound in the distance which wasn’t there until after they had started hitting the tree. This was a little eerie, and the source of the thumping was never verified on the programme. Bryan Sykes theorised it might be another group of Bigfoot enthusiasts responding to each other. Similar things have been known to happen with people trying to communicate with birds, so it’s possible. Dan Shirley gave a sample of two blond hairs he found, thinking they would be a sasquatch. The result turned out to be a black bear. Despite the name, black bears can have all sorts of coloured hairs, in black, red, brown, beige, or blond, which are also the colours Bigfoot has been described as having. Understandably, Dan Shirley seemed sad at this news, but he vowed to continue trying to prove the existence of sasquatch.

The test results from the other Bigfoot samples handed in all turned out to be known species, including black bear again, along with cow, white tailed deer, canine, horse, racoon and porcupine. The conclusion the programme made of all this was that “bigfootology” is more like a religion than a science, a need to believe that there is more out there.

The third and final episode was on the Almasty in Russia, something which I’d never heard of before this programme. Almasty translates as “Wild Man”. The country is the largest in the world, and some areas of it, such as Siberia, have a very low population, which has invited speculation that there may be unknown creatures out there. Russia and many of their neighbouring countries have been a rich source of archaeological remains of Neanderthals. There is a popular theory there that some Neanderthals may not have died out and are still living in the wild.

But as well as the Almasty theory, Russia has similar beliefs in a Yeti or a “Snowman”. During the programme we saw videos from people claiming to have found evidence of some. One was from a family in Siberia, the video showing them following 14 inch long footprints in the snow, and finding some hairs which were sent to Bryan Sykes for testing. The hairs turned out, once again, to come from a bear. Other samples said to be a Yeti from Russia were tested, and they came back as horse, cow and one was glass fibre. The other video was filmed in January this year by three boys from a small village called Rosko-Urksy.  The video showed the kids following footprints in the snow and in the trees in the distance they spot a tall dark figure which sees them and runs away. The video has gained attention, notably from a 7 foot tall wrestler turned politician named Nikolai Valuev, who apparently is likened to a living Neanderthal to many Russians, but as the programme noted it is impossible to test as there were no samples left behind.

The unique story in this episode was of Zana, “the Wildwoman of the Caucases”.  In the 1870s, a “wild woman” was caught in a forest by two men and taken to a local landowner. There she was imprisoned for 20 years or so, during which time she had 4 children. Mark Evans noted that is already an uncomfortable thing to take on board, as Zana was almost certainly raped. It’s unlikely she would have been able to give consent, and Dr. Igor Burtsev, who had spent a lot of time investigating the case, stated that it’s likely that the landowner prostituted her.  However, Burtsev decided to trace Zana’s family tree to track down her descendants. This work was continued by Dmitri Pirkulov. Some of them had no idea they had such a famous ancestor, and samples of their DNA were taken, along with a tooth from the skull of one of Zana’s sons, Khvit, to test the theory that Zana may have been a Neanderthal. It was recently discovered that humans have traces of Neanderthal DNA, which means humans and Neanderthals must have interbred, but if Zana was a Neanderthal her descendants would have a much larger percentage of DNA than average.

The results from Bryan Sykes’ tests showed that Zana’s descendants had no more Neanderthal DNA than average, so she can’t have been a Neanderthal. From Khvit’s tooth they found that Zana’s mitochondrial DNA was Sub-Saharan African, as was that in all her tested descendants. This means that Zana was a human from Sub-Saharan Africa. We’ll probably never know for sure about her life before she was imprisoned or how she came to meet her eventual fate, but the most likely explanation is that she was a slave bought from Africa when Abkhazia was part of the Ottomon Empire. She may be have been found living in the wild, but it’s equally possible that the whole thing was orchestrated. Either way, she was a human being who treated in a disgusting way, and the thought of that is far more horrific than there possibly being monsters in the wild.

There seems to a pattern with the results. Most of them turned out to be from a bear, and all the places where these particular cryptoids are said to be in are large areas where few humans live, whether its mountain ranges or vast forests. From my point of view, I don’t believe these cryptoids exist, at least not in the present day or quite as we imagine them. But it is intriguing as to why we may like to believe they exist. It allows for excitement and adventure, a mystery that we have some clues for. It may be a way of turning something unknown into something we at least have a concept of, or even a way of distracting from awful things that humans are capable of doing to other humans, such as what happened to Zana. This programme allowed to get some scientific fact as to what may be behind these mysteries. In particular, it’s quite exciting we may have found out that a hybrid species of bear or possibly even an unknown type of bear is what inspired the Yeti legend. A very interesting programme.

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