Don't write off Sasquatch. Let's research him
Sasquatch — also known as Bigfoot — continues to be a symbol of the great Northwest. Fifty years after the famed Patterson-Gimlin film of an alleged Bigfoot walking along a northern California creek, the creature is most frequently seen as a piece of chainsaw folk art. Just outside of Index, on the way to Stevens Pass, the Chalet Espresso stand welcomes customers with a giant wooden Bigfoot holding a snowboard. On the Olympic Peninsula near Moclips, Sasquatch is a carved figure with a surfboard tucked under his arm. His image once evoked mystery and wonder. Now, he’s just another thrill-seeking bro.
Part of the reason for his loss of serious enigma status is that many scientists have scoffed at the idea that Sasquatch is real: No dead or live specimens have been recovered or captured, the woods aren’t full of bones or abundant recovered DNA evidence. Hoaxes abound, and many of today’s Bigfoot believers have adopted paranormal explanations for the lack of solid evidence of his existence. Some believe he’s an interdimensional being; others, that he’s a shape-shifter. The choices are that he’s fictional, supernatural or a hoaxer’s bid for attention.
One writer critical of the current state of Bigfoot speculation described the popular ideas of the creature as being relegated “to mere myth and legend at best, or to the delusions of socially threatened, working, middle-class male schmucks, at worst.” In short, Bigfoot is a dead apeman walking in a limbo of kooky kitsch.
Mainstream science either considers the subject of Sasquatch’s existence as fraud or a topic not worth investigating.
Emblematic of this state of affairs is the fate of one of Bigfoot’s scholarly boosters, the late Washington State University professor Grover Krantz. An anthropologist who was convinced of Bigfoot’s existence, Krantz spent decades researching the creature. He died in 2002 and willed his own skeleton to the Smithsonian with the stipulation that it be put on display, a wish that was granted. Thus, the great Bigfoot hunter became a museum specimen long before his quarry, who remains at large.
But all is not lost for those who want to believe. There are a few scholars who take the phenomenon seriously and indeed argue that, from an anthropological perspective, hunting for Sasquatch should be a respectable activity to answer a key question of human evolution, not one consigned to oblivion or left to crackpots.
Foremost among these academics is Jeffrey Meldrum, professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. In a 2016 paper in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Meldrum argues that creatures like Sasquatch, yeti and other “wild men” spotted around the world might not be anomalies, but rather what might be expected, given recent archaeology. Discoveries of ancient humans show that we modern humans overlapped with Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo floresiensis (also known as the diminutive “Hobbit Man” found in Indonesia) and other human species. As recently as 30,000 years ago, he says, modern humans might have overlapped with as many as a half-dozen other species. Meldrum reminds us that the human family tree is “bushy,” with many offshoots, many still unknown in the fossil record.
If Homo sapiens have historically co-existed with other human species, might that not still be occurring? Sightings of what he calls “relict hominoids” could reflect that reality, which our expanding knowledge of human history suggests has been the norm even in recent millennia. We might not be alone.
Then there is physical evidence. Meldrum is an expert in the field of vertebrate locomotion, especially in primates. He documents this work in his book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. There are numerous casts of Sasquatch foot, hand, heel and even buttocks prints to study. Meldrum has also tracked and examined fresh prints in the field. He believes that some of the footprint evidence taken from the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla, some prints from China of a Bigfoot-type creature called a yeren, and casts of prints from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin site in California appear to show footprints with the physical characteristics of “a large-bodied bipedal hominoid for negotiating steep, broken, mountainous, forested terrain.” Some of these casts from the 1960s predate what was then known about primate anatomy. In other words, these anatomical characteristics would not have been known then to scientists, let alone an amateur hoaxer.
Meldrum sees some hope for Sasquatch research. He has identified two future initiatives that might yield results. Next summer, he and a colleague hope to start aerial surveys with a drone-like helium blimp equipped with a thermal imaging camera to see if they can spot Sasquatch on the move. Their craft could hover in silence over remote areas.
Another avenue, he says, is more and better DNA research. Specimens of supposed Bigfoot hair have generally not been of good quality, and because humans share as much as 99 percent of DNA with some primates, testing has to be extensive. New methods of testing might be able to detect Bigfoot DNA in water or soil samples, if not from Bigfoot remains.
Who will carry on this research? Meldrum says there is interest. “Younger, upcoming anthropologists are a little more open-minded,” he says, although they have to keep their interest “under the radar” until they get tenure. Being a Bigfoot scientist puts one on the fringe of the academic mainstream.
Meldrum also would like to see a corps of amateur scientific observers put more eyes in the field.
“I am often accused of trying to persuade my colleagues to believe in Sasquatch,” Meldrum says. “All I’m saying is that there is evidence that points to the existence of a fascinating being. ... We have to keep an open mind to the possibility.”
I think I am fully justified in calling myself a Bigfoot agnostic. Before we consign him to legend or turn him into a stud-muffin surfer dude, let’s finish the real search.
This column ran in the October issue of Seattle Magazine.