Sasquatch, colloquially known as Bigfoot, is a legendary creature, a primate-like animal believed to inhabit the forests of North America, although people claim to have sighted the creature in every part of the United States and most of Canada. Akin to the infamous Yeti of the Himalayan Mountains, Sasquatch lore dates back to the earliest Native American tribes, and continued as regional phenomenon until the twentieth century, when the need to prove or debunk the existence of Bigfoot became a widespread fervor. Today, while most people are aware of Bigfoot stories but dismiss the creature as a mere footnote among such paranormal subjects as the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs, there are those trying to use science to prove Bigfoot is a real hominid living in America. Nevertheless, most scientists discredit the idea.
Whether or not Sasquatch does in fact exist, its ability to capture widespread attention and imagination proves it to be a powerful symbol to Americans.
According to most eyewitness accounts, the sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest United States is a large, powerfully built, bipedal apelike creature between 7 and 9 feet (2.13 and 2.74 meter) tall, and covered in dark brown or dark reddish hair. The head seems to sit directly on the shoulders, with no apparent neck. Witnesses have described large eyes, a pronounced brow ridge and a head that has been described as rounded and crested, similar to the sagittal crest of the male gorilla. There are regional discrepancies regarding the appearance of sasquatch creatures outside the Pacific Northwest.
In the Midwest the creature sometimes is all white with pink or red eyes, while in the south reported sightings describe a more gorilla or orangutan animal. In the Eastern United States, sasquatch appears as a slightly smaller, darker and much more violent form of its western cousin. One of two most common characteristics of the creatures reported by witnesses are the intensely pungent smell that seems to permeate the area before and even after a sasquatch has been seen and the loud screeching noises made at night, comparable to some of the sounds apes and monkeys have been known to produce.
Nearly every tribe of Native Americans to have populated the areas of sasquatch sightings have legends and traditions regarding "wild men" of the forest. While each tribe had its own understanding of the creature, there are numerous similarities among hundreds of documented stories by anthropologists and folklorists. Sasquatches were at the least something to be cautious of, at the most evil and an omen of death. Stories prevail of them stealing children and animals to eat, and of terrorizing those who were lost in the forest. Often they were believed to be feral humans, their long hair seen as a step backwards in primitivism.
Each tribe had its own name for the creatures. Variations of the word Windigo were common in the Northeast, while Oh-Man, Skookum, and Tenatco were common in the west. The name "sasquatch," apparently is the anglicization of the word sesqec, which occurs in the mainland dialects of the Halkomelem language, according to Wayne Suttlesm. Halkomelem is Salishan language of southwestern British Columbia.
Encounters with these creatures continued with the European settlement of the continent. Beginning with the newspapers of the East, reports of encounters with wood spirits and demons that the Native Americans had knowledge of became prevalent. The idea that they were perhaps wild men and cannibals carried over to the new settlers. However, the more developed the country became, the more these stories became regionalized and forgotten on the national level.
That changed, however, with an incident in 1924, in which miners working in the Mount Saint Helens area commonly referred to as Ape Canyon, discovered strange tracks in the woods one day, followed that night by a series of "bigfoots" laying siege to their cabin. Holding off their attackers until morning, the miners managed to escape, never to return to the site. One of the most famous, and hotly debated, stories happened in the same year, only it was not made public until the 1950s. Interviewing Albert Ostman, a retired lumberjack, one of the first bigfoot researchers, John Green, reported on how Ostman alleged that in 1924, while camping in the Vancouver area, he was kidnapped and held hostage by a family of bigfoots for a total of six days. Although a terrifying experience for Ostman, he was able to observe a nuclear family structure, a pronounced sexual dimorphism among the female and males, and the creature's vegetarian diet. Treated without harm and mild curiosity, Ostman claimed to have escaped by confusing the bigfoots with a cloud of snuff from his personal stash.
Further fueling the national attention of sasquatch were the adventure stories of expeditonaries in the Himalaya Mountains for the Yeti or "Abominable Snowman," as it was commonly referred to. The idea of an elusive creature, blending characteristics of man and ape, became a romantic notion in the U.S., and peaked interest in the existing legends of sasquatch, which was seen as an American version of the yeti.
Like John Green, amateur bigfoot researchers started to investigate claims of sightings. Such interest is responsible for the widespread attention given to two of the most famous reports in American history: the first involved hundreds of tracks discovered by Jerry Crew and Ray Wallace in Bluff Creek, California, during a road construction project. The second is the infamous Patterson Film in which an alleged bigfoot was filmed by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, two bigfoot researchers. The 16mm film footage shows an apparent female sasquatch (large breasts are easily noticeable in the film) walking slowly away from the camera. In addition to the film, both researchers were able to fill plaster casts of the creature's footprint. The legitimacy of both these encounters is discussed in the hoax debate.
In the later half of the twentieth century, a new phase in bigfoot investigation began to emerge. As a reaction against bigfoot related investigations and stories being considered together with paranormal research and discredited as fantasy, serious researchers turned towards the rationale of science as their new tools. Incorporating elements of evolutionary anthropology, biology, and zoology, cryptozoology became the new discipline for serious bigfoot hunters. Cryptozoology is the academic discipline that focuses on searching for animals that have not yet been discovered but potentially exist, such as bigfoot, using scientific methods and technology.
Not only did this produce more field hunts for the creature, it also turned a critical eye to the most prominent type of evidence over the years: footprints molded in plaster casts. In the earlier 1980s, anthropologist Grover Krantz noticed dermal ridge impressions on some of the footprint casts he had collected over the years. Dermal ridges are the etching-like lines found on the palms and bottom of the feet on human beings, each unique to the person (the basis of fingerprinting being the pattern of dermal ridges in each print). The dermal ridges in the bigfoot casts moved horizontally from toe to heel, the opposite of humans. While this hardly constituted conclusive proof, it is unlikely that a hoaxer would both know to include dermal ridges in their hoax and re-create them so convincingly. Believers point to such details as reliable proof, or at the least enough to inspire more widespread inquiry.
Even with a more disciplined approach, the study of bigfoot has never been widely acknowledged as a serious field of research. And yet, such works as Pyle's Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, as much a survey of Bigfoot’s cultural impact as of the likelihood of the creature’s reality, was researched and written with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.
Cryptozoologists have put forth numerous hypotheses as to what type of creature sasquatch could be; following is a list of the most popular theories.
The Gigantopithecus hypothesis is generally considered highly speculative. Rigorous studies of existing fossilized remains indicate that G. blacki is the common ancestor of two quadrupedal genera, represented by Sivapithecus and the orangutan (Pongo). Given the mainstream view that Gigantopithecus was quadrupedal, it would seem unlikely to be an ancestor to the biped Bigfoot is said to be. Moreover, it has been argued that G. blacki's enormous mass would have made it difficult for it to adopt a bipedal gait.
A species of Paranthropus, such as Paranthropus robustus, with its crested skull and bipedal gait has been suggested as has Homo erectus to be the creature, but neither type of skeleton has ever been found on the North American continent, and all fossil evidence points to their extinction thousands of years ago.
There was also a little known genus, called Meganthropus, which reputedly grew to enormous proportions. Again, there have been no remains of this creature anywhere near North America, and none younger than a million years old.
Mainstream scientists and academics generally dismiss the idea of Bigfoot as fantasy, due to a lack of conclusive evidence, and a common sense approach that such a large creature is unlikely to have been discovered in a country so well developed and charted. Additionally, scientists often cite the fact that Bigfoot is alleged to live in temperate latitudes in the northern hemisphere which are unusual for a large, nonhuman primate, while all other recognized nonhuman apes are found in the tropics, Africa, continental Asia, or nearby islands. The great apes have never been found in the fossil record in the Americas, and no Bigfoot bones or bodies have been found to date.
Moreover, the issue is so muddied with dubious claims and outright hoaxes that many scientists do not even give the subject serious attention. Napier wrote that the mainstream scientific community's indifference stems primarily from "insufficient evidence … it is hardly unsurprising that scientists prefer to investigate the probable rather than beat their heads against the wall of the faintly possible." Anthropologist David Daegling advises that mainstream skeptics take a proactive position "to offer an alternative explanation. We have to explain why we see Bigfoot when there is no such animal."
Although most scientists find the evidence of Bigfoot unpersuasive, a number of prominent experts have offered sympathetic opinions on the subject. In a 2002 interview on National Public Radio, Jane Goodall first publicly expressed her views on Bigfoot by remarking, "Well now, you'll be amazed when I tell you that I'm sure that they (yeti, bigfoot, sasquatch) exist … I've talked to so many Native Americans who all describe the same sounds, two who have seen them." Several other prominent scientists have also expressed at least a guarded interest in Sasquatch reports including George Schaller, Russell Mittermeier, Daris Swindler, and Esteban Sarmiento.
Prominent anthropologist, Carleton S. Coon, a proponent of Darwin's theory of evolutioin wrote a posthumously published essay "Why the Sasquatch Must Exist" in which he states: "Even before I read John Green's book Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us, first published in 1978, I accepted Sasquatch's existence." Coon examined the question from several angles, stating that he is confident only in ruling out a relict Neanderthal population as a viable candidate for Sasquatch reports.
In 2000, an American/Canadian association called the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization began organizing informal searches of wilderness areas in the Pacific Northwest area of the U.S and Canada where sightings have been reported. During these searches several sightings and track finds reportedly occurred, the most notable piece of evidence being the Skookum Body Cast. The group expects their accumulating observations and evidence will lead to formal long-term studies in certain areas where sightings and tracks occur most frequently.
In 2012, Texas veterinarian Melba Ketchum and a "multidisciplinary team of scientists" claimed to have found definitive proof that bigfoot exists, as a "novel hominin species":
The study, which sequenced three whole Sasquatch nuclear genomes, shows that the legendary Sasquatch is extant in North America and is a human relative that arose approximately 13,000 years ago and is hypothesized to be a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with a novel primate species.
However, the scientific status of this research is questionable, so much so that Ketchum failed to find a single journal willing to publish her study. Undeterred, she set up her own online journal, which sells the article.
Nearly every piece of bigfoot evidence to emerge in the twentieth century has at some point been dubbed a hoax. Bigfoot researchers sometimes are forced to prove evidence is not a hoax before they are able to study it scientifically. Bigfoot researcher Grover Krantz and others have argued that a double standard is applied to Sasquatch studies by many academics: whenever there is a claim or evidence of Sasquatch's existence, enormous scrutiny is applied, as well it should be. Yet when individuals claim to have hoaxed Bigfoot evidence, the claims are frequently accepted without corroborative evidence. Primatologist John Napier acknowledged that there have been some hoaxes but also contended that hoaxing is not always an adequate explanation. Krantz argues that "something like 100,000 casual hoaxers" would be required to explain the footprints.
One of the most contested incidents involves a cast of one of the enormous footprints Jerry Crew and other workers had been seeing at an isolated work site in Bluff Creek, California. He took it to a newspaper office and the story and photo garnered international attention through being picked up by the Associated Press (this is also the source of the name bigfoot, coined by an editor in response to the size of the footprint cast). Crew's overseer at the site was Wilbur L. Wallace, brother of Raymond L. Wallace. Years after the track casts were made, Ray Wallace became involved in Bigfoot "research" and made various outlandish claims. Shortly after Wallace's death, his children claimed that he was the "father of Bigfoot," and that Ray had faked the tracks seen by Jerry Crew in 1958.
In 1978, the University of British Columbia hosted a symposium, entitled Anthropology of the Unknown: Sasquatch and Similar Phenomena, a Conference on Humanoid Monsters (abstracts collected in Wasson's 1979 volume). Pyle wrote that the conference "brought together twenty professors in various fields, along with several serious laymen, to consider the mythology, ethnology, ecology, biogeography, physiology, psychology, history and sociology of the subject. All took it seriously, and while few, if any, accepted the existence of Sasquatch outright, they jointly concluded 'that there are not reasonable grounds to dismiss all the evidence as misinterpretation or hoax'."
While the specifics of bigfoot may be uniquely American, nearly every culture has had its own stories and legends regarding large, human-like creatures that live isolated from the main population. Suggested explanations include a subconscious collective memory of earlier primates that roamed the Earth, stories passed down from meetings between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, or a Jungian archetype of the wild, primitive men that existed in early human history. While the symbolism may be debated, the idea of sasquatch clearly captures the imagination of the populace as a whole, inviting some to believe that there are still elements of this Earth left to discover, and others an opportunity to test the legitimacy of scientific thought.
Bigfoot has made several appearances in pop culture over the years. Several horror films in the 1970s, such as The Legend of Boggy Creek, Creature from Black Lake, and The Capture of Bigfoot, all portrayed a violent and monstrous version of the creature. However, the most famous film representation of sasquatch was the 1980s hit Harry and the Hendersons, where a bigfoot is brought to live with a suburban family. The sasqautch in that film is presented as an intelligent, gentle giant that develops a strong bond with the family and portrays many human characteristics. In the 1990s, with a surge in interest revolving around the paranormal, several documentaries, conferences, and groups formed around the bigfoot phenomena.
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