The Wild, Hairy Men of Legends
Bigfoot is, perhaps, the most famous of a large menagerie of similar critters that are widely believed in but that have always evaded scientific inquiry. These man-beasts, known as cryptids, are studied in the pseudo-science field of cryptozoology.
The Earliest Recorded Cryptids
The Epic of Gilgamesh is a poem from the Sumerian civilization of about 3,800 years ago. A major character in the story is Enkidu, who is both an animal and a man. He falls for the wiles of the goddess Shamat who tames him with beer and sex, a potent combination that still works its wonders today.
There is the biblical account of Esau, described as being “red all over, like a hairy garment.”
In Greek mythology, there are hairy, drunken satyrs with lustful appetites. And, medieval European folklore is rich with stories of ape-like creatures.
The descriptions of these animals in legends lead some to believe they existed and may still exist.
Large, hairy, ape-like beings, often with menacing intent, turn up all over the world.
- Chuchuna is a basketball-player-sized hominid that is reported to live in Siberia. As with many cryptids worthy of the name, Chuchuna enjoys the reputation of being a human flesh eater. Within the cryptozoology community reference is made to a Professor Peter Dravet of Omsk University. In 1933, he is said to have become incensed when he heard stories of folk in Siberia hunting Chuchuna and he called on the Soviet Union to put a stop to the killing. The government in Moscow had other things on its mind such as engineering the Ukrainian famine that killed millions. A geologist named Vladimir Pushkarev went looking for Chuchuna in the 1970s and concluded the species had become extinct.
- Barmanou checks all the cryptid boxes: big, hairy, bidepal, and a penchant for seizing young women in order to mate with them. Shepherds in the mountainous north-western region of Pakistan reported frequent sightings and this encouraged the Spanish zoologist Jordi Magraner to go looking for him. He was on a search mission in August 2002 when his body was found, murdered by an unknown assailant. Of course, Barmanou became a suspect, but he’s kind of illusive.
- The Skunk Ape inhabits the Florida Everglades. He fits the common description of a cryptid and has the usual amazing ability to make camera lenses go all blurry. Dave Shealy is the self-confessed expert on the Skunk Ape; he saw his first one when he was ten years old in 1974. He told Smithsonian Magazine “I finally saw this damn thing, and it got away, just like that.” Cryptids do that. Here one second, gone the next. Now, Shealy operates the Official Skunkape Headquarters (admission $15). There is a gift shop.
Evidence of the Existence of Cryptids
Thousands of eyewitness reports, mysterious footprints, and out-of-focus photos and videos are put forward as evidence of the existence of man-beasts.
Mainstream scientists are not impressed by anecdotal accounts; “bring us a living cryptid, or even a dead one, and we’ll re-evaluate our skepticism,” they say. Cryptozoologists will respond by pointing out that there are examples of animals once thought to be fantasies that have been proven to exist.
For many centuries, rumours circulated in Europe about a hirsute hominid prowling around in the tropical jungles of Africa. The locals called it enge-ena and the sophisticated Europeans wrote it off as a product of the fervid imaginations of primitive people. Then, in 1847, an American missionary, Thomas Savage, came across the bones and skull of a previously unknown great ape. The mythical man-beast turned out to be the Western lowland gorilla.
Similarly, sailors spoke of a huge sea monster with many arms. Perhaps, the mariners had partaken too liberally of the rum ration, the doubters suggested. In 1853, a giant squid washed up on the coastline of Denmark and the skeptics had to do an about face.
Scientific American lists some other animals that have been resurrected from mythology to take their place as living creatures: “The giant panda in 1869, the okapi (a short-necked relative of the giraffe) in 1901, the Komodo dragon in 1912, the bonobo (or pygmy chimpanzee) in 1929, the megamouth shark in 1976, and the giant gecko in 1984. Cryptozoologists are especially proud of the catch in 1938 of a coelacanth, an archaic-looking species of fish that had been thought to have gone extinct in the Cretaceous.”
The folks at gaia.com say that if some species previously thought to be mythological have turned out to be real, why not others? After all, more than 15,000 new species are discovered every year.
The Faulty Logic of Cryptozoology
Mainstream scientists don’t disagree that there are many, many species yet to be found, but these are going to be plants, insects, and previously unknown dinosaurs or other extinct life forms. Don’t expect big hairy ape-like animals to turn up on talk shows.
There are huge numbers of motion-activated cameras set up in remote areas around the world aimed at capturing images of wildlife. Not one of them has ever picked up an image of a Bigfoot-style creature, nor has anyone ever dragged a carcass of one into a laboratory for examination.
There are only anecdotal accounts and, to scientists, these are not enough to prove the existence of Bigfoot and his cousins. Psychologist Frank J. Sulloway points out that “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten.”
Someone catching a fleeting glimpse of something moving in the forest can easily convince themselves they’ve seen a hairy ancestor long thought to be extinct.
If you need further proof that anecdotal evidence is notoriously unreliable, here’s the Innocence Project. The group that works to free the wrongly convicted in the United States says that 71 percent of prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence were handed a death sentence based mostly on faulty eyewitness identification; that’s more than 250 people.
It’s popular these days in certain quarters to say that science is bunkum. So far, it’s cryptozoology that is proving to be bunkum.
As the popular saying goes “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Are Bigfoot and his cousins real?
- The jackalope (a jackrabbit sporting antelope horns) was the humourous creation of Douglas Herrick in the 1930s. The animal has since found its way into American folklore and mounted jackalope heads can be seen in many bars, even by sober patrons.
- In 1958, Ray Wallace used a pair of over-sized, carved feet to create a trail through a logging camp in Northern California. It was a simple joke that took on a life of its own to become the legend of Bigfoot. In 1967, Bigfoot’s existence was enhanced when a short film clip of a large, hairy, ape-like animal in Northern California appeared. Was it Bigfoot or a man in a gorilla suit? The filmmakers have always sworn their movie was not a hoax. But, that doesn't rule out the possibility that they were pranked.
- “Rumor or Reality: The Creatures of Cryptozoology.” Ker Than, Livescience.com, December 21, 2010.
- “Cryptids Proven to be Real Give Us Hope for These 5 Others.” Gaia, February 7, 2020.
- “Why Sasquatch and Other Crypto-Beasts Haunt Our Imaginations.” Ed Simon, Aeon, October 25, 2016.
- “In Search of an Elusive Creature.” Dr. Raheal Ahmad Siddiqui, The News on Sunday, February 16, 2014.
- “Cryptozoology A To Z.” Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, Simon and Schuster, 2013.
- “On the Trail of Florida’s Bigfoot—the Skunk Ape.” Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian Magazine, March 6, 2014.
- “Do Mythic Creatures Exist? Show Me the Body.” Michael Shermer, Scientific American, August 4, 2008.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor