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Bigfoot at 50 Evaluating a Half-Century of Bigfoot Evidence

Article

Ben Radford

Volume 26.2, March / April 2002

The question of Bigfoot’s existence comes down to the claim that “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” The evidence suggests that there are enough sources of error that there does not have to be a hidden creature lurking amid the unsubstantiated cases.

Though sightings of the North American Bigfoot date back to the 1830s (Bord 1982), interest in Bigfoot grew rapidly during the second half of the twentieth century. This was spurred on by many magazine articles of the time, most seminally a December 1959 True magazine article describing the discovery of large, mysterious footprints the year before in Bluff Creek, California.

A half century later, the question of Bigfoot’s existence remains open. Bigfoot is still sought, the pursuit kept alive by a steady stream of sightings, occasional photos or footprint finds, and sporadic media coverage. But what evidence has been gathered over the course of fifty years? And what conclusions can we draw from that evidence?

Most Bigfoot investigators favor one theory of Bigfoot’s origin or existence and stake their reputations on it, sniping at others who don't share their views. Many times, what one investigator sees as clear evidence of Bigfoot another will dismiss out of hand. In July 2000, curious tracks were found on the Lower Hoh Indian Reservation in Washington state. Bigfoot tracker Cliff Crook claimed that the footprints were “for sure a Bigfoot,” though Jeffrey Meldrum, an associate professor of biological sciences at Idaho State University (and member of the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, BFRO) decided that there was not enough evidence to pursue the matter (Big Disagreement Afoot 2000). A set of tracks found in Oregon’s Blue Mountains have also been the source of controversy within the community. Grover Krantz maintains that they constitute among the best evidence for Bigfoot, yet longtime researcher Rene Dahinden claimed that “any village idiot can see [they] are fake, one hundred percent fake” (Dennett 1994).

And while many Bigfoot researchers stand by the famous 16 mm Patterson film (showing a large manlike creature crossing a clearing) as genuine (including Dahinden, who shared the film’s copyright), others including Crook join skeptics in calling it a hoax. In 1999, Crook found what he claims is evidence in the film of a bell-shaped fastener on the hip of the alleged Bigfoot, evidence that he suggests may be holding the ape costume in place (Dahinden claimed the object is matted feces) (Hubbell 1999).

Regardless of which theories researchers subscribe to, the question of Bigfoot’s existence comes down to evidence- and there is plenty of it. Indeed, there are reams of documents about Bigfoot-filing cabinets overflowing with thousands of sighting reports, analyses, and theories. Photographs have been taken of everything from the alleged creature to odd tracks left in snow to twisted branches. Collections exist of dozens or hundreds of footprint casts from all over North America. There is indeed no shortage of evidence.

The important criterion, however, is not the quantity of the evidence, but the quality of it. Lots of poor quality evidence does not add up to strong evidence, just as many cups of weak coffee cannot be combined into a strong cup of coffee.

Bigfoot evidence can be broken down into four general types: eyewitness sightings, footprints, recordings, and somatic samples (hair, blood, etc.). Some researchers (notably Loren Coleman 1999) also place substantial emphasis on folklore and indigenous legends. The theories and controversies within each category are too complex and detailed to go into here. I present merely a brief overview and short discussion of each; anyone interested in the details is encouraged to look further.

1. Eyewitness Accounts

Eyewitness accounts and anecdotes comprise the bulk of Bigfoot evidence. This sort of evidence is also the weakest. Lawyers, judges, and psychologists are well aware that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. As Ben Roesch, editor of The Cryptozoological Review, noted in an article in Fortean Times, “Cryptozoology is based largely on anecdotal evidence. . . . [W]hile physical phenomena can be tested and systematically evaluated by science, anecdotes cannot, as they are neither physical nor regulated in content or form. Because of this, anecdotes are not reproducible, and are thus untestable; since they cannot be tested, they are not falsifiable and are not part of the scientific process. . . . Also, reports usually take place in uncontrolled settings and are made by untrained, varied observers. People are generally poor eyewitnesses, and can mistake known animals for supposed cryptids [unknown animals] or poorly recall details of their sighting. . . . Simply put, eyewitness testimony is poor evidence” (Roesch 2001).

Bigfoot investigators acknowledge that lay eyewitnesses can be mistaken, but counter that expert testimony should be given much more weight. Consider Coleman’s (1999) passage reflecting on expert eyewitness testimony: “[E]ven those scientists who have seen the creatures with their own eyes have been reluctant to come to terms with their observations in a scientific manner.” As an example he gives the account of “mycologist Gary Samuels” and his brief sighting of a large primate in the forest of Guyana. The implication is that this exacting man of science accurately observed, recalled, and reported his experience. And he may have. But Samuels is a scientific expert on tiny fungi that grow on wood. His expertise is botany, not identifying large primates in poor conditions. Anyone, degreed or not, can be mistaken.

2. Footprints

Bigfoot tracks are the most recognizable evidence; of course, the animal’s very name came from the size of the footprints it leaves behind. Unlike sightings, they are physical evidence: something (known animal, Bigfoot, or man) left the tracks. The real question is what the tracks are evidence of. In many cases, the answer is clear: they are evidence of hoaxing.

Contrary to many Bigfoot enthusiasts’ claims, Bigfoot tracks are not particularly consistent and show a wide range of variation (Dennett 1996). Some tracks have toes that are aligned, others show splayed toes. Most alleged Bigfoot tracks have five toes, but some casts show creatures with two, three, four, or even six toes (see figure 1). Surely all these tracks can't come from the same unknown creature, or even species of creatures.

Not all prints found are footprints, though. In September 2000, a team of investigators from the Bigfoot Field Research Organization led an expedition near Mt. Adams in Washington state, finding the first Bigfoot “body print,” which-if authentic-is arguably the most significant find in the past two decades. The Bigfoot, according to the team, apparently made the impression when it laid on its side at the edge of a muddy bank and reached over to grab some bait. This of course raises the question as to why the animal would make such an odd approach to the food, instead of simply walking over to it and taking it. As the log of the expedition reads, “One explanation is immediately apparent-the animal did not want to leave tracks. . . .” (BFRO 2000). This explanation fails on its own logic: If the Bigfoot (or whatever it was) was so concerned about not leaving traces of its presence, why did it then leave a huge fifteen-square-foot imprint in the mud for the team to find? (1)

3. Recordings

Figure 2. A frame from the film shot by Roger Patterson in Bluff Creek, California in 1967. The subject is said to be a female Bigfoot.

Figure 2. A frame from the film shot by Roger Patterson in Bluff Creek, California in 1967. The subject is said to be a female Bigfoot.

The most famous recording of an alleged Bigfoot is the short 16 mm film taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. Shot in Bluff Creek, California, it shows a Bigfoot striding through a clearing (see figure 2). In many ways the veracity of the Patterson film is crucial, because the casts made from those tracks are as close to a gold standard as one finds in cryptozoology. Many in the Bigfoot community are adamant that the film is not-and, more important-cannot be a hoax. The question of whether the film is in fact a hoax or not is still open, but the claim that the film could not have been faked is demonstrably false.

Grover Krantz, for example, admits that the size of the creature in the film is well within human limits, but argues that the chest width is impossibly large to be human. “I can confidently state that no man of that stature is built that broadly,” he claims (Krantz 1992, 118). This assertion was examined by two anthropologists, David Daegling and Daniel Schmitt (1999), who cite anthropometric literature showing the “impossibly wide” chest is in fact within normal human variation. They also disprove claims that the Patterson creature walks in a manner impossible for a person to duplicate.

The film is suspect for a number of reasons. First, Patterson told people he was going out with the express purpose of capturing a Bigfoot on camera. In the intervening thirty-five years (and despite dramatic advances in technology and wide distribution of handheld camcorders), thousands of people have gone in search of Bigfoot and come back empty-handed (or with little but fuzzy photos). Second, a known Bigfoot track hoaxer claimed to have told Patterson exactly where to go to see the Bigfoot on that day (Dennett 1996). Third, Patterson made quite a profit from the film, including publicity for a book he had written on the subject and an organization he had started.

Figure 3. Bigfoot allegedly photographed on July 11, 1995 by forest patrol officer at Wild Creek in Mount Ranier foothills, WA State.

Figure 3. Bigfoot allegedly photographed on July 11, 1995 by forest patrol officer at Wild Creek in Mount Ranier foothills, WA State.

In his book Bigfoot, John Napier, an anatomist and anthropologist who served as the Smithsonian Institution’s director of primate biology, devotes several pages to close analysis of the Patterson film (pp. 89-96; 215-220). He finds many problems with the film, including that the walk and size is consistent with a man’s; the center of gravity seen in the subject is essentially that of a human; and the step length is inconsistent with the tracks allegedly taken from the site. Don Grieve, an anatomist specializing in human gait, came to the conclusion that the walk was essentially human in type and could be made by a modern man. Napier writes that “there is little doubt that the scientific evidence taken collectively points to a hoax of some kind.”

Other films and photos of creatures supposed to be Bigfoot have appeared, perhaps best-known among them the Wild Creek photos allegedly purchased by Cliff Crook of Bigfoot Central from an anonymous park ranger (see figure 3).

Bigfoot Voices

One of the more interesting bits of “evidence” offered for the existence of Bigfoot is sound recordings of vocalizations. One company, Sierra Sounds, markets a CD called “The Bigfoot Recordings: The Edge of Discovery.” Narrated by Jonathan Frakes (an actor who also narrated a special on the infamous “Alien Autopsy” hoax), the recording claims to have captured vocalizations among a Bigfoot family. The sounds are a series of guttural grunts, howls, and growls.

The Web site and liner notes offer testimonials by “expert” Nancy Logan. Logan, their “linguist,” apparently has little or no actual training (or degree) in linguistics. Her self-described credentials include playing the flute, speaking several languages, and having “a Russian friend [who] thinks I'm Russian.” Logan confidently asserts that the tapes are not faked, and that the vocal range is too broad to be made by a human. She suggests that the Bigfoot language shows signs of complexity, possibly including profanities: “On one spot of the tape, an airplane goes by and they seem to get very excited and not very happy about it. Maybe those are Sasquatch swear words.”

Here’s what Krantz writes about Bigfoot recordings: “One... tape was analyzed by some university sound specialists who determined that a human voice could not have made them; they required a much longer vocal tract. A sasquatch investigator later asked one of these experts if a human could imitate the sound characteristics by simply cupping his hands around his mouth. The answer was yes” (Krantz 1992, 134). As for other such recordings, Krantz has “listened to at least ten such tapes and find[s] no compelling reason to believe that any of them are what the recorders claimed them to be” (133).

4. Somatic Samples

Hair and blood samples have been recovered from alleged Bigfoot encounters. As with all the other evidence, the results are remarkable for their inconclusiveness. When a definite conclusion has been reached, the samples have invariably turned out to have prosaic sources-"Bigfoot hair” turns out to be elk, bear, or cow hair, for example, or suspected “Bigfoot blood” is revealed to be transmission fluid. Even advances in genetic technology have proven fruitless. Contrary to popular belief, DNA cannot be derived from hair samples alone; the root (or some blood) must be available.

In his book Big Footprints, Grover Krantz (1992) discusses evidence for Bigfoot other than footprints, including hair, feces, skin scrapings, and blood: “The usual fate of these items is that they either receive no scientific study, or else the documentation of that study is either lost or unobtainable. In most cases where competent analyses have been made, the material turned out to be bogus or else no determination could be made” (125). He continues, “A large amount of what looks like hair has been recovered from several places in the Blue Mountains since 1987. Samples of this were examined by many supposed experts ranging from the FBI to barbers. Most of these called it human, the Redkin Company found significant differences from human hair, but the Japan Hair Medical Science Lab declared it a synthetic fiber. A scientist at [Washington State] University first called it synthetic, then looked more closely and decided it was real hair of an unknown type. . . . Final confirmation came when E.B. Winn, a pharmaceutical businessman from Switzerland, had a sample tested in Europe. The fiber was positively identified as artificial and its exact composition was determined: it is a prod- uct known commercially as Dynel, which is often used as imitation hair.” In his analysis, Winn (1991) noted that another alleged Bigfoot sign found at the site, tree splintering, had also been faked.

Hoaxes, the Gold Standard, and the Problem of Experts

Such hoaxes have permanently and irreparably contaminated Bigfoot research. Skeptics have long pointed this out, and many Bigfoot researchers freely admit that their field is rife with fraud. This highlights a basic problem underlying all Bigfoot research: the lack of a standard measure. For example, we know what a bear track looks like; if we find a track that we suspect was left by a bear, we can compare it to one we know was left by a bear. But there are no undisputed Bigfoot specimens by which to compare new evidence. New Bigfoot tracks that don't look like older samples are generally not taken as proof that one (or both) sets are fakes, but instead that the new tracks are simply from a different Bigfoot, or from a different species or family. This unscientific lack of falsifiability plagues other areas of Bigfoot research as well.

Bigfoot print hoaxing is a time-honored cottage industry. Dozens of people have admitted making Bigfoot prints. One man, Rant Mullens, revealed in 1982 that he and friends had carved giant Bigfoot tracks and used them to fake footprints as far back as 1930 (Dennett 1996). In modern times it is easier to get Bigfoot tracks. With the advent of the World Wide Web and online auctions, anyone in the world can buy a cast of an alleged Bigfoot print and presumably make tracks that would very closely match tracks accepted by some as authentic.

What we have, then, are new tracks, hairs, and other evidence being compared to known hoaxed tracks, hairs, etc. as well as possibly hoaxed tracks, hairs, etc. With sparse hard evidence to go on and no good standard by which to judge new evidence, it is little wonder that the field is in disarray and has trouble proving its theories. In one case, Krantz claimed as one of the gold standards of Bigfoot tracks a print that “passed all my criteria, published and private, that distinguishes sasquatch tracks from human tracks and from fakes” (Krantz 1992). He further agreed that it had all the signs of a living foot, and that no human foot could have made the imprint. Michael R. Dennett, investigating for the Skeptical Inquirer, tracked down the anonymous construction worker who supplied the Bigfoot print. The man admitted faking the tracks himself to see if Krantz could really detect a fake (Dennett 1994).

Krantz certainly isn't alone in his mistaken identifications. One of the biggest names in cryptozoology, Ivan Sanderson, was badly fooled by tracks he confidently proclaimed would be impossible to fake. In 1948 (and for a decade afterward), giant three-toed footprints were found along the beach in Clearwater, Florida. Sanderson, described as a man who “was extremely knowledgeable on many subjects, and had done more fieldwork than most zoologists do today” (Greenwell 1988), spent two weeks at the site of the tracks investigating, analyzing the tracks, and consulting other experts. He concluded that the tracks were made by a fifteen-foot-tall penguin.

In 1988, prankster Tony Signorini admitted he and a friend had made the tracks with a pair of cast iron feet attached to high-top black sneakers. J. Richard Greenwell, discussing the case in The ISC Newsletter (Winter 1988), summed the case up this way: “The lesson to be learned within cryptozoology is, of course, fundamental. Despite careful, detailed analyses by zoologists and engineers, which provided detailed and sophisticated mechanical and anatomical conclusions supporting the hypothesis of a real animal, we now see that, not only was the entire episode a hoax, but that it was perpetrated by relatively amateur, good-natured pranksters, not knowledgeable experts attempting, through their expertise, to fool zoological authorities.”

The experts, however are only partly to blame for their repeated and premature proclamations of the authenticity of Bigfoot evidence. After all, other areas of science are not fraught with such deception and hoaxing; in physics and biology, light waves and protozoa aren't trying to trick their observers.

Even when there is no intentional hoaxing, “experts” have been fooled. In March 1986, Anthony Wooldridge, an experienced hiker in the Himalayas, saw what he thought was a Yeti (Himalayan Bigfoot) standing in the snow near a ridge about 500 feet away. He described the figure as having a head that was “large and squarish,” and the body “seemed to be covered with dark hair.” It didn't move or make noise, but Wooldridge saw odd tracks in the snow that seemed to lead toward the figure. He took two photos of the creature, which were later analyzed and shown to be genuine and undoctored. Many in the Bigfoot community seized upon the Wooldridge photos as clear evidence of a Yeti, including John Napier. Many suggested that because of his hiking experience it was unlikely Wooldridge made a mistake. The next year researchers returned to the spot and found that Wooldridge had simply seen a rock outcropping that looked vertical from his position. Wooldridge admitted his misidentification (Wooldridge 1987).

Smoke and Fire

Bigfoot researchers readily admit that many sightings are misidentifications of normal animals, while others are downright hoaxes. Diane Stocking, a curator for the BFRO, concedes that about 70 percent of sightings turn out to be hoaxes or mistakes (Jasper 2000); Loren Coleman puts the figure even higher, at at least 80 percent (Klosterman 1999). The remaining sightings, that small portion of reports that can't be explained away, intrigue researchers and keep the pursuit active. The issue is then essentially turned into the claim that “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

But is that really true? Does the dictum genuinely hold that, given the mountains of claims and evidence, there must be some validity to the claims? I propose not; the evidence suggests that there are enough sources of error (bad data, flawed methodological assumptions, mistaken identifications, poor memory recall, hoaxing, etc.) that there does not have to be (nor is likely to be) a hidden creature lurking amid the unsubstantiated cases.

The claim also has several inherent assumptions, including the notion that the unsolved claims (or sightings) are qualitatively different from the solved ones. But paranormal research and cryptozoology are littered with cases that were deemed irrefutable evidence of the paranormal, only to fall apart upon further investigation or hoaxer confessions. There will always be cases in which there simply is not enough evidence to prove something one way or the other. To use an analogy borrowed from investigator Joe Nickell, just because a small percentage of homicides remain unsolved doesn't mean that we invoke a “homicide gremlin"-appearing out of thin air to take victims’ lives-to explain the unsolved crimes. It is not that such cases are unexplainable using known science, just that not enough (naturalistic) information is available to make a final determination.

A lack of information (or negative evidence) cannot be used as positive evidence for a claim. To do so is to engage in the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance: We don't know what left the tracks or what the witnesses saw, therefore it must have been Bigfoot. Many Bigfoot sightings report “something big, dark, and hairy.” But Bigfoot is not the only (alleged) creature that matches that vague description.

The Future for Bigfoot

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the argument for the existence of Bigfoot is that no bones or bodies have been discovered. This is really the 800-pound Bigfoot on the researchers’ backs, and no matter how they explain away the lack of other types of evidence, the simple fact remains that, unlike nearly every other serious “scientific” pursuit, they can't point to a live or dead sample of what they're studying. If the Bigfoot creatures across the United States are really out there, then each passing day should be one day closer to their discovery. The story we're being asked to believe is that thousands of giant, hairy, mysterious creatures are constantly eluding capture and discovery and have for a century or more. At some point, a Bigfoot’s luck must run out: one out of the thousands must wander onto a freeway and get killed by a car, or get shot by a hunter, or die of natural causes and be discovered by a hiker. Each passing week and month and year and decade that go by without definite proof of the existence of Bigfoot make its existence less and less likely.

On the other hand, if Bigfoot is instead a self-perpetuating phenomenon with no genuine creature at its core, the stories, sightings, and legends will likely continue unabated for centuries. In this case the believers will have all the evidence they need to keep searching-some of it provided by hoaxers, others perhaps by honest mistakes, all liberally basted with wishful thinking. Either way it’s a fascinating topic. If Bigfoot exist, then the mystery will be solved; if they don't exist, the mystery will endure. So far it has endured for at least half a century.

Notes

  1. The way in which the track was discovered raises questions as well. The expedition log gives an account of how “[Team member Richard] Noll notices an unusual impression in the transition mud at the edge of the wallow and suddenly figures out what caused it. [Team members] Fish and Randles note the shock on Noll’s face and come over to have another look at what he’s examining. The three observe and note the various parts of the impression, and the chunks of chewed apple core nearby. The base camp is alerted. Everyone comes to see the impression. All conclude the animal was laying on its side at the edge of the mud, reaching out over the soft mud to grab the fruit” (BFRO 2000). So what you have is a case where a group of people are looking for evidence of a Bigfoot. One observer believes he sees a pattern fitting what he’s looking for in ambiguous stimuli (shapes in mud). Once the pattern is pointed out to others, they also agree that the pattern could match up to parts of a hominid form in a particular contortion. The rest of the group, who might never have decided on their own that the pattern fits a Bigfoot, then validate the initial observer’s (possibly unwarranted) conclusion. This happens all the time, for example when a person recognizes a face or an image in clouds or stains or tortillas. As psychologists know, observers’ expectations frequently color their interpretations.

References

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.