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The Flawed Guide to Bigfoot

Book Review

Ben Radford

Volume 24.1, January / February 2000

The Field Guide to Bigfoot is prefaced with a quote by George Bernard Shaw: “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” The implication, of course, is that scientists and others regard claims of the existence of Bigfoot as heresy, and that the truth will out. But, as Robert Park of the American Physical Society wrote recently (in a similar context), “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.”

The guide is an odd book indeed. Although purporting to be a field guide, it is really more of an illustrated catalogue of anecdotes of encounters with mysterious primates. The authors have created a classification system encompassing about fifty reports and sightings. They have grouped them into nine categories: Neo-Giant, True Giant, Marked Hominid, Neandertaloid, Erectus Hominid, Proto-Pygmy, Unknown Pongid, Giant Monkey, and Merbeing.

The entries are largely culled from previous books on cryptozoology, with few original sources cited. In nearly every entry, not enough details are given to judge the credibility of the account. Coleman and Huyghe make much of the fact that native peoples have various words for wildmen and other elusive, possibly mythical creatures. But just because a creature has a name does not imply that it actually exists: dragons, pixies, elves, and leprechauns can be described, drawn, and classified too.

Interestingly, the book's premise is at variance with longtime Bigfoot researcher Grover Krantz, who, as the authors admit on page 10, does not see “any compelling evidence for more than one type of hairy biped” and finds “no reason to think it has anywhere near a worldwide distribution.”

The creatures Coleman and Huyghe catalogue have between three and five toes, and fail to account for alleged Bigfoot prints that show two and six toes. They apparently ignored evidence that didn't fit their categories. Or perhaps they assumed all tracks showing two or six toes are hoaxes. If so, by what criterion? Why are three- or four-toed primate footprints any more credible than two- or six-toed ones?

Early in the book, the authors decry a “lumping problem,” that is, that myriad sightings are collected together under homogenous names such as “Bigfoot” or “Yeti.” This, they say, is a problem because it “hides a larger truth, lumps considerable differences, and just plain confuses the picture.”

There is indeed a lumping problem that confuses the picture, but that's not it. The problem is that the authors group eyewitness accounts, folklore, legend, footprint finds, and depictions in native art together as if all have equal weight and credibility. Sources for the field guide include an alarming number of third-hand sources, stories by young children, unnamed, long-dead eyewitnesses, and even the English poet who wrote Beowulf.

Yes, The Field Guide to Bigfoot includes Beowulf, a thousand-year-old poem, as a credible source for an account of an actual mystery primate that may be alive today. For those a little shaky on early English literature, the poem tells the story of the Danish king Beowulf who slew an ugly, hairy giant named Grendel. On your next trip to Denmark, be sure to take this guide so if you see Grendel you'll correctly identify it as a member of the True Giant class!

Even the infamous Minnesota Iceman, a fair exhibit shown in the late 1960s and claimed to be a frozen Bigfoot, appears in the book. It's touted as a real creature, despite strong evidence that it was simply a rubber creature designed by a top Disney model-maker. As Jon Beckjord, director of Project Bigfoot, wrote in the Summer 1982 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, “I'd like to point out that nobody who is involved in Sasquatch investigations has ever felt that this frozen dummy was a Bigfoot. . . .” That doesn't stop Coleman and Huyghe, who quote one cryptozoologist's bizarre theory that “it was a Neandertal killed in Vietnam during the war and smuggled into the United States in a 'body bag.'”

The best thing about the book is the illustrations by Harry Trumbore. He does an admirable job of coming up with slight variations on large, hairy bipeds. Accuracy doesn't seem to be a high priority; with one creature, the Tano Giant (p.98), the account clearly states the creature had no thumbs. That apparently didn't sit well with the authors, who note, “perhaps its thumb was simply small relative to the rest of its hand,” and depict the creature with thumbs anyway.

Along with the individual entries, maps depict the range of each class of creature. My personal favorite is the Merbeing ("water creature") map. According to it, these aquatic creatures roam no less than five deserts, including the Atacama (in Peru), the Mojave (U.S.), the Great Sandy (Australia), and the Sonoran (Mexico).

Over a dozen accounts claim that the creatures were killed. Yet no bones, skeletons, or preserved bodies exist today. This elicits visions of hunters saying to themselves, “Wow! We killed a wild, man-like creature! I've never seen anything like it before! Let's throw it away!”

It's clear that mystery mongering is at work here. In several places, the eyewitnesses themselves admit that it's possible they misidentified an ordinary animal, such as a bear, spider monkey, or baboon. But as long as there's a hint of doubt, Coleman and Huyghe are happy to claim it a mystery, treat it like a real animal, and lump it in with accounts from folklore and poems.

The authors have also written other entries in this peculiar field guide series, including guides to extraterrestrials, UFOs, and ghosts. I suspect the same lax scholarship evident here bedevils those as well.

The Field Guide to Bigfoot,Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide
By Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe
Avon Books, New York. 1999.
ISBN 0-380-80263-5
207 pp. Softcover, $12.50.

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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.