Monday, October 11, 2010

BIG shoes to fill!

China has apparently decided to take mythological beasts seriously.  They have launched a search for the mythical Himalayan Yeti, often known as BigFoot in the US because the Wild West mountains have also been rumoured to be inhabited by the same, or at least some, large ape-like non-human primate. 
Chinese researchers have been searching since the 1970s. There have been more than 400 reported sightings of the half-man, half-ape in the Shennongjia area. In the past, explorers have found inconclusive evidence that researchers claimed to be proof of Bigfoot's existence, including hair, footprints, excrement and a sleeping nest, Xinhua reported.
Is there no storytelling that we simply will not believe?

This particular quest has a long (and checkered) history.  There are legitimate Asian (though not North American) fossils of very large hominid primates called Dryopithecines.  There are apparently ancient Chinese manuscripts with references to, and we vaguely remember hearing that they included drawings of, large apes.  There was at least one lunatic anthropologist named Grover Krantz, who had tenure and drew salary in an otherwise legitimate  university (Washington State) who spent years tracking 'Big Foot'.  Geneticists in Anthropology departments get reports of Big Foot sightings -- and requests to do DNA testing -- from the public all the time.

There's a book called The Long Walk, about some WWII prisoners of the Soviet Union who escaped and through many trials managed to cross all the way, over the Gobi Desert, to India.  The book is the personal recounting of the adventure by one of the survivors.  At one point, in a matter of fact way, the author describes how crossing mountains, they came upon several large, reddish apes of some sort--on the ground, not in trees.  The escape party waited til they felt safe before crossing the little valley, skirting these creatures.  The validity of this story has been attacked, but there can be various reasons for that.

Now, all of the supposed physical evidence is as bogus as a $3 bill.  But at what point do we say that there might be some truth worth searching for?  Many cryptozoologists put 2 and 2 together and get 5, which is at best what's going on here.  If there really were such a creature (alive today, that is), the odds are vast that we would have found bones or carcasses, or have pictures from someone who stumbled across them.  Too many people crawl over the earth for this not to be the case--certainly in North America where there are no wilds too wild not to have been explored or settled.

But one thing that keeps these searches going is that there are many species being discovered in various parts of the world, some of them unexpected.  But these are either the many small critturs, like insects and the like, that teem the jungles, or they are deep sea species that are hard to get at.  Nothing so spectacular as a huge man-like ape.  It's always possible, of course, that there are remote refugia.   But such mythical beasts necessarily must be claimed to be in such places, because that's the only way they could have escaped discovery.  Even Loch Ness, though not remote, has its deeps.

At least, the Chinese aren't going to spend US taxpayers' money on this wild-ape chase.  Well, at least not directly--since a lot of the money in China got there because Americans wanted their cheap junk, maybe we're paying for that wasted research, too.


Brian Regal said...

I personally have not seen any convincing evidence that Bigfoot or the Yeti or any of their kin exist. Having said that, calling Grover Krantz a 'lunatic anthropologist' is not only unprofessional, degrading and inappropriate, it is also false. Krantz was only doing what any scientist worthy of the name is supposed to do: investigate the unknown. He certainly was not deranged. There have been a number of learned persons throughout the ages who have been labeled lunatics for their work. A short list would include Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin, Watson and Crick, as well as a host of others. Krantz paid for his work out of his own pocket and never received any taxpayer grant money. I’d rather have my taxpayer money go to fund explorations of the universe, despite failing to prove a monster exists, than to fund immoral foreign wars, for example. That would be lunatic.

occamseraser said...

Grover was on the fringe to be sure, and his mounted skeleton (along with the skeleton of his dog) is now on display at the Smithsonian, per his wishes.

He's also the guy who strapped on "brow ridges" to assess their efficacy as sun visors and hair guides in beetle-browed extinct hominins. Lunatic is perhaps a tad harsh, but not too far off when he chose to immerse himself in BF cryptozoology nonsense.

Trust me, he was no Einstein ;)

Ken Weiss said...

I'm sorry Brian Regal objects to our characterization. It's one thing to be eccentric (and many prominent people are), and the brow-ridge story is in the eccentric department. But it's another to go too far off the deep end, especially if one is a professor that students' parents are paying tuition for him to teach their kids.

The list of very famous people who drifted away from serious science is indeed long (I would not include Darwin or Einstein, however). Perhaps it's a risk of extreme genius. But it should't get anyone off the hook of criticism.

We did not suggest that foreign wars were more sane than Grover Krantz' work. That's a non sequitur. And our post suggested the more plausible reasons for thinking that Yet might be real (if not Big Foot). Still, it seems unlikely that Yeti could exist and not have been noted (esp. if The Long Walk's critics are right, that the story was invented).

James Goetz said...

I suppose that I'm soft hearted enough to say that all supposed big foot hair should have the right for a DNA test to verify that the hair didn't come from a primate.

occamseraser said...

already done...
"Molecular cryptozoology meets the Sasquatch"
D Coltman, C Davis - Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2006

care to hazard a guess what they found?

Anne Buchanan said...

Let's see -- I'd say toss-up between cow, wolf and human...

James Goetz said...

They found evidence of bipedal bison.:) Anyway, my point is that testing all alleged hair samples would help to quiet cryptozoologists. Publishing many negative tests could catch some attention.

occamseraser said...


another DNA tongue-in-cheek phylogenetic analysis in a real journal:

not cow nor bison this time, but horse ;)

"Molecular phylogenetic analyses indicate extensive morphological convergence between the ‘‘yeti’’ and primates"
Milinkovitch M. C., Caccone A. & G. Amato.
Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31: 1–3 (2004)