Biological Identities of Bigfoot

Taken in October 1967 in California, this photograph shows what former rodeo rider Roger Patterson claimed is Bigfoot. Photograph by Bettmann via Corbis.  The Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, and their ilk are literally a load of bull—plus several other mammals, according to the first peer-reviewed scientific study of the shaggy, supposed humanoid creatures.

A team led by Bryan Sykes, a human geneticist at the University of Oxford, analyzed snippets of hair that people have claimed came from various rumored beings over the past 50 years. (Related: “The Science Behind Bigfoot and Other Monsters.”).

Sourced from museums and individual collections worldwide, the samples—29 out of the 30 that yielded DNA results, at any rate—revealed a curiously mixed heritage of common animals, from cattle to bears, for scientifically dubious creatures, which are known as cryptids.

For the study, Sykes and colleagues compared mitochondrial DNA—or DNA passed down by mothers—from hair specimens said to come from the likes of Bigfoot and Yeti—another name for the Abominable Snowman—to those in GenBank, an international database of gene sequences covering more than 300,000 organisms. Specifically, the team compared the DNA of the hair samples to the 12s RNA gene, which has been analyzed in all mammal species.

Of the supposed Bigfoot specimens from North America, three were from cattle. Other hairs belonged to sheep, raccoon, and porcupine. (See “Bigfoot Hoax: “Body” Is Rubber Suit.”) 

The sole study sample attributed to the ape-like Orang Pendek, meanwhile—a creature said to lurk on the Southeast Asian island of Sumatra—proved to be tapir, a large, pig-like tropical forest mammal.
Russian samples attributed to the fabled Almasty or Almas, a rumored crypto-hominid from central Asia, were actually horse hair in three cases, according to the study.

Oddly, one Almasty sample tested positive for American black bear, and another for raccoon. Neither species is native to Russia.

Sykes believes that in most cases the misattribution of such “finds” is quite innocent.

“What happens a lot of the time is that somebody has what you might call a ‘Bigfoot experience,’” he said. “They hear one howling, or throwing stones at them, or something like that. Then they see a clump of hair caught in a bush, and say ‘Aha, that’s come from the Bigfoot.’” 

The one sample that did test as human—an alleged lock of Bigfoot hair from Texas—was found to be common Homo sapiens in origin. (See “Bigfoot in Texas? Believers, Skeptics Sound Off at Institute.”)

Yetis Really a Prehistoric Bear?

The DNA analysis showed that a third of the cryptids hair specimens came from bears.

In two Yeti-labeled hairs from the Himalaya—one from India, the other, Bhutan—the team recovered DNA that was a 100 percent match to DNA extracted from the jaw fossil of a prehistoric polar bear that lived more than 40,000 years ago.

This seems to confirm claims made in a 2013 British TV documentary series, the Bigfoot Files, that the closest genetic match for two Himalaya hair specimens was a prehistoric polar bear. (Related: “Is the Abominable Snowman a Bear?“) 

This doesn’t support the idea that Yetis are real, but if if there was an aggressive polar bear relative running around in the Himalayas, it could help explain the existence of the Yeti legend.

At the time, two scientists contacted by National Geographic said they wanted to see the evidence of a mysterious polar bear or hybrid bear stalking the Himalaya supported by a paper in a peer-reviewed journal.

Now they have that paper, what do they think? Robert Rockwell, a biologist and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, remains unconvinced.

Rockwell confessed to being “a bit shocked and dismayed” to see that the prehistoric polar bear match was based on just 104 base pairs of mitochondrial DNA—a shortcoming that the study team itself admitted.

“The amount of DNA sequence examined is so small, especially for a conserved region [DNA that remains very similar across many different species], that I am not certain [the type of bear] can actually be concluded.” 

Charlotte Lindqvist, a molecular biologist at State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, echoed those reservations.

“Even if they find a 100 percent match to the Pleistocene polar bear, it is important to bear in mind that the evidence is based on a short fragment” of a gene seen in other lineages that’s not necessarily unique to that species, Lindqvist said in an email.

“I find other scenarios more plausible, such as the hairs coming from native brown bears,” she said. (See “Yeti” pictures on the National Geographic Channel.)

Study leader Sykes conceded that the finding is “only a preliminary result,” and that more genetic material is needed to rule out the Tibetan brown bear as the source of the Yeti legend. 

Still, he’s sticking with the unknown polar bear or “Yeti bear” theory, which holds that this bear is some unknown polar bear—or unknown polar bear/brown bear hybrid—that could also help to explain the Yeti legend due to its aggressive, unusual behavior and appearance.

“The only 100 percent match was with the ancient polar bear,” he said. “There were less close matches with brown bears, modern polar bears, and black bears.”

Sykes is involved with an upcoming Himalaya expedition that ought to solve the mystery one way or the other, he said.

Bigfootologist of the Year

Sykes said that forensic methods tested by his team now make it possible to extract DNA from often poorly preserved specimens up to 50 years old. 

“We developed a technique to completely clean off any [human-DNA] contamination that was on the surface,” he said.

“That’s why we used hair principally, because hair has a very resilient surface,” he continued. “You can use quite harsh chemical treatments to get rid of contamination, particularly human contamination.”

He believes his research methods offers hope to Bigfoot hunters and cryptozoologists who have faith in the existence of such beings.

“The good news for Bigfootologists and enthusiasts who are looking forward to proving and identifying what they’ve been after for years is that there is now a way of doing that, which there never was before.”

Indeed, Sykes, whose own interest in the topic was first inspired by the possibility that some remnant Neanderthal or ancient human population lay behind the Yeti legend, is being recognized for his efforts by crypto-hominid believers.

He was proud to report that he was recently awarded the title “Bigfootologist of the Year.”