Legend of the Hairy Man

Hey there every peoples!

I had meant to write this sooner, but the 2011 MLG finals were the first distraction. The winner and champion was Leenok (who’s Korean, go figure. But seriously, he beat some of the best players in the world, he earned it) with Naniwa coming in second. Plus i had get the house ready for thanksgiving and i even got a liver biopsy. On top of that, i have been trying to prep marine invertebrates i found up at Shell Creek Road, which hasn’t been easy ( the initial dirt is easy to get off, but once you get to the fossil, you have to contend with this hard sandstone that i can barely etch away with my little dental picks). But i managed to find this pocket of time between now and finals to write about an intriguing aspect of one of science’s more peculiar debates. I am talking about the debate over the existence of Bigfoot.

Now i’ll admit that i kinda follow cryptozoology as a bit of a side interest. While Darren Naish has shown that there can be legitimate, more grounded research into cryptids (unknown animals. He does this mainly by trying to find actual animals that could have been the inspiration for cryptids, like their hypothesis that Caddy was just a misidentified pipefish), scientists and believers alike are constantly butting heads over the validity of mystery creatures. Scientists mostly flat out reject the possibly that there are large, undiscovered animals that have managed to elude us. Now this rejection seems just when you consider the more outlandish cryptids out there (Mothman, claimed to be an alien; The Flatwoods Monster, another alleged alien who attacks with poison gas; The Loveland Frogman, a large, human shaped amphibian; and Mokele Mbembe, a surviving sauropod reputed to dwell in the deep recesses of the Congo). But what about some of these other beasts who appear to have a heftier set of evidence?

Bigfoot falls into the later category. While many would call it all bunk, Bigfoot appears to have a lot of evidence going for him. The multitude of tracks that have been found (including the Skookum cast, a possible body impression complete with possible ass print, as well as the “Cripple Foot” tracks, a set of over 1000 tracks that consistently suggested a sasquatch with a club foot), strange calls recorded in the night, possible dna evidence, and a handful of photographic and video documentation. None of this evidence has proved more contentious than the Patterson Footage. Believers, skeptics, and special effects artists have revisited the film countless times to either prove it’s real or that it’s just a shameless hoax. I will not weigh in as this is something above my intellectual pay grade. (i would like to note that in science eyewitness testimony is treated as the lowest form of evidence.  And yet when someone claims that they hoaxed the film, skeptics just take them at their word, without requiring any corroborating evidence. Just feels like a double standard to me.) I’m here to discuss another, harder to dismiss area of evidence: the archaeological record.

America’s fascination with Bigfoot began in 1958 when a bulldozer operator found strange footprints on his construction site in Bluff Creek, California. One Ray Wallace later claimed to have faked the tracks and skeptics claim that this proves Bigfoot is not real. But what about stuff that predates the Bigfoot craze? There are reports from the late 19th/ early 20th centuries (including one by Theodore Roosevelt, an avid outdoors-man ), but again, science disregards eyewitness testimony. So this is where the archaeological record comes in. If we found precolumbian art that depicts tall hairy humanoids, would that lend support to the existence of large, bipedal apes living in North America? Let’s find out.

The first artifact in our investigation is the “Hairy Man” pictographs (their Yokut name is Mayak datat, which translates as “hairy man”. They have another name for the creature: Shoonshoonootr, one of the few natives words to literally translate as “big foot”). This set of rock art in east central California seemingly depicts three of these hairy giants. They are believed by some to represent a male, female, and juvenile Bigfoot. It’s easy to see why: The male is drawn with a tall body with long arms attached to a broad chest. The female has short arms but is nonetheless tall. The baby is proportioned like the female with short arms and a tall body.

The "Hairy Man" Pictographs from California. The child is on the left, the female to it's right, and the male dominates the right side of the panel.

All three figures have fingers and toes and share a very similar body plan. These creatures even feature in the Yokut’s Creation Story; Kathy Moskowitz, an anthropologist who has documented Native American legends about hairy humanoids, notes that this is unique and that no other tribe has a bigfoot-like creature in it’s creation story. But the more important aspect of the “Hairy Man” is how old it is. Dating rock art can be tricky. Many scientists have dated the art and their estimates vary quite a bit. The current range of age is between 2000 and 700 years old. That means rock art can’t be modern graffiti (also because it shows obvious signs of weathering) and more importantly, they existed long before America’s image of Bigfoot came about.

Next items on the list: effigies. An effigy is basically any type of carving or sculpture that is made in the likeness of a human, an animal, or a supernatural force. First, let’s get a couple of those masks from the Pacific Northwest out of the way:

Possible Sasquatch mask from the Pacific Northwest

Possible Sasquatch mask from the Pacific Northwest

Possible Sasquatch mask from the Pacific Northwest

Those are the most commonly featured in discussions about Bigfoot. But there are a couple other examples that are equally intriguing. One is a set of seven stone heads discovered along the Columbia River in Oregon. The heads have features commonly seen in apes:

Ape-like effigy discovered along Oregon's Columbia River

How would Native Americans know what a primate’s face looks like, seeing as the nearest monkeys live thousands of miles away in Mesoamerica? It is certainly an intriguing aspect, but in my search for images of these stone heads, i also found this:

Supposed mountain sheep effigy

This effigy has primate like features, but the sign says it depicts a mountain sheep. I don’t know if this is from the set found in Oregon. If it isn’t then is it possible that the Columbia River effigies represent sheep as well? Unlikely, at least a bit. Some of the Columbia River effigies have sagittal crests. The sagittal crest is a ridge of bone that provides more area to attach heavy jaw muscles. This helps give predators a more powerful bite but does the same for herbivores. Whether carnivore or herbivore, though, the males in such species use that stronger bite in fights with other males. Sagittal crests are found in many different kinds of animals. They are not found in sheep but are well known in primates, especially the great apes.

And then there is this effigy, which i also found in a search for images of the Columbia River Effigies:

A possible Bigfoot effigy from New Paltz, New York

Possible Bigfoot effigy from New Paltz, New York

This came from over at Cryptomundo. The head was found in New Paltz, New York, in 1932. William Bayer dug up the unusual carving when i was 9 years old. He estimates it was at a depth of 4 feet when he found it and that no other artifacts accompanied it. This appears to most blatantly embody people’s reports of Bigfoot, right down to the tall sloping forehead.

However, one detail makes its authenticity suspect. As one of the commenters pointed out, the eyes don’t match the patina of the rest of the head. They look they were carved after the artifact gained it’s patina. Was this caused by carelessness during cleaning or was someone trying to make the eyes stand out more? We may never know. In archaeology, just like it is in paleontology, context is everything. Artifacts need collateral data about where they were found, how deep, if there were any other artifacts associated with it, any possible outside factors that could have affected burial deposition. Since the discoverer of the New York effigy didn’t keep a detailed written record, dating it will prove very difficult. Dating will be even harder considering that no other artifacts were found alongside it; archaeologists can use certain artifacts to date a site (in the Southwest, archaeologists have created a chronology based on pottery. The styles are so varied throughout time  that just one potsherd could date a site). Since this is the only possible Bigfoot effigy in the east, trying to date it based on style would prove difficult as well. Similar problems would also plague the Columbia River effigies (I don’t know if they were collected amateurishly or professionally).

Finally, there are Native American stories. Kathy Moskowitz has compiled a whole book detailing tales from across North America that all have one thing I common: they all describe tall, hairy, human-like creatures. They are described as giants, thieves, and eaters of humans. Even the Inuits of the far north have tales of such creatures. How is it that just about every culture in native America could have stories about the same creature? Could it be that this is just a manifestation of our specie’s ancestral memory, a relic from our primal past? I myself, at least, can’t say for sure. But the most interesting may be the story of the “Hairy Man” in the California pictograph (from “Mayak datat:
An Archaeological Viewpoint of the Hairy Man Pictographs” by Kathy Moskowitz, 2003) :

How People Were Made
All the birds and animals of the mountains went to Hocheu to make People. Eagle, chief of all the animals, asked each animal how they wanted People to be. Each animal took a turn and said what they had to say.

Fish said, “People should know how to swim, like me, so let them be able to hold their breath and swim very deep.”

Hummingbird said, “People should be fast, like me, so let them have good feet and endurance.”

Eagle said, “People should be wise, wiser than me, so People will help animals and take care of the Earth.”

Turtle said, “People should be able to protect themselves, like me, so lets give them courage and strength.”

Lizard said, “People should have fingers, like me, so that People can make baskets, bows and arrows.”

Owl said, “People should be good hunters, like me, so give them knowledge and cunning.”

Condor said, “People should be different from us, so give them hair, not feathers or fur to keep warm.”

Then Coyote said, “People should be just like me, because I am smart and tricky, so have them walk on all fours.”

Hairy Man, who had not said anything yet, shook his head and said, “No, People should walk on two legs, like me.”

All the other animals agreed with Hairy Man, and Coyote became very angry. He challenged Hairy Man to a race, and they agreed who ever won could decide how People should walk.

They gathered at the waterfall, below Hocheu, to begin the race. Coyote started and took a shortcut. Hairy Man was wiser than Coyote and knew that Coyote would cheat to win and People would have to walk on all fours, so Hairy Man stayed behind and helped Eagle, Condor, and the others to make People. They went back to the rock and drew People, on two legs, on the ground. The animals breathed on them, and People came out of the ground. Hairy Man was very pleased and went to People, but when they saw Hairy Man, they were scared and ran away. That made Hairy Man sad. When Coyote came back and saw what they had done, he was very angry and drew himself on the rock eating the moon (he is called Su! Su! Na). All the other animals drew their pictures on the rock as well, so People would remember them. Hairy Man was sad because People were afraid of him, so he drew himself sad. That is why Hairy Man’s picture is crying to this day. That is how people were made.

This creature is counted among animals when humans had not yet been created. Could the “Hairy Man” in fact be based on a real animal, a creature who looks like a hairy human? Of course, mythical animals need no basis in reality (though sometimes that is the case. Centaurs, half human half horse, are thought to have originated when a people encountered another people who rode on horseback, believing the horse and rider to be one creature (that’s certainly the impression the Aztecs had when they first saw Spanish cavalry). Also, it is thought that the myth of the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, was inspired by ancient discoveries of mammoth skulls). Just because real animals are featured doesn’t mean that this “Hairy Man” is something in our world as cultures the world over often gave everyday animals supernatural powers. But the similarities of these human-like creatures across the vastness of Native American culture certainly can’t be a coincidence. Whether they describe an upright primate or are the product of cultural exchange or racial memory will require more study.

I have heard an argument against the existence of Bigfoot based on the lack of a fossil record. I think it is a decent argument. Believers point to the existence of a giant ape in the fossil record as a possible ancestor of Bigfoot: Gigantopithecus. Gigantopithecus lived in southern Asia during the middle Pleistocene epoch, going extinct around 300,000 years ago. Jeff Meldrom, an anthropologist and probably the most legitimate of Bigfoot researchers, argues that because of its size Gingantopithecus would not have been able to knuckle walk like modern apes and would have only been able to walk upright. But seeing as all we have of Gigantopithecus is a few jaws and lots of teeth, we can’t really say what Gigantopithecus even looked like, let alone how it moved. That, combined with the fact that no fossils have been found younger than 300k years makes Gigantopithecus an unlikely ancestor of Bigfoot. Supporters have mentioned that the lack of a fossil record is no problem for Bigfoot. They claim that Bigfoot’s preferred habitats are mainly in mountainous habitats and high rainfall forests, not exactly ideal places for fossilization. But shouldn’t we have found some fragment by now? We have fossils of bighorn sheep and mountain goats, animals who lived in mountainous terrain. And we even have bones of humans from the late Pleistocene from places like Oregon, California, and Mexico. All these fossils are very scarce and fragmentary and yet we have found them. I think that if Bigfoot is real, we should have found some scrap of fossil bone by now.

So, do these tales and artworks from North America’s archaeological and anthropological record prove the existence of Bigfoot? It might, but it’s an argument on thin ice. Like I said, context is vital and in this day and age stuff is getting easier and easier to fake. And since mainstream researchers almost always brush off Bigfoot stuff as false and unscientific, legitimate study of these relics may never be undertaken. People continue to report seeing these large hairy apes to this day; tracks are still be uncovered; and opinions on the Patterson film shift about as much as stock prices. I for one am open to the existence of Bigfoot but am far from convinced. Like most other science minded folks out there, I would need to see a body, an actual Bigfoot corpse before I accept that Bigfoot is out there. I find the reports, tracks, calls, video, and the native artifacts all intriguing, but not concrete. Perhaps belief in Bigfoot persists because we long for there to still be some mystery in this world. We have filled in the blank regions of the map, named all the large beasts we have encountered, and taken up residence in most habitable (and even some inhabitable) environments. Maybe people believe in Bigfoot for the same reason people believe in religion: they want to believe that we don’t know everything and that there are aspects of our world we have yet to fully explain. It’s certainly possible in this age where science, technology, and society are evolving at an accelerating rate. Maybe Bigfoot represents the hope for one of the last big discoveries we can make on our planet. We may never know. But for now, the search to prove the existence of a large, bipedal ape in the backcountry of North America will go one.

Till next time!