The internet was buzzing yesterday with the long-anticipated1 release of a paper purporting to present DNA evidence that “conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendent of modern humans.”2 With DNA sourced, according to the paper, from among “One hundred eleven samples of blood, tissue, hair, and other types of specimens,” this is the most prominent Sasquatch DNA case to date.
Full expert review of the team’s data and methods should emerge in the coming days. In the meantime, science writers identified several serious red flags within hours of the paper’s release.
To begin with, it seems that the paper was roundly rejected by mainstream science journals. “We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review,” complained lead author Melba Ketchum.3 So how did the paper get published? Although Ketchum insists that this fact did not influence the editorial process, it seems she bought the publication.4 In fact, her paper is the only paper included in the inaugural “Special Issue” of the DeNovo Scientific Journal. Benjamin Radford notes that no libraries or universities subscribe to the newly minted DeNovo, “and the journal and its website apparently did not exist three weeks ago. There’s no indication that the study was peer-reviewed by other knowledgeable scientists to assure quality. It is not an existing, known, or respected journal in any sense of the word.”5 Invertebrate neuroethologist Zen Faulkes notes further that DeNovo lists no editor, no editorial board, no physical address—not even a phone number. “This whole thing looks completely dodgy,” he writes, “with the lack of any identifiable names being the one screaming warning to stay away from this journal. Far, far away.”6
Beyond these irregularities, there are also signs of serious problems with the paper’s data, methods, and conclusions. Ketchum et al found, for example, that all of the mitochondrial DNA recovered from their samples tested as “uniformly consistent with modern humans,” but argued despite this that anomalies in their nuclear DNA analyses “clearly support that these hominins exist as a novel species of primate. The data further suggests that they are human hybrids originating from human females.”7 This scenario, in which “Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species” (as publicized in a 2012 press release about the then-unpublished paper)8 is not especially plausible. As Steven Novella explained, “It is highly doubtful that the offspring of a creature that looks like bigfoot and a human would be fertile. They would almost certainly be as sterile as mules. Humans could not breed with our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, or any living ape.” Novella added, “The bottom line is this—human DNA plus some anomalies or unknowns does not equal an impossible human-ape hybrid. It equals human DNA plus some anomalies.”9 These problems are only multiplying now with the release of Ketchum’s paper and data. Ars Technica Science Editor John Timmer, experienced with genetic research, offers the preliminary opinion that “The best explanation here is contamination.”
As far as the nuclear genome is concerned, the results are a mess. Sometimes the tests picked up human DNA. Other times, they didn’t. Sometimes the tests failed entirely. The products of the DNA amplifications performed on the samples look about like what you’d expect when the reaction didn’t amplify the intended sequence. And electron micrographs of the DNA isolated from these samples show patches of double- and single-stranded DNA intermixed. This is what you might expect if two distantly related species had their DNA mixed—the protein-coding sequences would hybridize, and the intervening sections wouldn’t. All of this suggests…that the sasquatch hunters are working on a mix of human DNA intermingled with that of some other (or several other) mammals.10
The phylogeny in this #sasquatchgenome paper is incomprehensibly illegible & doesn’t seem to use any method I can recognize.
— carlzimmer (@carlzimmer) February 13, 2013
- Lead author Melba Ketchum’s DNA evidence claims have been bouncing around the mainstream press since at least 2011 (and even earlier in the cryptozoological corners of the blogosphere). See for example, Monisha Martins. “Sasquatch: Is it out there?” Maple Ridge News. August 16, 2011. http://www.mapleridgenews.com/news/127905518.html (Accessed February 14, 2013.)
- Ketchum, M. S., Wojtkiewicz, P. W., Watts, A. B., Spence, D. W., Holzenburg, A. K., Toler, D. G., Prychitko, T. M., Zhang, F., Bollinger, S., Shoulders, R., Smith, R. “Novel North American Hominins: Next Generation Sequencing of Three Whole Genomes and Associated Studies.” DeNovo Scientific Journal. Special Issue 2/13/13. pp. 1–15
- Sharon Hill. “Ketchum Bigfoot DNA paper released: Problems with questionable publication.” February 13, 2013. http://doubtfulnews.com/2013/02/ketchum-bigfoot-dna-paper-released-problems-with-questionable-publication/ (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- Craig Woolheater. “Ketchum Sasquatch DNA Study Update: Questions Answered…” Cryptomundo.com February 13, 2013 http://www.cryptomundo.com/bigfoot-report/ketchum-sasquatch-dna-study-update/ (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- Benjamin Radford. “Bigfoot DNA Discovered? Not So Fast.” LiveScience.com. February 14, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/27140-bigfoot-dna-study-questioned.html (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- Zen Faulkes. “Sasquatch DNA: new journal or vanity press?” Neurodojo.blogspot.ca. February 13, 2013. http://neurodojo.blogspot.ca/2013/02/sasquatch-dna-new-journal-or-vanity.html (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- Ketchum et al. (2013.) pp. 1, 11
- “Dr. Melba Ketchum’s Press Release About Bigfoot DNA.” November 24, 2012. http://beforeitsnews.com/paranormal/2012/11/dr-melba-ketchums-press-release-about-bigfoot-dna-2445438.html (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- Steven Novella. “Bigfoot DNA.” Skepticblog.org. November 26, 2012. http://www.skepticblog.org/2012/11/26/bigfoot-dna/ (Accessed February 14, 2013)
- John Timmer. “Bigfoot genome paper ‘conclusively proves’ that Sasquatch is real—And it only took founding a new journal to get the results published.” Ars Technica. February 13, 2013. http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/02/bigfoot-genome-paper-conclusively-proves-that-sasquatch-is-real/ (Accessed February 14, 2013)