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Bigfoot and Yeti DNA: results are in

by Donald Prothero, Jul 16 2014

For years now, we’ve been hearing about Bigfoot believer Melba Ketchum and her supposed results on “Bigfoot DNA”. As reported elsewhere, the results were a bust: the analysis was done incompetently, her reasoning was full of holes and bad science, and she failed to account for a lot of organisms in her sample (such as the American opossum) that explained her “unknowns” that she was calling “Bigfoot.” Not only that, but her paper failed peer review, so she self-published it in a journal she secretly owned, so she gets money every time someone forks up $40 to go past the paywall and read it. Most competent DNA labs are busy with real science, and don’t have the time or money to waste on side trips into pseudoscience, which their grants are not paying for.

Finally, however, a collaboration by a series of top-rate laboratories has taken the time to analyze a large sample of hairs and other tissues allegedly from Bigfoot and Yeti. Led by Dr. Bryan Sykes of Oxford, the team of five geneticists from England, France, USA, Switzerland, and Germany just published their results in the prestigious Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. They followed a much more rigorous procedure than did Ketchum. They used the most reliable method for this kind of analysis, mitochondrial 12S RNA sequencing, which is appropriate for samples which are so young and would have diverged relatively recently (such changes would be invisible to other genetic markers, such as nuclear DNA, which change more slowly). They then matched their results to GenBank to positively identify the RNA (something Ketchum should have done, or she would have caught the opossum in her sample that she called “unknown, therefore Bigfoot”). In short, this was the kind of competent, careful, thoughtful exhaustive study that SHOULD have been done the first time, rather than the slapdash work and special pleading that Ketchum did.

Surprise, surprise! When someone who knows what they’re doing with genetic analysis looks at “Bigfoot” and “Yeti” DNA, it turns out that they’re always something else. Table 1 of Sykes et al. (2014) lists all their samples, where they’re from, and what they were supposedly from. The “Yeti” samples from Nepal and Bhutan all turned out to be polar bear or serow. The Russian almasty samples are a mix of animals: brown bear, horse, cow, raccoon(?), and even an American black bear! The sample of the orang pendek from Sumatra is just a Malaysian tapir. And the almost two dozen samples of “Bigfoot” from Washington, Oregon, California, Minnesota, and even Arizona (!) give a complete menagerie of common American mammals: American black bear, canid (wolf/coyote/dog), cow, sheep, horse, mule deer, porcupine, raccoon, and even one human hair! As they point out, only one human hair in this many samples is actually a good sign, because it indicates how carefully they screened out contamination that only one such human hair got through. (By contrast, Ketchum had LOTS of human hairs in her sample, which she did not realize was a sign of her sloppy lab technique and contamination).

The most interesting results, in addition to debunking any notion of these samples coming from Bigfoot, Yeti, or any other cryptid, is the details of what the samples show. The two polar bear samples from the Himalayas  were apparently fossil hairs, not samples of living polar bears. And they had difficulty with some of the sample comparisons from this region, because there is a complicated subspecies relationship and a lot of hybridization between the variants of Asian bears (especially the Himalayan brown bear, the most likely explanation for the Yeti) and polar bears, so these samples indicate a more complicated problem of bear interrelationships than they had samples to address. This was not the focus of their study, anyway.

Despite this slam-dunk debunking of cryptid DNA, Sykes et al. (2014) were magnanimous about their results. As they write, “While it is important to bear in mind that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and this survey cannot refute the existence of anomalous primates, neither has it found any evidence in support. Rather than persisting in the view that they have been ‘rejected by science’, advocates in the cryptozoology community have more work to do in order to produce convincing evidence for anomalous primates and now have the means to do so. The techniques described here put an end to decades of ambiguity about species identification of anomalous primate samples and set a rigorous standard against which to judge any future claims.”

HEAR! HEAR! This is exactly what Daniel Loxton and I concluded in our new book, Abominable Science (and Sharon Hill says the same in her post on the topic). We can’t rule these things out completely yet, but the evidence they’ve produced so far is garbage. If the cryptozoologists want to be taken seriously, they need to step up their game and give science some hard evidence—or we will continue to reject their claims as not worth being taken seriously.

And how did the cryptozoology community respond to the results? One of their sites responding by mocking Sykes and calling him childish names! How mature! Cryptomundo had a weird post that completely misread the entire study as evidence in support of their claims. The buzz on the blogs favorable to Bigfoot is the same: grumbling, rejection, denial, or (mostly) no comment because (like all true believers) they don’t want to hear it. Not that I’m surprised. The Bigfooter community long ago stopped any pretense of working with scientists, or adopting the scientific method when it doesn’t give the results they want. Daniel Loxton and I found this out when Abominable Science was published. About the only negative reviews we got were from passionate Squatchers who didn’t read but part of the Bigfoot chapter, and quibbled about details. They didn’t even bother to read the introductory chapter (or any other part of the book), which sets out the criteria for a scientific study and the huge number of scientific problems with Bigfoot and any other cryptid.

For these people, Bigfoot is a religion. It’s their community, their worldview, the entire reason for existence in extreme cases. Such a deeply held belief system will never be budged by hard evidence, so matter how conclusive it is. And so the cycle just keeps on repeating: cryptozoologists doing “sham science”; scientists rejecting their work as incompetent; and cryptozoologists retreating to blaming scientists for “bias”, rather than stepping up their game and trying to do the job right.

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9 Responses to “Bigfoot and Yeti DNA: results are in”

  1. matt crowley says:

    Because of the study protocol, there is no public announcement of who submitted what specific samples. Thus there is no social penalty to be paid by Bigfooters who were wrong. It’s reasonable to infer that the samples chosen represented the “best of the best of the best” as they said in the movie Men in Black. Yet we can only conclude that the Alpha Bigfooters who collected the hairs could not identify them as the prosaic species they actually were.

    Our species survived partly by being successful hunters. Successful hunters correctly identify the trace evidence left by their target species. If Bigfoot is real, Bigfoot hunters are the most incompetent hunters in the history of our species.

    • tmac57 says:

      I guess they could always use the defense of:
      “Well,I’m a Yeti/Bigfoot expert! I never claimed to be an American black bear, canid (wolf/coyote/dog), cow, sheep, horse, mule deer, porcupine, raccoon,or human expert!”
      Of course mistakes are gonna happen.Don’t blame the ‘experts’. ;)

    • Jeff L says:

      The hunter comment seems a bit much. Our ancestors may have been good hunters, and some extant groups of humans may still be, but it takes a lot of experience and practice – it’s not an innate skill. Even avid outdoors enthusiasts who go hiking regularly aren’t usually practicing the types of skills it takes to successfully track critters. Just the fact that Bigfoot hunters can find hair samples puts them at a higher competency than most people in the modern Western world, even if they are incorrectly identifying them (and wasting their time searching for non-existent animals).

  2. madscientist says:

    I think Yeti and Bigfoot are things which we can rule out completely. Could there be some big hominid out there which we haven’t encountered yet? We can imagine so, but if one were discovered what would make use conclude that it is Yeti or Bigfoot? There are not even any coherent claims about these non-existent creatures. It’s the god problem all over again – people insist that gods exist, but even where people claim to know the same god they give different and even contradictory descriptions.

  3. Mr B says:

    Ah, the religion of bigfoot will never take common sense or criticism or *any* result that goes against what those people believe. That the Sykes study, as you write, was “a collaboration by a series of top-rate laboratories…the kind of competent, careful, thoughtful exhaustive study that SHOULD have been done the first time” made me think of what the late Geoffrey Crawley (former editor in chief of the magazine British Journal of Photography) said about the Cottingley Fairies. From his obit in the New York Times: “Mr. Crawley had been asked to determine the authenticity of the photos in the late 1970s. “My instant reaction was amusement that it could be thought that the photographs depicted actual beings,” he wrote in 2000. But he came to believe, as he wrote, that “the photographic world had a duty, for its own self-respect,” to clarify the record.” The scientific community, for its own self respect, has to take on this kind of study. Now they can move on to something else.

    But I laugh because the results will only fuel some conspiracy theory in the bigfoot community….

  4. Arrowstone says:

    This is really a question about your “Leakey’s Luck – …” article in 2012. I gather comments are curtailed after a short period of time. The following is stated there:

    The crucial test of this “fire ring” model occurred in 1985-1986, when Caltech undergraduate Janet Boley, working in my friend Joe Kirschvink’s lab at Caltech, did a decisive experiment. Out at Calico, they built a “control” bonfire which burned for seven hours. Then Janet drilled paleomagnetic sample cores of both the inner side of the control ring cobbles (which were heated enough to remagnetize the rocks in a new direction) and the outer side. The outer side of the fire ring cobbles were not heated as much, so the rocks retained their random magnetic directions. Then she took drill cores of the oriented “prehistoric fire ring” stones and measured them. Their magnetic directions were all randomly distributed, with no evidence they had ever been heated enough to remagnetize or have been part of a fire pit. Although she was cautious in her conclusions, it could not have been a more convincing test of the “fire ring” model—and it failed the test.

    I was just wondering what results she might have obtained, or perhaps what study(s) were used to verify the expected persistence of the magnetizing effect over periods of hundreds of thousands of years, and how uniformly these results were expected to apply to the various kinds of stones used to build fire pits/hearths. Did she perhaps test fire altered stones from that period found in Asia and/or Africa? Without such verification, her conclusions don’t seem very useful.

    John Wilson

    • The magnetization of rocks when they a have been heated persists for millions to tens of millions of years. We have plenty examples of rocks which were heated by 100 m.y. or older igneous dikes, and show the effect of heat remagnetization today. Thus, the test is a very strong one, and there is no reason to believe that the magnetization might diminish, especially in a desert environment with minimal weathering. The Kirschvink lab demagnetizes rocks in a stepwise fashion to detect the effects of weathering and other younger overprints, so we are only looking at the original magnetization when the process is done. It’s quite simple, really–if the stones were really heated, they MUST be remagnetized into the same magnetic direction; if their directions are random (as Boley’s results showed), they were never heated.
      And yes, the technique has been applied to other archeological sites around the world.

  5. Loren Petrich says:

    That’s good professional work.

    As for the serow, there is a fake yeti scalp that is actually some serow hide. Could one of the yeti samples have come from it?

    I find it curious that many of the samples are from rather un-bigfoot-like animals. While a bear can look very bigfoot-ish, it’s hard to imagine that about a deer or a horse or a cow or a sheep, let alone a dog or a raccoon or a porcupine.

    • Sykes et al. (2014) do not indicate who gave them the samples (many were kept secret), or how these “sources” obtained them. There are actually several fake Yeti fur patches in Tibet that are from serow, so the hair could have come from any of them. And yes, it seems odd that non-Bigfoot like animals turned up, until you realize that Bigfoot doesn’t exist and these people didn’t actually SEE a Bigfoot leaving the hair behind. Instead, they grab tufts of hair snagged on bark or branches and presume them to be from Bigfoot if someone has reported Bigfoot in the area.
      If you watched “$10 Million Bigfoot Challenge” on Spike TV (or read my reviews in earlier SkepticBlog posts), you quickly come to realize that “squatchers” are rank amateurs with NO understanding of basic field biology. They misidentify nearly EVERYTHING they see, hear, or smell as “Bigfoot”. They brought sample after sample to Dr. Todd Disotell for DNA analysis, and everything turned out to be normal forest creatures (including some of their own hair), and in some cases, they mistook MOSS for hair! There’s a good reason they and similar bumbling amateurs are the only ones who “SEE” Bigfoot. Trained wildlife biologists and field ecologists, who know what they’re doing, NEVER see or hear it, or mistake a known animal for it.