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.