Bigfoot: Beyond Footprints and DNA

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Last week researchers from Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology announced that they are seeking genetic materials (hair, skin, blood samples, etc.) claimed to be of unknown animals such as Bigfoot. The goal of the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project is to catalog and identify new species, including those long believed to be mythical.

Despite the publicity that the new project is garnering, this is far from the first time that alleged Bigfoot samples have been subjected to scientific testing.

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In 2008, for example, the TV show "Destination Truth" recovered what was claimed to be a hair of a Yeti (formerly known as the Abominable Snowman). An analysis reportedly came back indicating that the sample contained "an unknown DNA sequence," though the full report was not made public and the results were never published in a journal — as would be expected with a legitimate scientific discovery.

Then there was the strange case of a finger long claimed to be from a Yeti, once held in a monastery in Nepal, which was examined by researchers at the Edinburgh Zoo last year. DNA testing solved the decades-old mystery and debunked the Yeti finger; it was actually human, probably from a monk.

For over a year, Bigfoot buffs have followed the saga of Dr. Melba Ketchum, a veterinarian who claims to have definitive evidence of Bigfoot DNA. Ketchum says that her research will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal any time now and has released virtually no information about her allegedly world-shaking findings, reminding those who question her that "until it is published, I cannot discuss our data at all."

Last week in a May 18 Facebook post, Ketchum once again promised that definitive Bigfoot DNA results would be published soon, and "that all is well and things are happening as expected."

'Unknown' and 'Unidentified'

The most compelling evidence for Bigfoot would be DNA analyses, since they are scientific and theoretically definitive. However answers are not always possible; "unknown" or "unidentified" results do not mean "Bigfoot."

There are many reasons why a given hair or DNA sample might come back unknown, including that it was contaminated or too degraded by environmental conditions. Or it could simply mean that the animal it came from was not among the reference samples that the laboratory used for comparison. We have no reference sample of Bigfoot DNA to compare it to, so by definition there cannot be a "conclusive match."

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In his book Big Footprints (Johnson Books, 1992), veteran researcher Grover Krantz discussed alleged Bigfoot hair, feces, skin scrapings and blood: "The usual fate of these items is that they either receive no scientific study, or else the documentation of that study is either lost or unobtainable. In most cases where competent analyses have been made, the material turned out to be bogus or else no determination could be made."

Indeed, 20 years later, the situation remains the same. When a definite conclusion has been reached through scientific analysis, the samples have invariably turned out to have prosaic sources — "Bigfoot hair" turns out to be elk, bear or cow hair, for example, or "Bigfoot blood" is revealed to be a car's transmission fluid.

Krantz gave one typical example: "A large amount of what looks like hair has been recovered from several places in the Blue Mountains since 1987. Samples of this were examined by many supposed experts ranging from the FBI to barbers. Most of these called it human; the Redkin Company found significant differences from human hair, but the Japan Hair Medical Science Lab declared it a synthetic fiber.

A scientist at [Washington State] University first called it synthetic, then looked more closely and decided it was real hair of an unknown type… However final confirmation came when E.B. Winn, a pharmaceutical businessman from Switzerland, had a sample tested in Europe. The fiber was positively identified as artificial and its exact composition was determined: it is a product known commercially as Dynel, which is often used as imitation hair."

The lesson? Even many of the world's top experts got it wrong; it was not human nor "unknown" but instead a synthetic fiber. Hair testing is far less of an exact science than genetics testing, and the fact that some alleged Bigfoot hairs remain “unidentified” is hardly surprising — and certainly not mysterious.

For decades Bigfoot research has been plagued by false promises of definitive, earthshaking proof of Bigfoot — most of it creates plenty of publicity and hype but no real results. Hopefully efforts by researchers like those with the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project and Melba Ketchum will be successful. However, they are only the latest in a long line of claimants — all of whom have failed so far. Can they back up their claims with solid scientific evidence, or will they join the ignominious legions of hoaxers and sincere-but-deluded researchers?

Time will tell.