In March of 1999, a man reported a strange occurrence in northern California. He was driving up Interstate 5 to visit friends in Oregon, and around 10:00 p.m., he took an exit off the highway to see if he could find a place to get some dinner. When he couldn't find a restaurant, he decided to pull onto the side of the road and make do with some snacks he had in the car. After he ate, he dozed off, and was soon awakened by a loud thump. When he got out to investigate, he found a good-sized rock on the hood of his car. He got back behind the wheel, started the car up and turned on the headlights. In the beams, he saw an 8-foot-tall creature covered in thick, dark hair. The creature watched him for a minute, turned in the road and walked slowly off into the woods.
Artist's rendition of what a bigfoot might look like, based on descriptions from eyewitnesses
People have been telling stories like this one for hundreds of years -- this creature was part of Native American folklore long before Europeans arrived on the continent. In the past 50 years alone, there have been thousands of reported bigfoot sightings in the United States and Canada, and many people claim to have seen a similar creature in the Himalayas. But in all this time, with all of these alleged encounters, nobody has unearthed bones or other conclusive proof of the giant primate. This has led many zoologists to dismiss the stories as hoaxes, hallucinations and misidentifications.
In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll examine the reports of bigfoot, also known as sasquatch, and its Asian cousin the yeti, to find out what these creatures might be and where they might come from. We'll also look at the compelling evidence for and against their existence and find out why so many people believe in them.
Anatomy of the Sasquatch
People describe bigfoots, yetis and similar creatures as large primates, something like a cross between a gorilla and a human. Tales of these animals go back hundreds of years in many different cultures. In various Native American tribes, they were called "windego," "yeahoh," "omah," "rugaru" and "boqs." In Asia, the yeti, or abominable snowman, is said to inhabit the snowy Himalayan mountains. For simplicity's sake, in this article we'll call this sort of creature by its most famous name, sasquatch. This name, derived from se'sxac, literally "wild men" in the Native American Salish language, is specifically used to describe a creature found in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and in southern Canada.
According to numerous accounts of sasquatches and yetis, the creatures tower over humans and apes. Typically, they are said to be 9 to 11 feet (around 3 m) tall.
Reported sightings of these sorts of creatures vary a good deal, but there are several details that pop up over and over again. In most cases, the eyewitnesses describe a very tall primate (ranging from 7 to 15 ft / 2 to 4.5 m) that walks on two legs. It stands upright like a human being but has a unique, loping gait. The creature is generally covered in long, reddish-brown fur and has a face that is a cross between a gorilla and a human being. Many eyewitnesses report a strong, unpleasant odor, but others say that the creature has no smell.
In some accounts, the animal makes strange grunting, gurgling or howling noises. Many believers say they have never seen the creature, but have heard bizarre noises in the woods that were nothing like the sounds made by any known animal. Believers have even recorded these noises in the northwestern United States and the Himalayan mountains. In the Himalayas, many more people report hearing the creature than seeing it.
According to some eyewitnesses, sasquatches are wary of human beings but highly curious about our activities. Many eyewitnesses report that they were not at all afraid of the creature, which is surprising when you imagine the spectacle of a 10-foot ape. These people say they were sure that the sasquatch meant them no harm, that it was a shy, benign animal. In the folklore of many Native American tribes, as well as the indigenous people of the Himalayas, the animal is said to be a peaceful, supernatural creature with intelligence and spiritual powers.
In many reports of sasquatches, the eyewitnesses say the creature observed them from a distance. Others heard noises and had the strange sensation that they were being watched. Most eyewitnesses say they don't have a clear impression of the creature's intelligence, but a few folks say they've seen multiple sasquatches communicating with each other. Most stories, however, describe a single sasquatch traveling through the woods alone.
These characteristics, which show up again and again in eyewitness reports, give us a basic idea of sasquatch physiology and behavior. Using this data, theorists have developed several ideas about where the creature might have come from. In the next section, we'll look at the most likely explanation of what this animal is if it does exist.
An Ancient Ape
In the last section, we saw that sasquatch is generally described as a very large, hair-covered, ape-like creature that walks upright on two legs. It supposedly shows up in the United States, Canada and the Himalayas, and is wary of human beings. There have been numerous reported sightings, and sasquatch researchers have found hair, footprints and body prints, but there is still no conclusive evidence that such a creature exists.
When considering the sasquatch scientifically, the first question is whether or not such a creature could exist, given what we know about zoology. This is an easy one, because fossil evidence shows that such a creature did exist, 1 to 9 million years ago. This animal, which scientists call gigantopithecus, was native to what is now central and southeast Asia. On the evolutionary tree, gigantopithecus is most closely related to the orangutan, the only modern Asian ape (gorillas and chimpanzees live in Africa).
The gigantopithecus, a possible ancestor of the sasquatch, is most closely related to the modern orangutan.
The most likely explanation of both yeti and sasquatch (if they do exist) is that they are direct descendents of gigantopithecus. There is no evidence of primates evolving in the Americas, so presumably, descendents of gigantopithecus got here the way many humans did: by crossing an ice bridge between northern Asia and northern North America.
We don't know much about gigantopithecus, except that it was larger than a gorilla and had teeth similar to a human's. It is compelling that the closest living relative of gigantopithecus, the orangutan, shares some of the characteristics that eyewitnesses attribute to sasquatch. Orangutans are covered in long, reddish-brown hair, are highly intelligent and exhibit a great deal of curiosity about human behavior. They are not particularly vocal, but will on occasion make loud, howling calls to alert other orangutans of their presence.
Photo courtesy Sumatran Orangutan Society
If sasquatch does exist, it is likely a close relative of the orangutan. With their long, reddish-brown hair, orangutans are similar in appearance to the sasquatches described by most eyewitnesses. They also live a solitary lifestyle, which matches the reported behavior of sasquatches.
Orangutans are remarkably different from other primates in how they live. While most apes and monkeys form tight-knit communities, orangutans are solitary creatures. After childhood, they gather with other orangutans only to reproduce. Orangutans are so widely dispersed in an area that they only rarely run across one another.
This sort of behavior might account for the rarity of sasquatch sightings, as well as the lack of skeletal remains. It makes sense that an intelligent animal that prefers to be alone would retreat into the deep woods (or up into the mountains) as human civilization encroached on its territory. And if it were smart enough, it could conceivably hide from humans for hundreds and hundreds of years. If the population were widely dispersed, as with orangutans, and the animal had a fairly long life span, as do orangutans and other apes, skeletal remains would show up only once in a while. Most bones decay in a relatively short period of time (as few as 5 to 10 years), so it is possible that scientists wouldn't come across them at all. Believers in sasquatch suggest that it is not only possible, but quite likely that the bones would go undiscovered, since there has never been a full-blown, scientific search for them.
The gigantopithecus-descendant theory is the most likely explanation of where sasquatches might come from. But to skeptics all over the world, there is a much more likely explanation: They say the sasquatch phenomenon is a product of hoaxes, misidentifications and basic human nature. In the next section, we'll look at some of the arguments for and against this hypothesis.
Monkey Suits and Fake Feet
In the last section, we saw that many believers propose that the sasquatch is a giant primate, descended from the prehistoric gigantopithecus. Skeptics recognize that such a creature could exist, but hold that it is highly unlikely the creature could have lived close to inhabited areas for hundreds of years without anyone gathering conclusive evidence. The more likely explanation, according to the debunkers, is that several independent hoaxers have built up a collection of false evidence that has duped a very large number of people.
One of the most common types of sasquatch evidence is casts of giant footprints. Skeptics point out that this evidence is fairly simple to fake.
Skeptics believe that the famous "bigfoot prints," as well as the well-known sasquatch photos and home movies, are only evidence of pranksters who have a lot of time on their hands.
To make "bigfoot" prints, a prankster would just mold two large feet out of plaster, attach them to the bottom of his shoes and walk with a very long stride (possibly leaping with each step). The size and shape of supposed sasquatch footprints do vary considerably, which may indicate a number of unrelated pranksters. Sasquatch sounds could also be faked fairly easily, critics say, possibly using a computer program that alters sounds from an animal or human so the noise sounds completely alien.
As for photographic evidence (which is relatively rare), skeptics suggest that the documented sasquatches are actually people dressed in ape suits. Sasquatch-believers recognize that many photos and films are hoaxes, but they say that a few of them would be very hard to fake. The most famous piece of sasquatch evidence, the 1967 film shot by Roger Patterson in Bluff Creek, CA, is at the heart of this debate. Several Hollywood insiders, including "An American Werewolf in London" director John Landis, have claimed that the film shows a man dressed in an ape suit. According to Landis, the suit was designed by John Chambers, the special-effects master who created the costumes for the original "Planet of the Apes" movies. Chambers denies any involvement, but the rumor persists.
Sasquatch believers say there are several details in the footage that indicate the creature is not a person. The main evidence is that the figure in the film keeps its knees bent while it is walking (see this site for pictures from the film). When humans walk, they lock their knees with each step, holding their legs straight. Believers also point out that the figure's skin and fur has a rippling motion, like a living creature's moving flesh, and that the surface of a costume would not move this way. Skeptics counter that the rippling-skin effect can be achieved by attaching a "water-bag" under the suit. According to this article, several Hollywood effects artists say the figure is obviously a guy in an ape suit with a water-bag fastened to his stomach.
But what about all the reported sightings? Believers make the point that people from all age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels say they've seen the creatures, indicating that the sightings are not an isolated phenomenon limited to a few pranksters and kooks. Skeptics counter that while these people aren't necessarily lying about what they've seen, they may be mistaken. A bear in the wild will stand up on its hind legs, possibly giving the impression of a tall primate. Impressions are highly subjective, skeptics note, and may be skewed when a person has heard a bunch of stories about a strange creature in the woods.
If you're trying to fake photographic evidence of a sasquatch, it's not worth it to go to all the trouble of designing an ape suit. Some of the most remarkable fake sasquatch pictures are actually photos of small models, about the size of an action figure. Hoaxers carefully mold these figures, replicating eyewitness descriptions, and then place them in a natural setting. When photographed from the right angle, a small patch of ground can look a lot like a large clearing in a forest.
Many people want to believe in such an animal, for a number of reasons. It's a compelling idea that we could have completely overlooked such an enormous, remarkable creature all this time. Humans have always been obsessed with exploration: We yearn to uncover new things about the world. These days, many people have the feeling that there is nothing left to explore, that science and global expansion have uncovered most of the planet's secrets. The notion of the sasquatch (or other phenomena, such as the Loch Ness monster) is exciting because it restores some mystery to the world and gives ordinary people the chance to be adventurous explorers. In actuality, there is still a good deal of the planet that is unexplored (namely, the oceans). Scientists estimate that there are thousands of plants and animals left to discover under the sea, as well as in the tropical rainforests, but this is not common knowledge.
People are particularly interested in an undiscovered "ape-man" for the same reason they are fascinated by humanoid extraterrestrials. We are drawn to the idea of human-like creatures, with human-like intelligence, because it means that we are not alone in the universe. Some people believe these beings might be able to enlighten us about our own history. You can see this desire in the ancient folklore surrounding sasquatch and yeti. In these traditions, the creature has wisdom beyond our own and could provide us with spiritual guidance.
Whether the sasquatch is a real animal or only a product of hoaxes and imagination, its effect on human beings is the same. Simply put, it's a lot of fun to think that this creature exists. If somebody does finally prove the existence of sasquatches, the legend surrounding them will die out, replaced by scientific analysis. But if the creatures remain a mystery, there will always be believers -- it is nearly impossible to disprove something to everybody's satisfaction, and many people aren't interested in this sort of debunking evidence anyway. In the end, people will believe in sasquatches simply because it is exciting to do so.
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