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Media Article # 53
Sunday, January 14, 2001
Legend of Bigfoot put to test
By Theo Stein
The Denver Post
All things considered, 2000 was a rather big year for Bigfoot researchers.
In April, two fly-fishermen reported huge, humanlike footprints 7 miles apart along the banks of Colorado's Eagle River. Bill Heicher, a wildlife biologist at the Colorado Division of Wildlife, evaluated the evidence and drew two conclusions: The tracks weren't faked, and they weren't made by a bear. Says Heicher: "It's no animal that we know of."
In August, two hikers forced by a storm to camp in high wilderness north of Crested Butte emerged with quite a tale. They said they had been shadowed for two nights by at least one Bigfoot that peered into their camp and approached their tent.
On Sept. 22, a team of researchers found a huge body imprint in a mud wallow in the Cascade Range of western Washington state. Several researchers, including a physical anthropologist at Idaho State University who examined a plaster cast of the Cascades imprint, said the impression - of a hairy forearm, thigh, buttock and heel - was not made by any creature known to science.
Of course, claims of encounters with an elusive, hairy giant have been the stuff of legend for more than a century.
Could such a creature exist?
An eclectic assortment of scientists and academics is testing the proposition that Bigfoot isn't a myth but an ice age survivor that has managed to persist just outside the vision of Western science. Drawing on each other's disciplines, these researchers are sharing information and applying sophisticated forensic techniques as never before.
Many experts want conclusive evidence
Still, their work is greeted with skepticism - if not outright hostility. For most biologists and anthropologists, no evidence short of a carcass or bones will suffice. "Most people in my field would need the beyond-the-shadow-of-adoubt kind" of proof, said Walter Hartwig, an anthropology professor who is editing a book on primate fossils for Cambridge University Press and who studies extinct South American monkeys. "They want to see the body. I'm confident enough that it's not going to happen. We're not naming new mammals in North America, and that's because we've exterminated most of them."
Michael Shermer, publisher of the magazine Skeptic, is even harsher. "If you believe in Bigfoot, you most likely believe in the Loch Ness monster, the lost continent of Atlantis, whatever."
Despite such views, a few investigators are expanding their efforts in the wake of new discoveries, using scent, sound and food baits, thermal imagers and remote camera stations to gather more convincing evidence. Last year, they received support from an unexpected source: a Texas police fingerprint expert who has worked on more than 300 cases for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency. He says he has no doubt that at least some alleged Bigfoot footprints were left by a large primate unknown to science.
"Being a crime-scene examiner, I have to be very careful about getting the facts right," said Jimmy Chilcutt, a Conroe, Texas, police forensics investigator. "But I knew after examining the prints that there's a real animal out there. The skin pattern is unique and consistent with itself. There's no doubt in my mind."
One of the few academic Bigfoot researchers is physical anthropologist Jeff Meldrum, an Idaho State University professor who has examined hundreds of claimed footprints from Bigfoot, also called Sasquatch in the Northwest. Many he has rejected as hoaxes, others as misidentifications. But more than 100, he said, represent the trace of an unknown animal with a big, flat foot and five toes.
Meldrum's lab in Pocatello is crammed with typical academic paraphernalia. Posters of evolutionary trees festoon the walls, rubber models of ape feet and hands sit in a cabinet. Bulging bookshelves, charts and cabinets sit full of papers relating to his main area of study - how our stiff, stub-toed running foot evolved from the flexible, grasping ape foot of our distant ancestors.
Long study convinces researcher of possibilities
Rather than simply an enlarged human foot, Meldrum said, the Sasquatch foot displays a unique combination of recognizably different anatomic features to solve the problem of two-footed locomotion. The result is a proportionally wider, flatter appendage with long, flexible toes and a spring-loaded, ape-like hinge in place of our stiff arch.
"This animal's little toe is about the same length as my little finger," he said, holding his hand up against the side of one of his casts. "This toe probably has the same grasping ability as my finger, too."
So far, Meldrum's theories have failed to gain even a toehold of acceptance with the anthropological establishment, which regards talk of Bigfoot as heresy. A reporter's question about Bigfoot so upset one prominent academic that he sputtered into a rage and quickly ended the conversation. Others politely decline interview requests.
But a few of Meldrum's peers admire his work and his pluck. Forensic anthropologist George W. Gill, a professor at the University of Wyoming, studied the Bigfoot phenomenon in the 1970s. A former director of the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists, Gill said the argument is simple: Either the most sophisticated hoax in the history of anthropology has gone undiscovered for centuries, or the big ape exists.
Another is Hartwig, who vouches for Meldrum's "rigorous" methods even as he questions his conclusions.
"Jeff has executed the model approach," said Hartwig, who is editing a book on human evolution to which Meldrum is contributing a chapter. "He's weeded out what he believes might be hoaxes or misidentifications. And for the ones he can't exclude, he's devised a theory for what those footprints represent. In a sense, it's beautiful and well-controlled, inductive science. You may think it's far out, but methodologically speaking, he has toed the line very strictly. And he's bold enough not to allow any outside pressure to direct his science."
What Meldrum and other researchers, professional and amateur, suggest is bold by any standard. They believe a few thousand of these powerful and intelligent creatures live widely dispersed in mountainous forest from the Pacif ic Coast to the Colorado Rockies and beyond. They believe the big apes are opportunistic omnivores, eating roots and berries when available, preying on deer and elk whenever possible. And they think Bigfoot are curious apes, often sneaking into the camps of people who have intruded in their territory, even stealing camp food when they can. So where's the body? Bigfoot advocates say the main reason no one's found a body is that a dead animal decomposes quickly and completely. The carcass of a rare animal with no known predators would be almost impossible to find. By way of example, Colorado Division of Wildlife bear biologist Tom Beck says he's never found the remains of a bear that died a natural death.
Most anthropologists argue no Bigfoot corpse has ever been found because the animal doesn't exist.
Convincing his peers to look at his collection of more than 100 footprints, knuckle prints and other trace evidence has been "without question the biggest obstacle," Meldrum said. "If someone takes the time to visit the lab, they are almost uniformly overwhelmed by the amount of data. Usually, they have no concept of the amount of evidence that's been collected."
Gill, the Wyoming professor, chides his colleagues for not taking a close look at research like Meldrum's. "Even if there's only a remote chance this animal is alive today, to think that anthropology is basically blowing off this stuff is disheartening."
Ron Westrum, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan State University, has studied how scientists have historically grappled with anomalies, or observations that are "contrary to law." "Scientists who make these observations learn to shut up because other scientists will punish them," said Westrum. "These are really taboo topics in science, which is a reputational business. Your reputation is your career."
For those reasons, Westrum thinks Meldrum's footprint research, the alleged Sasquatch body imprint and any other evidence will continue to be ignored.
"Scientists don't see this as a problem," he said. "As far as they're concerned, the evidence has never been recorded." Said Meldrum: "But the bottom line is, these casts are taking up drawer space. These are points of datum. You can't simply sweep them under the rug. Well, you can, but you end up with a pretty lumpy rug."
In addition to Meldrum's footprint research, Henner Fahrenbach, a primate researcher at a private lab in Oregon, has identified a dozen hair samples, collected from four Western states, that he believes came from an unknown primate. Fahrenbach identified a fragment of similar hair that was plucked from the so-called Skookum Cast, a cast of the body imprint found in September.
Others have recorded incredibly loud, bellowing vocalizations from an undescribed animal, calls which when broadcast at night near reported Bigfoot sightings have produced identical replies.
And then there are sighting reports - literally thousands of them - made by foresters, biologists and geologists, as well as campers, hikers and motorists. All tell of a remarkably large, hairy ape that covers rough ground with a strange, fluid motion not unlike a cross-country skier. What's significant, said Meldrum, is that the evidence attributed to Sasquatch is consistent with what people report.
"The long and short of it is, there's a beautiful orchestration between what I'm seeing in my footprint analysis and all of the anecdotal reports of its gait: the forward lean, deeply bent knees," he said. "It's all a strategy for supporting a heavier, bulkier biped. And it's a very elegant adaptation, I think, in the context of its very broken and rugged habitat." Film most famous anecdotal evidence
In 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, two Bigfoot enthusiasts, filmed what Meldrum and others believe is a female Sasquatch, complete with hairy breasts, striding away across a loamy streambed on Bluff Creek in Northern California. While some have since claimed that the film is a hoax, longtime Hollywood special-effects creator Bill Munns said it would have been impossible in 1967 to fake a creature suit like the one depicted in the film. "With today's technology, yes, you could fake a fur suit like that," said Munns, who did just that when he built a life-size model of the giant fossil ape Gigantopithecus blacki - a possible evolutionary link to Sasquatch - for University of Iowa anthropologist Russell Ciochon. "But in the 1960s, short, dense stretch fur was nonexistent." Meldrum thinks that, at a minimum, fossils of Gigantopithecus show that evolution could have produced a Sasquatch-size ape that lived in temperate forests. "It's tempting to draw the line between the two, but so little is known about either," Meldrum said.
If Giganto still exists, then it has been a successful line. Fossils of the creature were discovered in cave sediments dated to a million years. The last fossils date to 300,000 to 400,000 years ago, a time when Homo erectus still populated Asia.
Ciochon, who has studied Gigantopithecus sites, rejects the link between Gigantopithecus and Sasquatch. He believes Gigantopithecus was a slow, sedentary knuckle-walker like the gorilla, not a wide-ranging omnivore like the bear. Ciochon believes Giganto went extinct because of climate change, bamboo die-offs, and perhaps human hunting. Ciochon declined to be interviewed for this story.
For Meldrum, the PattersonGimlin film is doubly significant because several frames provide the only existing images of his study object, the creature's foot. A plaster cast of tracks left by the creature shows an apelike, midfoot hinge that he says is a defining characteristic of the Sasquatch foot.
Lyle Laverty, until recently the top Forest Service official in the Rocky Mountain region, started his career as a timber manager in northern California during the late 1950s and 1960s. He investigated the Patterson-Gimlin sighting the day after the film was shot and photographed several footprints left by the animal. Laverty says the film site was so close to a logging road that he still worries the film might somehow have been faked.
Laverty But Laverty refused to rule out the possibility that Bigfoot exists. Starting in 1958, his logging crews reported finding hundreds of gigantic footprints around their new logging sites. Whatever left the prints was powerful enough to tumble logging equipment and toss 450-pound drums of gasoline, he says.
"You never want to count it out," said Laverty, who was recently tapped to head the Forest Service's national fire plan, with its $1.2 billion annual budget. "Some of these crews really felt something was up there. And anything that can pick up a 55-gallon drum of fuel is a big dude."
Meldrum's skepticism vanished in 1996 when he investigated a freshly laid line of alleged Bigfoot tracks in Washington's Blue Mountains. After analyzing the tracks, he determined the animal that left them had proceeded out of a remote drainage along a soupy farm road, then turned and sprinted for the woods, as if it were fleeing something or someone, Meldrum said.
"In order for someone to have faked that, they would have had to walk out of that drainage carrying three or four different sets of feet, which they changed intermittently in mid-stride without any obvious breaks," he said. "It just becomes ludicrous to suggest that."
Last year, Meldrum received unexpected support from Chilcutt, the fingerprint and forensics expert who's also one of the world's few authorities on primate skin patterns, or dermatoglyphics. When Chilcutt saw Meldrum on television talking about apparent skin impressions on some plaster casts of alleged Sasquatch footprints, he offered to examine them, expecting to find Meldrum's claims were inaccurate.
Chilcutt developed an expertise in primate skin patterns as an offshoot of his ongoing study of the human fingerprint. His archive of more than 1,000 ape-skin impressions - prints he collected from tranquilized orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas - is the largest such collection in the world.
When Chilcutt visited Meldrum's lab, it seemed his hunch would turn out to be accurate. He quickly determined that the ridges he found in the first track Meldrum gave him were from a human finger.
But when he examined the rest of Meldrum's collection, Chilcutt found two casts with coarse ridge patterns similar to each other but different from humans or known great apes. One cast of a footprint discovered in Washington's Blue Mountains in 1985 astonished him with the distinctive puckered scars of several healed wounds.
"When primate skin heals, the ridges curl inward toward the wound," he said. "Someone would have to know a real lot about biology and dermatoglyphics to know that. Anybody that smart wouldn't be messing with fakes."
While Chilcutt allows that any single track could be a hoax, he said the skin impressions he has identified in the Blue Mountains track were consistent with those found in a Bluff Creek track from 1967. "We're talking about 18 years and 700 or 800 miles apart," he said. After he spoke about his finding on National Public Radio, a sheriff's deputy sent in a cast of a track he'd found in Georgia in 1977. Same pattern.
In mid-November, Chilcutt examined skin impressions from alleged heel impressions from the body imprint discovered in Washington. He said they match the other four examples he's identified.
Unlike other Bigfoot researchers who are often the object of professional scorn, no one has stepped forward to contradict Chilcutt.
"I'm so well entrenched, my reputation as a latent fingerprint examiner is secure," he said.
"So I don't have that problem. Knowing my background and expertise, they accept my findings." Chilcutt said he's encouraged Meldrum to continue his research.
"I tell Jeff, "There's no question this animal is out there, so don't give up,'- " Chilcutt said.
"I want him to not give up on this. He's on to something."
Copyright 2001 The Denver Post. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Theo Stein is the Denver Post Environment Writer.
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