Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide, A Second Point of View

By Alton Higgins

Perhaps we should have taken a clue from the use of our favorite perpetually persecuted sasquatch (of Jack Link’s Beef Jerky fame) to publicize Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide, shown 2 February 2011 on the History cable channel. Despite the involvement of a distinguished cast of scientists, the only “definitive” thing about this latest foray into squatchploitation was that it shouldn’t be taken much more seriously than a humorous jerky commercial.

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Well, perhaps that is a wee bit harsh, but when my wife, who is generally apathetic concerning bigfooty things, sat there groaning and arguing at the television, I figured the producers had probably missed the mark with more folks than this sometimes jaded enthusiast.

The first impression that struck me in watching the program was a sense of déjà vu. Was the MonsterQuest marathon from earlier in the day still running? The tone, pacing, music, structure, use of reenactments, etc., really echoed MonsterQuest’s campy formulaic style.

Unfortunately, Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide needed content more than it needed style.

It’s not that the program was bereft of information. In the fashion of the MonsterQuest series it so resembled, the producers managed to squeeze thirty minutes worth of content into two hours. Unfortunately, little of the information was new, and the original opinions proffered by the distinguished scientists were weak, if not laughable.

The panel of scientists included geochronologist Jack Rink, who has studied Gigantopithecus fossils; Anna Nekaris, bringing extensive field research studying nocturnal primates to the table; taxonomist and fossil primate expert William Sellars; Ian Redmond, a tropical field biologist who spent years studying mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey; and Jeff Meldrum, an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology with expertise in the foot morphology and locomotion of monkeys, apes and hominids. The supporting cast included field biologist John Mionczynski and U.S. Forest Service anthropologist Kathy Strain.

There were some things about Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide that I enjoyed. Beautiful mountain vistas graced the program throughout, and I thought the dozen plus sighting reenactments were done well. Near the beginning of the program I was pleased to hear the narrator affirm, “Something is out there, but what?” It was also refreshing to see a few new faces from the scientific community willing to grant the sasquatch phenomenon and the question of unknown hominids some time and open-minded deliberation.

Unfortunately, and predictably, not all the discussion appeared to be carefully considered. For example, cursory reviews and perfunctory dismissals characterized the team’s “analysis” of the records of bipedal primates in Florida and “the Patterson film” (as they called it) from 1967. If a child had suggested that Florida witnesses were probably confusing escaped pet orangutans or chimpanzees for large bipedal primates, one might smile in amusement at the suggestion, but the zany idea is supposed to be taken seriously if it’s offered by a group of scientists. I suppose it applies equally to reported sightings in Texas and throughout the South.

In like manner, the documentary’s Patterson/Gimlin film treatment was unconscionably superficial. In response to Meldrum’s measured comments regarding the subject filmed by Patterson and Gimlin, Sellars shoots back with, “It shrieks at me ‘man in suit.’ I mean, it really does!” Rather than include a discussion regarding the merits of the argument that a homemade cowhide suit could demonstrate the features exhibited in the film, the program’s editors chose to add subjective and irrelevant criticism from a Mike McLeod, said to be a journalist.

Permit me a brief detour. Science should be about evaluating data and examining evidence. I hope Professor Sellars (and others who share his opinion) will someday reconsider his peremptory pronouncements and pursue some puzzling problems pertaining to the Patterson/Gimlin film. That’s what science boils down to: asking simple questions. To get him and others who share his critical perspective started, I propose a straightforward query. Can you find a gorilla costume from the 1960s (I’ll even throw in the decades from the 70s to the present) that clearly shows a gluteal cleft and the attachment of the trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles to the spine? These features are plainly visible in gorillas, and they clearly show in the creature filmed by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin. End of detour.

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Another investigative technique that Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide barely touched was the use of detection dogs. I have spoken with Meldrum and Mionczynski about this novel avenue of research, and I feel that their insight and experiences could have made for some captivating television.

One of the issues upon which the panel seemed divided concerned the matter of witness testimony. Anna Nekaris, for example, expressed on a couple of occasions her confidence in such accounts. “I believe very much in what local people say,” Nekaris stated, “and if local people tell me something is there, I have a suspicion it may be, even if I haven’t seen it.” I got the impression, however, that the panel as a whole found tales coming from the inhabitants of third-world regions regarding man-beasts of various sorts more compelling than similar accounts originating from countries like, say, the USA or Canada.

Through a presumably rigorous report-winnowing and habitat analysis process, the panel deduced the existence of several global “hotspots” of activity that could have some basis in reality. This is all well and good, but it’s surely misleading to casual viewers who may not realize that these areas have long been identified and associated with large bipedal primates. I did think the panel made some reasonable deductions in proposing that the yeti, mande burung, and yeren all represent the same species, the likely descendents of Gigantopithecus.

From my perspective, I don’t think the program, which had enough problems as it was, should have included, however briefly, the “Myakka Ape” photos, photos that, as I see it, are problematic. In a 2004 article, based on my conference presentations in 2003, I laid out a number of reasons why I believed those photos should be discounted. The fact that Jeff Meldrum, the member of the science team most relied upon for information pertaining to North America, wrote in 2004 that “quite explicit evidence” has shown the Myakka story to be a hoax makes their inclusion confusing.

The program did do an adequate job summarizing recent fossil discoveries and establishing the fact that for millions of years many species of large primates shared the same landscapes. If Homo sapiens is Earth’s only remaining bipedal primate, that is the exception to the pattern of the past, as noted by Meldrum. Regarding the presence of such a bipedal primate in North America, which was the main focus of the program, the panel addressed three possibilities: giant ape, ancient human, and modern human.

While sitting firmly in the ape camp myself, I did find the ancient human theory interesting, though not very convincing. Homo heidelbergensis was a large and muscular hominin. This species used tools, hunted, and exhibited other forms of social behavior. As Meldrum pointed out, if the North American sasquatch is the descendent of H. heidelbergensis, it is odd that the species would forego the advantages of cultural development to pursue an even more primitive lifestyle.

I was surprised by the program’s inclusion of a related topic regarding an “ancient human” basis for the sasquatch phenomenon, that of hybrids. Many of us, I suppose, have heard these stories of unfortunate women, sex-crazed wildmen, and their doomed offspring. This appears to be a widespread mythos among native North American cultures, even extending to Central America, and it has proven to be a popular subject for dime novels and low-budget movies for many years. However, in the absence of any corroborative evidence, I don’t think speculations based on such legends or beliefs warrant consideration in empirical, as opposed to social, science discussions.

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Perhaps the silliest idea of all those presented was Jack Rink’s. (I wonder if he’s considered starting a jerky business with a Gigantopithecus brand mascot?) He suggested that bigfoot sightings could be explained as glimpses by witnesses of Squamish Indians following the traditions of shamanistic training and initiations. (Is Rink a covert acolyte of M.K. Davis?) The discovery of simple stone tools “in out of the way places” was proposed as supportive evidence.

Regarding this “out of the way” idea, I remember hiking and hunting with my dad in (what appeared to me to be) some extremely “out of the way” places in Arizona. Once while hiking through a seemingly God-forsaken narrow canyon in the Superstition Mountains we noticed, by sheer chance, a tiny adobe cliff dwelling built in a cleft positioned high on the canyon wall. As we scrabbled our way slowly up to the spot I remember thinking, “Why would anyone chose to live in such a place?” We found it apparently undisturbed, and we left it that way. I had the same thought on another occasion when we climbed up a desert mesa while hunting javalina. It was a tough climb, rocky and thorny, but when we reached the top we found, much to my surprise, a veritable field of broken pottery and matates. There were no trees, no water, no soil for farming, yet it was plain to see that the area had been inhabited. My point is, just because a place seems “out of the way” to our modern sensibilities doesn’t mean it would have been avoided in the past. Finding stone scrapers in seemingly odd places in British Columbia should not be seen as evidence supporting a modern human explanation for bigfoot sightings. Ian Redmond and Kathy Strain quickly quashed the quirky theory that Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide spent far too much time developing, just as I have spent too much time discussing it.

Another silly part of the program was the description of bigfoot investigator Cindy Dosen as a research expert, or words to that effect, and the trip she led into the woods with Ian Redmond. The distinguished Redmond, easily the most experienced field man and the most prominent “Definitive Guide” panel member, must have felt at least a little discomfited as he was directed in his scenes and asked to comment about the possibility of sasquatch stick structures. As for Dosen, she probably didn’t describe herself as an “expert” at anything, but the narrator’s use of the term brings up a sore point often discussed by bigfoot enthusiasts with regard to scientists, if I may digress once again.

In a strange dichotomy, members of “the bigfoot community” (whatever that is) often complain that members of the scientific community pay scant attention to the bigfoot phenomenon, at least publicly. At the same time, those who do are often ostracized or criticized because the “expert” label is often affixed to them (even if this is done by others, not themselves). I have no problem with describing the scientists involved with Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide as experts in their fields, and each is in a position to comment authoritatively on different aspects of the presumptive natural history of the sasquatch and other hairy hominoids. Blithely dismissing the opinions of a scientist, especially if the opinions are thoroughly considered and within the scientist’s purview, just because the scientist has never seen or claimed to have seen a sasquatch, amounts to little more than playground-level gamesmanship, in my opinion. Cindy Dosen may have been chased by a bigfoot, but that doesn’t make her an expert at bigfoot vocalizations (the producers should have provided an analysis of the recorded vocalizations) or an expert field researcher any more than I can claim to be a comet expert just because I’ve seen a couple of them.

I suppose I could nitpick Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide for days, but a few troubling taradiddles deserve at least a brief mention. For example, the team concluded that a “massive surge” of reported bigfoot sightings was triggered by the Patterson/Gimlin film when it seems just as likely that increasingly widespread access to communication and information during that time period is similarly responsible. On a related point, the team seemed to believe that, outside of the Pacific Northwest, there was “almost no previous history” of reported sightings in North America when, in fact, there are thousands of such reports (not to mention the ubiquitous legends of native cultures) extending back hundreds of years, as documented in a couple of compendiums on the subject.

The “Bili Ape” was identified as a new species of great ape, recently discovered in Africa, but my understanding is that its DNA is identical to that of the local subspecies of chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. In my opinion, this should not have been used as a way of trying to establish that large primate species, such as the sasquatch and others mentioned in the program, remained to be discovered and documented.

Overall, I have to say that I got the impression that the documentary was just too hurried in its production. A couple of us in the TBRC had extended conversations with a producer about possibly participating in the filming of the show, but it was almost a “right now” situation and schedules, made more complex with a flight to Canada as part of the mix, could not be worked out. I don’t think participation by one or two of our members would have made any difference in the quality of the final result, and I don’t fault any members of the team of scientists. Involvement in these kinds of projects is always unpredictable; they had no way of knowing if the result was going to resemble MonsterQuest on steroids, a BBC nature documentary narrated by David Attenborough, or something in-between. At least the subject was treated in a serious manner. There were no tongue-in-cheek comments from the narrator or condescending comments from smug critics, as is too often the case in bigfoot-related programming. We can be thankful for that.

My final comments concern my first bit of apprehension upon hearing of the program, specifically, the Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide title assigned to it. This told me that whoever was at the helm of the documentary lacked a true scientific perspective regarding scientific knowledge and the processes used to learn about the world around us. No scientific explanations are fixed, set in stone, definitive. All knowledge is tentative, subject to change. Challenging the ideas, results, theories, evidence, and etc. of other scientists is a big part of what drives scientists and makes science fun. Sure, some scientists learn things that help mankind in one way or another, but most pursue arcane topics out of an unrelenting sense of curiosity and the joy that comes from discovering something new.

Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide will not go down in the annals of television as one of the best bigfoot-related documentaries, much less as having established anything definitively. However, I do hope that the scientists involved, upon reflecting on the experience, develop an increasing level of openness to that which goes against convention. If that is a result, then Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide will have garnered a degree of success that goes beyond television ratings or generally critical reviews.

References

ABC News Online. 29 June 2006. Mystery apes are chubby chimps, zoologists find. Retrieved from here.

Arment, Chad. 2006. The Historical Bigfoot. Coachwhip Publications. 348 pp.

Higgins, Alton. 2004. Evaluating Purported Sasquatch Photographic Evidence. Retrieved from here.

Meldrum, Jeff. 2004. Book Review: Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America. Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol.18, No. 3, pp. 521-523.

Strain, Kathy. 2008. Giants, Cannibals & Monsters: Bigfoot in Native Culture. Hancock House Publishing. 288 pp.

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