Bigfoot, sasquatch, swamp ape, wild man of the woods–are they a hoax or a tall, heavy, hairy primate species living in the wilds of North America waiting for modern science to discover?
Lots of people say they have seen, heard, smelled or found the tracks of Bigfoot If you encounter Bigfoot or his/her signs and want to know what is real and what is a hoax, the go-to expert to check with is Dr. Jeff Meldrum at Idaho State University. With a Ph.D. in anatomical sciences from SUNY Stony Brook, Meldrum today is Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology in ISU’s Department of Biological Sciences.
When he was a young, Jeff admits that he was fascinated by dinosaurs and pre-historic ape-men and by one of Jack London’s lesser-known books, Before Adam, which is about the lead character’s dreaming about his ancient ancestry, who lived among the trees. At age 11, in 1969 Jeff went to the Spokane Coliseum where he saw Roger Patterson show his documentary film America’s Abominable Snowman, which includes the famous sixty-second segment taken by Patterson and his partner Bob Gimlin, of a big, dark brown, barrel-chested hairy human-like creature striding through the woods near Bluff Creek, California.
This film touched Meldrum’s curiosity and made him begin to ask if all the stories of Bigfoot or Sasquatch that one hears in the Pacific Northwest maybe had some truth to them. Jeff began college studying primate evolutionary biology, ultimately focusing on the study of bipedalism–walking on two feet.
While he was studying humans and apes, the idea of something like what he had seen on the screen in Patterson’s film stayed with him. Finally, on a Sunday morning in 1996, Jeff and his brother drove to Walla Walla, Washington, to see if they could find Paul Freeman, who was reported to have collected a number of footprint casts. Freeman told them he had found fresh tracks in the Blue Mountains nearby and said he could take them to the site. Meldrum admits that he was expecting a hoax. It seemed an unlikely coincidence that such tracks would appear right as he was visiting. But then Freeman took them to the tracks in a road in the mountains–a set of 14” tracks of something that walked upright.
“That’s what set the hook,” Meldrum says. “I resolved at this point, this was a question I’d get to the bottom of.”
Again in 1997, while conducting fieldwork in northern California, he examined several examples of fresh tracks that enabled him to see differences in the gait of Bigfoot and humans. More than 200 sets of footprints in plaster casts later have led him to a significant conclusion: rather than simply an enlarged human foot, the Sasquatch foot displays a unique combination of more primitive ape-like features combined with specializations for bipedalism.
Meldrum is an acknowledged expert on foot morphology and movement in monkeys, apes and hominids, and has written and edited a textbook on the evolution of bipedalism, but I would say his passion lies with the elusive bigfoot. Jeff has never seen one, but in addition to his collection of plaster casts, he has samples of strange hair and feces, and he has had close encounters in the woods with something that made his hair stand on end and rifled through his backpack, leaving 16” footprints. He has also traveled to China and Siberia to study reports of similar creatures in their wilds.
If you want to see how a scientist approaches analysis of sets of huge bipedal tracks in the woods, see Jeff’s illustrated article about Bigfoot footprints here.
Some of Jeff’s academic colleagues at ISU are skeptical of his study of Sasquatch but two of the world’s leading wildlife biologists, Jane Goodall and George B. Schaller, have endorsed Jeff’s book, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. To add muscle to his quest, he has recently started a scientific journal, The Relict Humanoid Inquiry, that has a prestigious international Editorial Board of scholars who share his quest.
As I scanned the RHI website, I was especially fascinated by an article that critiques how Hollywood tries to make a Bigfoot (pdf). Hollywood may not always get it right, but if you have not seen the famous Patterson-Gimlin footage linked above, I heartily recommend a 12-minute video on YouTube from a National Geographic Channel program about bigfoot with Jeff Meldrum. This segment features Bill Munns, a Hollywood creatures specialist and film analyst using the latest technology to assess and make the Patterson-Gimlin film more clearly viewable than ever. Munn finds that the creature filmed on that memorable day was 7.65 feet tall, and with body proportions and the bipedal gait intermediate to an ape and a human. Show this one to the skeptics, please.
Could such a creature exist? Some researchers believe that only 3% past taxonomic diversity of hominids has been discovered. The mountain gorilla was not discovered until 1902. It seems like every week we lean of new discoveries about Neanderthals. Then there is the small humanoid hobbit-like creature of Indonesia, Homo floresiensis, that was discovered in 2003. Some believe that some of these small humanoids still exist in remote mountain areas of Souteast Asia.
Suppose you venture into the woods and something unusual happens and you think you have had an encounter with you know who. I asked Jeff what signs make it most likely to be a real Bigfoot encounter–sounds, scat, hair, tracks, others signs, and sightings?
“Given the widespread information about Sasquatch available to the public, the best ‘signs’ are solid corroborative evidence of the encounter,” he replied, adding,”[such as] well-documented distinct footprints, associated hair and/or scat. Multiple witnesses are a bonus. Of course a good picture or video would be priceless.”
While the Pacific Northwest is the best-known place for Sasquatch sightings, (all the Indian tribes from northern California to Alaska have names for Bigfoot-like creatures) there have been sightings all across North America. Such sightings Jeff says, are most likely to be found in habitats similar to where black bears are found: thick woods and swamps.
If you do have a close encounter with a Bigfoot, who should they report it to, I asked?
“I think it is good to log reports with regional agency personnel, so they begin to recognize the occurrence of such, but reports should also be passed along to any academic who is actively investigating the question, or else they are likely to languish in a file folder somewhere,” Jeff responded. Contact Jeff at email@example.com.
Bigfoot remains elusive. There are tracks, and many reports, but science seeks harder evidence. Trail cameras could have merit, but where to place them is very hard to determine. It’s hard to cover areas of thick forest for something that does not seem to use regular trails. Jeff’s answer to this problem is his current collaborative project with William Barnes and Jason Valenti: a blimp equipped with thermal cameras, that can float high over wild areas looking for heat signatures.
“The Falcon Project will employ a nearly 50-foot long, dual-cell, helium-filled airship, supporting a platform capable of 75lb payload,” Meldrum says. “The dual-cell design is like a catamaran, providing increased stability for the platform. The payload will be high-end thermal imaging videographic equipment. Sasquatch, being solitary, nocturnal, far-ranging, generalized in diet, is the proverbial ‘moving needle in a haystack.’ Aerial survey offers the greatest potential for locating, tracking, and collecting observations of this extremely rare and elusive species.”
Jeff is currently working on this project and is seeking help with funding. Tax deductible donations can be made to: The ISU Foundation, for: The Falcon Project (Fund #901). Send to:
Attn: Janet Schubert
College of Science and Engineering Development Officer
921 S 8th Ave., Stop 8050
Pocatello, ID 83209-8050
I must confess that until I moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s I thought that Bigfoot was like the boogeyman who parents tell their kids about so they won’t sneak off at night. Then I started meeting people who had seen, sensed or smelled Bigfoot or found tracks. Not just old hippies, but college professors, wilderness guides, sportsmen, etc. Then one of my graduate students invited me to go with him on a Bigfoot hunt in the wilds of Washington. Why not? It wasn’t until we forded a waist-deep cold mountain stream and then came across a line of huge five-toed tracks 14.5” long and 6.5” wide with a huge stride in the mud of a stream bed, that I began to be a believer.
Good luck, Jeff.
Say “hello” for me when you finally meet Bigfoot.
Images courtesy Dr. Jeff Meldrum