Legend Meets Science
By Jeff Meldrum, Moshe Feder
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2006 BooBam Ventures, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Science of Hidden Animals: Cryptozoology
Whenever and wherever there have been travelers in exotic lands, or explorers of the murky frontiers of the known world, there have emerged accounts of exotic and sometimes fanciful creatures either actually encountered or merely heard tell of. The pages of medieval bestiaries depict curious and unfamiliar animals that seem to blur the boundary between myth and reality. Many, once uncritically accepted, were eventually consigned by science to the realm of legend. Examples include the unicorn, the griffin, the manticore, and the mermaid. Others, it was determined, indeed had their basis in scientific reality, in the form of animals now considered rather commonplace in our age of televised natural history documentaries. These once fanciful, but now quite familiar animals include the leopard, the giraffe, the crocodile, and the mandrill.
Long before the present age of modern transportation and telecommunication, the eighteenth-century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus set out to catalog the whole of nature, laying the foundation for the modern scientific discipline of taxonomy. From excursions to the remote corners of the known world, Linnaeus's disciples returned not only with myriads of newly collected exotic specimens, but also with persistent reports of unusual and elusive creatures that stirred the imagination. Perhaps the most intriguing of these were creatures that appeared to bridge the perceived gulf between human and animal. The possibility of the existence of such missing links was not only acceptable but anticipated, since naturalists of the day viewed the parade of life as a Great Chain of Being. The perfection of the Creator was expressed by the completeness of His creation. Therefore, the discovery of such intermediate species was inevitable. Among these rumored and rather bizarre-looking Anthropomorpha, or "man-shaped" animals, can now be recognized the baboon, the chimpanzee, and the orangutan. But a fourth manlike creature remains inexplicable. The legendary Troglodyte — a nocturnal, speechless, hirsute wildman — has never been recognized by science, although it occupies a key position in the traditional knowledge of ethnic cultures the world over.
It is noteworthy that the two most ancient examples of western literature, the epic of Beowulf and the epic of Gilgamesh, prominently involve the wildman figure in the characters of Grendel and Enkidu respectively. The image of the wildman carried into Medieval European iconography, adorning cathedrals, crypts, and heraldic emblems. In the East, ancient Mongolian literary sources also matter-of-factly depict such a wildman, the zerlog khoon. It is unceremoniously numbered among the commonly recognized wildlife of the Himalayas. To this day, questions remain regarding the identity of revered relics of the wildman enshrined in Nepalese monasteries. Is all this just a simple folk belief, or an animal species still hidden from science?
Western scientists briefly gave the matter of a relic wildman serious notice when mountaineers, exploring the roof of the world, came upon inexplicable tracks attributed to the abominable snowman, or yeti, of the Himalayas. The most famed were those photographed in 1951, by Eric Shipton and Michael Ward, in the Menlung Basin of Nepal. The large single footprint showing the outline of five rather oddly proportioned "toes" crisply impressed on a snow-covered glacier has been variously interpreted, and confusion still surrounds the associated photos that clearly depict a quadrupedal, rather than a bipedal track. Many, including the famous Sir Edmund Hillary, have chalked Shipton's tracks up to a runaway practical joke. However, as recently as 1997, Ward published a scientific paper revisiting the peculiarities and implications of the footprints from Menlung Basin, an unlikely move for the purveyor of a practical joke. Others have suggested that sublimation (the direct evaporation of snow at high altitudes) may have distorted the tracks of a more common animal, resulting in a "yeti" track. The case of the singular footprint would have benefited from supplementary photos of additional footprints in the trackway for the sake of establishing the consistency of its peculiar appearance and bipedal gait. In spite of the obscuring cloud of controversy, the highly publicized photographs of Shipton's footprint touched off the modern world's interest in the Himalayan wildman, spawning a number of sensational yeti expeditions during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The expeditions had various sponsorships: the London Daily Mail, World Book Encyclopedia, and the American oil tycoons Tom Slick and Kirk Johnson. Conclusive evidence was never obtained. However, as expressed by historian Daniel Boorstin, "To succeed in negative discovery — to prove that some mythical entity did not exist — was far more exacting and exhausting than to succeed in finding a known objective." This was especially true in the challenging circumstances encountered in the rugged remoteness of the Himalayas.
A series of letters appeared in the pages of Science magazine during 1957 and 1958, initiated by a brief article by Dr. William L. Straus, Jr., a physical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins University. Straus was downplaying the probability of an unknown ape existing in the Himalayas, noting that the identification rested solely on footprints and verbal evidence. The footprints were summarily dismissed as those of misidentified bear spoor, which exhibit a superficial resemblance to human footprints. These had presumably been enlarged by sun and wind. The list of possible suspects venturing into the snow fields at high elevation to have their tracks enlarged by the elements grew to include yaks, lynx, snow leopard, wolf, ibex, deer, and langur monkey to name a few. Straus's explanation for the enigmatic footprints represented the generally adopted position. To this was added a comment by Dr. Robert K. Enders, zoologist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, relating a firsthand experience with a track left by a man wearing snow sandals in Kasmir. The sandals were made from rough-woven leaves to protect the feet from the sharp ice. They wear out initially under the toes and then are eventually discarded. The enlarged and sometimes toed footprints left by such sandal wearers were suggested as a possible source for "yeti" tracks.
However, an exceptional response was forthcoming from Dr. Lawrence Swan, a native of India and world-renowned expert in high-altitude ecology. He took exception to the superficial and dismissive attitude of the foregoing scientists and pointed out, "The interpretation that tracks in the snow ascribed to the Yeti may be made by man is valid in some instances, but it is clear that footprints cannot logically be attributed to even the most solitary hermit when they are made in remote glaciated terrain at great altitudes where local inhabitants simply would not travel." He went on to say, "Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the bear theory, and the point most often disregarded in statements concerning Yeti tracks, is the fact that the high-altitude red bear of the Himalayas (Ursus arctos isabellinus) is found only in the western Himalayas whereas the origin of the Yeti legend and the source of all 'genuine' Yeti tracks is in the eastern Himalayas. [Author's note: There actually are brown bears in the eastern Himalayas but not on the southern slopes.] There is a fairly striking faunal difference between these two regions, and it is not legitimate, nor is it good zoogeography, to attempt to discredit the legend on evidence obtained from the western Himalayas or the plateau of Tibet. The Abominable Snowman, presumably, has no business in these parts." As for the interpretation of volatile footprints he observed, "That the unique footprints may be the result of the high-altitude effects of evaporation and sublimation is not borne out by fresh Yeti tracks, where some detail of the foot is clear. High-altitude footprints do enlarge and may alter in shape, but this obvious alteration which may surprise the casual traveler from the lowlands, is promptly recognized by an individual with experience in snow at high altitudes. It is not correct to assume that only the naive have seen the tracks, and it is equally erroneous to assume that the Yeti is only the imagined maker of all sorts of ablated footprints." Finally, while acknowledging the lack of conclusive evidence, he cautioned against summary dismissal of the evidence without due consideration, saying, "Whereas it is perhaps presumptuous to assume, at this time, that the Yeti is in reality some large anthropoid ape, it seems that this possibility has not been eliminated or sufficiently considered in the current arguments of the Yeti critics."
At this Straus retrenched, adopting a commonly repeated conservative posture, stating, "I certainly have never denied the possibility of the existence of an 'abominable snowman,' whether it be a giant ape or some other unknown creature. I am only adhering to a basic tenet of scientific procedure when I ask for something in the way of positive proof of its reality." It would seem that in some quarters, there is a distinction made between the conduct of science and the spirit of exploration. Some would wait at their lab benches and exert no effort to discover what, if anything, lies behind the legend. Yet, they are quite eager to engage the matter if someone else produces the conclusive evidence. Straus concludes, "If someone supplies me with the cadaver of an undoubted 'snowman,' I will be only too glad to dissect it and report, to the best of my ability, on the creature's zoological affinities."
Swan's optimism about the possibility that the yeti might exist waned considerably after he accompanied Marlin Perkins and Edmund Hillary to the Himalayas in I960. On an opportune solo excursion he came upon a line of what he initially took to be "yeti" tracks in the snow. Upon closer examination he discovered, "The first prints were fairly good, although rather small by classic standards, but those further on seemed to change. Each footprint in the series was not sufficiently similar to its neighbor. I recognized that if I photographed only one choice track, I could astound anybody." As he moved along the line, the tracks became more distorted, until at last he stood over the clear imprints of a fox or small wolf. Swan concluded that sublimation could indeed sculpt from common tracks the enigmatic shapes of the mysterious yeti footprints.
Interest in the yeti was rekindled when, in 1972, biologists Edward Cronin and Jeffrey McNeely and members of their survey team discovered fresh nine-inch apelike tracks outside their tents high in the Arun Valley of Nepal. They had made camp on a ridge below a pass leading to a neighboring valley. During the night, something had made a detour from the ridgeline and investigated the camp, meandering among the expedition tents. The crisp bipedal footprints were evident in the snow, untouched by the morning sun and the effects of sublimation. The footprint spoor resembled a large ape's foot with an apparent divergent big toe and relatively long lateral toes. Backtracking revealed that the biped had ascended a steep slope through deep snow, without any apparent aid of its forelimbs. After the digression through the camp, the track led back to the ridgeline and preceded over the pass to be lost among the boulder-strewn rhododendron thickets.
Upon examining the casts made of the footprints, Dr. George Schaller, who pioneered naturalistic studies of the mountain gorilla, noted that they "demonstrate a close resemblance to those of the mountain gorilla." Cronin concluded that the prints could not be attributed to any known animal of the eastern Himalayas, and therefore lent credibility to the theory that the yeti represents an unknown hominoid (ape) species. Even the report of this professional team of naturalists had little impact on a generally skeptical scientific community.
In 1993, four footprints attributed to the yeti were cast and today are on display in the Thimphu office of Bhutan's Forestry Department. They were collected in Hjagehungla, Merak-Sakten, which is in east-central Bhutan. They are approximately 8 inches long, bear only four toes, and attest to the diversity of spoor that have been attributed to the yeti. To this day the maker of the unusual tracks in the Himalayas remains a mystery and continues to be the object of serious expeditions and amateur trekkers.
As early as 1825, the French naturalist Cuvier made the brash assertion that it was doubtful that any new large four-legged animals remained to be discovered. But shortly thereafter, he himself described a new species of carnivore found in the Himalayas — the red panda, Ailurus fulgens, Cuvier 1826. A long series of discoveries of large animals was to follow as naturalists made good on travelers' tales, and more especially, as they acted upon the natives' familiarity with local faunas. This approach was in large measure how new zoological discoveries were made. It was an established formula for investigating and discovering novel and exotic species. However, in more recent times this technique has fallen by the way and has been replaced by formal surveys that rely less on indigenous knowledge. Few scientists specifically search for rumored animals. Instead, most field biologists conduct broad taxonomic surveys to see what may turn up in their widely cast nets or narrow transects. An exception to this trend is Dr. Marc van Roosmalen, a Dutch primatologist who has a predilection for discovering new species of primates in the Amazon forest. By walking into a village with his eyes and ears open he routinely learns of unusual primates in the surrounding environs. His appreciation of native knowledge of local faunas often results in the description of a new species or even a new genus of Neotropical primate.
Contrary to Cuvier's premature pessimism, the pace of discovery has shown no signs of abating. When Linnaeus published Systema Natura (1735), his initial catalog of nature, there were nine thousand named species. Today, estimates of over 2 million species are described, although no all-encompassing tally has ever been undertaken. Serious estimates of how many species actually inhabit this planet range from 3 million to over 30 million! These newly discovered species are not limited to miniscule microbes or innocuous insects. As recently as 1929, a great ape was added to the list of known species, when the bonobo, or pygmy chimp, was found in the jungles of Zaire, Africa. During the past century, over two hundred additional species of primate have been discovered. In the Neotropics alone, twenty-four new species have been described since 1990, and at least ten more await formal description. Most recently, the prospect of a new ape, perhaps something intermediate to a chimp and a gorilla, has sent primatologists converging on the Congo in search of the so-called Bili (or Bondo) ape — with little more evidence to go on than some oversized footprints, nests, a few strands of hair, and persistent native accounts of a large ape, which they call the "lion killer" due to its enormous size. Primatologist Shelly Williams, of the Jane Goodall Institute, experienced a close encounter with what she took to be four of these peculiar apes. They charged through the brush from less than ten meters away before they apparently realized she was not the quarry they anticipated. She described them as being huge, with a very flat faces, wide muzzles, straight overhanging brows, and grayish hair all over.
Indeed, persistent rumors of unrecognized apes, or less conventional wildmen, in addition to the yeti of the Himalayas, continue to emerge from forested mountain retreats the world over: from Mongolia, the almasti; from Indonesia, the orang pendek; from China, the yeren; from the U.S. and Canada, the sasquatch, or Bigfoot, to name but a few. These are not all described in similar terms and it has been suggested that several species may remain unaccounted for. For example, the yeti is reportedly smaller and more apelike with a footprint that exhibits a divergent great toe, while the sasquatch is much larger, more humanlike in posture, and has a footprint with the great toe aligned with the remainder. In spite of this multiplication of enigmas, or perhaps on account of it, many scientists are prone to retreat to Cuvier's smug presumption that the world is simply too small to still harbor any large undiscovered animals. Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson's reaction in 1984 is representative of this pervasive attitude: "As for the footprints and claimed sightings of the sasquatch, these have occurred in well-populated regions in British Columbia, Alberta, Washington State, Oregon, and northern California. It is simply incredible that so many educated people, including professional zoologists and anthropologists, should have failed to produce any objective evidence that yetis or sasquatch do exist." It seems that the majority of scientists are content to remain aloof, trivialize the probability of new discovery, or presume to discredit the witnesses and the evidence, leaving to others the search for the proof, the definitive type specimen. They passively challenge, "Show me the body." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sasquatch by Jeff Meldrum, Moshe Feder. Copyright © 2006 BooBam Ventures, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.