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Why is Bigfoot eating bagels?

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Three weeks ago, a Texas-based geneticist created a media spectacle by claiming to have sequenced the DNA of the mythical Bigfoot, in what is most certainly either an act of purposeful deception or unintentional stupidity, with a small sprinkle of a possibility of the claim being the truth.

On November 24th, a press release was published on the DNA Diagnostics website titled “‘Bigfoot’ DNA sequenced in upcoming genetics study.” In it, Dr. Melba S. Ketchum explained that in a study that would soon be released, she would prove that male, non-human primates mated with early human females to create a line of Bigfoots, which her study genetically identifies as an “unknown hominid hybrid species in North America.”

Ketchum, who graduated with a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Texas A&M in 1978 and has been the director of DNA Diagnostics for the past 15 years, analyzed 109 DNA samples submitted by individuals throughout North America over the course of five years. Out of these samples, Ketchum said, DNA Diagnostics outsourced three of “the best samples that had the most DNA” to forensic labs (which she wouldn’t name) that she claims were able to complete whole genome sequences.

Lynne reports being regularly visited by Sasquatches at her home in rural Michigan

Ketchum says she never intended to prove Bigfoot exists, she just fell into it five years ago after DNA Diagnostics was featured on the SyFy show Destination Truth for its involvement in sequencing a Yeti sample. After the show aired, Ketchum said, the Bigfoot samples flooded in, including a sample from her current spokesperson, Robin Lynne, a character so bizarre she is her own conspiracy theory. Lynne reports being regularly visited by Sasquatches at her home in rural Michigan, and provided one of the three samples that was fully sequenced in the study, which she claims to have obtained from a partially-eaten blueberry bagel.

“This analysis would need to be done in an extremely careful way,” said Dan MacArthur, a genetics researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. “Analyzing the DNA of species believed to be closely related to humans is complicated by the danger of contaminating DNA from humans. This was a major problem for early analyses of Neandertal DNA.”

Picking hairs off a blueberry bagel left in a back yard doesn’t exactly fall under the purview of responsible DNA collection techniques.

“We washed the samples real well before extraction,” Ketchum said in her thick Texas drawl after I asked her how she could be sure the samples weren’t contaminated.

As the company has yet to publish the study and Ketchum refuses to discuss the details of how the samples were obtained, the methodology, or the results, the only socially responsible stance on this subject is skeptical neutrality.

“Until I see the data, I am withholding judgment,” wrote John Hawks, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison.

Ketchum told me the study will be published in “a few weeks,” but wouldn’t say where and was decidedly not releasing it under embargo, a common thing to do when publication is confirmed. According to discussion in the SyFy forum for Destination Truth, the show that launched Dr. Ketchum’s quest, she has been saying her study would come out "in a few weeks" for over a year and Bigfoot enthusiast blogs like Bigfoot Evidence have reported that Ketchum’s paper has been rejected by a variety of US publications, which would explain her aversion to embargos. Additionally, some bloggers have reported that DNA Diagnostics has been closed down and the number disconnected, and the Better Business Bureau lists 25 complaints against the company.

“At this stage we have no detailed description of their analysis approach, no information about exactly how the source of the samples was confirmed, and no raw data to examine for evidence of artifacts,” MacArthur said. "Until those things are available, this story is pure noise. The raw sequence data is absolutely critical.”

“My best guess: this is contaminating DNA from a modern human, which is at least partly degraded and almost certainly mixed with DNA from other species,” MacArthur said. It would be easy for an inexperienced investigator to over-interpret a sample like that.”

Regardless of whether Ketchum’s story is a bizarre hoax or an innocent mistake, the nature of scientific inquiry does allow for the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence.

As many as 29% of Americans “think Bigfoot is ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ real.”

In 1951, British Himalayan mountaineer Eric Shipton publicized the first known photograph of an over-sized footprint which he claimed was made by a Yeti in the Himalayas. Seven years later, a bulldozer operator in Bluff Creek, California, came across some footprints and made plaster molds to support his case. Ever since, travelers who have ventured off the beaten paths into the North American wilderness have been submitting blurry photographs, videos containing flashes of hair peeking out from behind patches of brush, and eyewitness testimonials of encounters with Bigfoot.

These reports hardly qualify as evidence, but the sheer quantity of them is convincing enough for some — one poll suggests that as many as 29% of Americans “think Bigfoot is ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ real.”

“In the sense of there being a hairy bipedal species that is genetically distinct from Homo sapiens, sure,” said MacArthur. “Similar things co-existed with humans for long periods of our evolutionary history. I think it’s fairly unlikely that such a species could have completely evaded our notice until 2012, but I suppose it’s theoretically possible.”

Possible, yes. But a far cry from probable, as MacArthur and other good Bayesians responsibly assume the contrary, reserving mental space for a revision upon introduction of new evidence.

“The trouble with the scientific pursuit of Bigfoot, however, is that the logic breaks down immediately after looking at the basic phylogenetics,” Eric Michael Johnson, evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Primate Diaries said, referencing the study of how organisms are evolutionarily related.

Why is the idea of Bigfoot existing so powerful and persistent in our culture?

Evidence suggests that we had an ancestor known as Australopithecus, which evolved from ape-like beings similar to chimpanzees and bonobos approximately 4 million years ago. “But most species in this genus or in the later Homo were about four feet tall,” Johnson said, a profile very different from Bigfoot’s. He explained that while there was a larger ape-like creature that may have walked upright known as Gigantopithecus, this species emerged in southeast Asia about 9 million years ago and died out 100,000 years ago. "For Gigantopithecus to have been the ancestor of Bigfoot in North America it would require this large species to have migrated across the Bering Strait from Siberia into Alaska without leaving any fossil evidence along the way.”

Despite the lack of scientific validation of any of the findings submitted over the years, a cult of followers believe that a large, humanoid primate has been living among us for years while somehow evading capture, all the while managing to avoid leaving behind bones or other physical evidence of their existence. Even after watching the most convincing evidence deteriorate into hoaxes, some of which people have died orchestrating (one man dressed in a Yeti costume attempting to cross the highway was hit by a car), stories of Bigfoots, Yetis, and Sasquatches continue to permeate the American media — and the psyches of millions of people across the world. Why is the idea of Bigfoot existing so powerful and persistent in our culture?

Even famed primatologist Jane Goodall has been quoted as hoping Bigfoot is out there. “I’m not going to flat-out deny its existence,” Goodall said during an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post before a benefit dinner in La Jolla, Calif. “I’m fascinated and would actually love them to exist."

"People want to believe Bigfoot exists because it represents a tangible link to our past."

“People want to believe Bigfoot exists because it represents a tangible link to our past,” said Johnson. “It’s the secular side of the same longing that draws people towards believing in ghosts. If it could be proven, perhaps we could better understand why we’re here and what our ancestors were like, the same questions that motivate evolutionary anthropologists in the work they do studying human origins.”

The Verge
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