We may be decades away from cloning Bigfoot, but two new books on cryptozoology show that the truth is out there. Scott McLemee wants to believe.

September 4, 2013

The rumors, earlier this year, of a significant advance in Sasquatch research appear to have been premature, at best -- leaving in their wake great controversy in the field of cryptozoology, the study of animals whose existence is in question. 

The methodology and standards of evidence in cryptozoology are not what you would call standardized or rigorous. So there was considerable buzz, starting late last year, around the news that a peer-reviewed scientific journal would shortly be publishing the results of a five-year study of more than 100 samples of genetic material left by Bigfoot -- as Sasquatch is known south of the Canadian border -- from numerous locations throughout North America. (The bits of fur and so forth were presumably left by various members of the species, rather than by a single well-traveled Bigfoot.)

The researchers’ findings were leaked, in some detail, and can be read in the science blogger Eric Berger’s excellent reporting on the claims. But the story made no further progress in the news media once it became clear that the supposed peer-reviewed venue of publication, the Denovo Scientific Journal, had no reputation, circulation, or discernible history prior to the registration of a domain with GoDaddy in early February 2013. All in all, a more suitable title might have been the Ex Nihilo Scientific Journal.

It went de nihilo soon enough. By now, even the website has vanished. But for a little while there you could buy the Denovo special issue -- devoted entirely to the monograph on Sasquatch genetics -- for $35 per copy, which, by contrast with the offerings of certain science-journal publishers, really was a steal. I have been unable to find the paper online. It seems to have vanished, leaving, like the object of study, little more than unconfirmed sightings and a half-erased trail running ever deeper into the wilderness.

The precarious status of cryptozoology as a body of knowledge comes through with great force in page after fascinating page of Daniel Loxton's and Donald R. Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids (Columbia University Press). Like the tale of promise and disappointment around the mapping of the Bigfoot genome, the book leaves a reader with few grounds for expecting a major confirmation of the legends anytime soon.

But to call it a piece of debunking is accurate only up to a point. Its pages teem with facts and images that are captivating no matter what biological or psychological realities may lie behind them. The same may be said of Joseph Nigg’s very handsome volume Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Map (University of Chicago Press), which reproduces and annotates a 16th-century cartographer’s guide to the beasts dwelling in dangerous waters.  

Few cryptozoologists will accept the authors of Abominable Science! as peers. Loxton is a staff writer for Skeptic magazine and editor of Junior Skeptic. Prothero “is a former professor of geology at Occidental College and lecturer in geobiology at Caltech” and “presently a research associate in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum,” according to Columbia’s write-up, which then catalogs several more indications that he has been fully vetted as a proper scientist and quite unlikely to have been abducted by space people at any point in his career.

And yet cryptozoologists they are, in their own way. Nobody acquires so much knowledge about the history, physiognomy, and specialist literature about the Abominable Snowman or Mokele Mbembe (the Brontosaurus-like creature supposedly now dwelling in the Congo) without having been, at some point, bitten by the bug. The authors admit as much, and have divided up the chapters according to their respective degrees of fascination and knowledge about particular cryptids.

Each author has an accessible and sometimes very casual style. Loxton, for example, recounts how a childhood obsession with the Loch Ness monster led him to lecture schoolmates about geographical and historical “facts” that he now knows to have been completely spurious. But their chapters, while written in a popular manner, are so extensive and heavily documented as to count as monographs in their own right. If I never read another book concerning the Yeti -- and I have no plans to -- Prothero’s study will be more than sufficient for understanding why “the Abominable Snowman” is such an unfortunate and misleading nickname. (For one, the Tibetan word translated “abominable” refers to the beasts’ smell, rather than their temperament.)

Without following a template, the authors do reveal certain patterns or tendencies emerging from one elusive phenomenon to the next. The existence of as-yet-undiscovered animals is hardly debatable – nor is the possibility that some creature long since assumed extinct may still be around, as the discovery of the Coelacanth proved. But cryptids have the frustrating habit of remaining just out of reach of confirmation, with anecdote and eyewitness description being the foundational layers of cryptozoological evidence. But as someone once said, the plural of “anecdote” is not data. The ancient legends about Sasquatch, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness plesiosaur turn out, upon examination, to be significantly less than ancient, having emerged over the past four to eight decades. That makes them no less useful for tourism boards, however.

A variety of strange beasts have been associated with Scotland’s lakes over the centuries, for example, but none of them resembled the now-familiar descriptions and photographs of Nessie -- first sighted in the Loch in 1933, a few weeks after "King Kong" drew huge audiences. By an odd coincidence, Nessie closely resembles one of the creatures living on Skull Island, as confirmed by the now-iconic picture taken at Loch Ness in 1934. It was a hoax, produced by close-cropping a photograph of a small model floating in the water atop a toy submarine. Since then, of course, its accuracy has been repeatedly confirmed by eyewitnesses. And surely even if 99 percent of them were lying or mistaken, the remaining one percent would suggest that the case is not yet closed….

So it is that dubious, erroneous, or patently fabricated evidence enters the cryptozoological database, and seldom leaves. It spreads via mass media (the cable TV network Animal Planet is currently showing a documentary about mermaids) thereby generating more testimony, and more hoaxes. A seriously peer-reviewed study of a cryptid will appear from time to time, such as the paper in the Journal of Biogeography showing that that the distribution of Sasquatch sightings is indistinguishable from that of black bears. But of course that doesn’t really prove anything, does it?

An intriguing remark in Abominable Science! suggests that cryptid hoaxes are not always venal or malicious, but can sometimes “be likened to guerilla gardening, flash mobs, or certain types of graffiti: anonymous works of art defined by their audacity and their ability to baffle onlookers.” I suspect this could be further generalized – that many cryptids are, so to speak, creative projections of stuff that might otherwise be hard to express. The authors largely neglect the Chupacabra, or “goat sucker,” a vampiric creature that began drinking the blood of livestock throughout Latin America beginning in 1995 and has subsequently appeared in the United States. Whoever created the webpage portraying the North American Free Trade Agreement (implemented in 1994) as a Chupacabra may have been on to something.

But the aesthetic and symbolic side of the cryptid world really comes into view with Joseph Nigg’s edition of the Carta Marina, a map of northern Europe and adjacent waters by Olaus Magnus from 1539. The original was 4' by 5'. Its nautical portions crowded with sea serpents, giant lobsters, and a creature so huge sailors have mistaken it for an island. It’s stunning even when reduced to the dimensions of a book page. The dust jacket unfolds into a reproduction of the Carta at a quarter the size of the 16th century version.

The editor is identified as “one of the world’s leading experts on fantastical animals” and the author of numerous books on the subject. He annotates the map by blowing up the individual crytpids (in full color) and glossing them with translations from the writings of explorers and natural historians. Each creature is depicted in the part of the ocean where it dwells. Looking at the map, it’s easy to sympathize with the prospective voyager of the day tracing his path across the ocean, worrying if the crew knows how to fight the monsters down below.

A chart at the back of the volume showing the sea creatures that may have inspired some of the richly imaginative pictures that Magnus drew. The sea-cow, portrayed as a giant fish with a bovine head, may have been the walrus, for example. Two thoughts, in conclusion, that I take away from these volumes. One is that even if Sasquatch is really out there, leaving DNA deposits far and wide, the eyewitness descriptions may be very wide of the mark.

And the other, at the risk of stating the obvious, is that wherever man is, monsters will be. No map of the world without room for dragons can be regarded as complete or truly reliable.

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