Friday, February 10, 2017

Paleoanthropology vs Sasquatch: the obligatory cryptozoology post

Two of my inspirations for this little blog are Dr. Darren Naish’s Tetrapod Zoology  and youtuber Treytheexplainer  If you follow them (and you really should), you’ll notice they’re interested in the quasiscience of cryptozoology. Cryptozoology is the analysis and speculation on evidence of previously unknown species of organisms. It can also apply to the study of out-of-context finds of known taxa in new times and places.  “Cryptids”, known from all forms of inconclusive evidence, include everything from mythical monsters to prehistoric survival speculation to simply animals of known clades that can’t be verified as a specific taxon.  Like the aforementioned personalities, I think cryptozoology does deserve attention, albeit critical. In college, I was trained in anthropology, and that combines with my knowledge of zoology and paleontology to provide a pretty unique perspective I would say. 

In my opinion, the best books of this are Darren Naish’s Cryptozoologicon, Daniel Loxton’s Abominable Science, and David Daegling’s Bigfoot Exposed I myself have had an interest in mythical animals and their possible veracity. I guess there’s a logical link there; cryptids are often proposed to be descendants or relics of prehistoric animals, and may often be inspired by people finding fossils or remembering their prehistoric neighbors. I think another reason is that prehistoric animals really are mythical monsters in real life; they’re our dragons and unicorns and centaurs and giants, only they’re real.

At any rate, I’m going to talk about the most famous North American Cryptid, the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. The word Sasquatch comes from the Halkomelem Salish peoples, a variety of different tribes living in British Colombia near Vancouver. The name is originally Sekuts, and the story is that they are a tribe of giant supernatural wild people connected to the forests, who can bless or eat people who come across them depending on their judgement. They are hairy, wearing few clothes, and associated with rival tribes, bears, and white men; dangerous and powerful folk.  They are the equivalents of centaurs, fairies, elves, and trolls; half-natural people with amazing power that hide in the wilderness that should be left alone at all costs. 

There are so many descriptions of what these Sasquatch are originally, but the general idea is a giant humanoid primate covered in hair. My personal history involves sightings…in popular culture. My childhood fear of great apes for their uncanny humanlike appearance led to a similar fear of these apemen. Even the benign, goofy sasquatch of the sitcom Harry and the Hendersons and the simple stop-motion Abominable Snow Monster of Rankin Bass’ Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer gave me nightmares. Like most of my fears, it turned into fascination and curiosity as I grew older.
Where paleontology comes into it is how it could explain the legend, carried on through the present by constant sightings and humanlike footprints. When all you’ve got is “big primate”, you can find a lot of different possible explanations. We can eliminate prosimians right off; although their nocturnal habits and former range in North America makes them amusingly more fitting than other primates in those respects. New world Monkeys are often dismissed considering their small size and arboreal habits; however, apemen have been part of South American stories as well, and a Dr. Francois De Loys once tried to pass off a large spider monkey as a new anthropoid ape.

As a rule, Old World Monkeys are never considered as apes fit the bill much better than their cohabitants.  So we come to the apes.  One prehistoric ape considered was the very widespread, long-lived Miocene ape Dryopithecus. Dryopithecus had large teeth but a gracile jaw, and the long arms suggest it was an arboreal animal. Early paleoanthropologists thought it might have been an ancestor to humans, but determining that it was this specific taxon that gave rise to the Australopiths is almost impossible to acertain considering how generalist and arboreal the animal seems to have been. One connection is the oak forests (hence the name) that the animal was found from, but the subtropical environment may have had more fruit bearing trees as well. Another argument is the ratio of arm length to height within human proportions; this fails as many other unspecialized great apes have the exact same limb length, and the limbs are shaped for quadrupedal limb-running.  Finally the jaw is similarly gracile like that of a human…or a gibbon or monkey. Australopithecus has the same kind of weak jaw, which distinguishes them from the genus Paranthropus. Again, this just shows a frugivore morphology, not a direct link with hominins. We just happened to keep our jaws weak through a soft food diet.  I’ll write about Dryopithecus later, so stay tuned for more on this ape.

The most popular explanation is Gigantopithecus, the largest ape that ever lived.  The reason is that Gigantopithecus is fairly enigmatic itself, as it’s only known from a few mandibles and a hundred teeth.  This fragmentary nature allows for wild speculation on what this animal looked like. However, we can tell a lot from what we do know. The jaw is a scaled-up version of an orangutan jaw, suggesting a giant orang. Gigantopithecus has been found alongside its relatives Sivapithecus and orangs, and is almost certainly a member of their clade. That would exclude them from becoming habitual bipeds, as orangs are quadrupeds on the ground for the post part. Indeed, Disney’s Orangutan-based reconstruction is more likely than the bipedal Sasquatch model. There’s also the fact that the Sasquatch is said to be an omnivore with a variety of different food sources to survive in the North American woods, while Giganopithecus’ teeth have been examined for phytoliths to reveal a diet of fruit and bamboo. Finally, Giganopithecus seems to have been fairly specialized, a giant herbivore variation on the primate model. Specialists tend to evolve to become more specialized for their habitat, not evolve to a completely different niche and specialty.  This is especially relevant as there is no evidence that Giganopithecus ever reached north of Hubei or Sichuan, indicating it was a warm-weather animal even in the ice ages. We would have to find them in Siberia, or a full skeleton that has bipedal characteristics

Physiology and the structure of the feet in the footprints suggests instead a hominin or bipedal ape. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman prefers instead Paranthropus. Paranthropus was a big-jawed, big-toothed Australopithecine that lived alongside other Australopithecus and the first species of human.  They were as bipedal as their human counterparts, but rather than continue developing their brains for tool work, relied on massive jaws and teeth to process fallback foods during times of famine.  Paranthropus is the closest we get to an ape-man in paleontology. The problem with this explanation is that Paranthropus, even in its largest species, P. boisei, was only 4 ½ feet tall at most. Furthermore, they have never been found north or east of Ethiopia, with no fossil remains in Asia let alone America. While primate fossils are comparatively rare, the lack of fossils as always prevents this from being a likely explanation. We would need a transitional form, a Paranthropine more than 5 feet tall found in Asia. Could ancestral memories dating from the beginning of our genus place these ape men in modern consciousness a million years later? That’s possible, but there’s easier answers.

The Father of Cryptozoology, Bernard Heuvelmans was fond of using “Pithecanthropus” (an archaic name for Homo erectus) as an explanation for ape men cryptids. There is a problem with this explanation: his reconstruction was based on outdated 19th century models of the species of human. Hand axes and soot at H. erectus sites suggests that they used fire and stone tools. There’s still some leeway considering the physical and geographical variation in Homo erectus, enough for there to be a debate if the taxon should be split into two or more species, but for one to eschew tools and fire to adopt a solitary, nocturnal lifestyle seems extremely unlikely.

Neanderthals have also been proposed, but their western distribution, big noses, short stature, sophisticated tools and even a sense of art and magic counts them out. Neanderthals were once thought to be ape men, but all that was based on Marcellin Boule’s insistence of Neanderthals being a human ancestor (ironically another early 20th-century scientist proposed that said specimen was a regular human of our species suffering from rickets). Once more and more Neanderthals were found, their range, lifestyle, and physical appearance became apparent. They were close enough to their sister species to breed with us. I like to tell people at the museum Straus and Cave’s phrase that a well-dressed Neanderthal would blend in on the New York subway as an extremely ugly normal human.

That’s the paleoanthropological perspective, anyway. Cultural anthropology is closer to the truth, I think; all over the world, humans have stories of giants, dwarfs, and beast-men. Every culture seems to have a half-animal, half-human barbarian. To quote Kenneth Wylie in his fascinating book on Bigfoot and its adherents (in turn quoting an unspecified author) and paraphrase Voltaire, if a creature like a gorilla did not exist, mankind would have to invent it. 

The Haida have a story of a woman who had children with a skinchanger who assumed the form of a bear outside his tent. In cultures contacting with bears, bears are viewed as rather humanlike due to their omnivory, flat feet, and the ability to stand on two legs. Material ascribed to the Himalayan Yeti has often turned out to be of the rare Tibetan brown bear and Asian black bear. I’m not saying sasquatches are based on bears, but I’m saying that exact thing. Of course, bears shouldn’t get all the blame; ape men appear in many cultures where bears are entirely unknown, but they make for thoughts about human-animal connections. In many parts of Asia, people see both bears and monkeys (apes in South East Asia as well) and see their kinship.  David Daegling said that the reason we see Sasquatch is because we want to see it even on a subconscious level. 

As a biological entity, Sasquatch is on shaky footing and a long shot in terms of what we know about primate biology. As a cultural figure, however, Sasquatch is very much alive even in these days where nature is fading and wilderness is lost.  I hope people never stop seeing them, even if they know it’s a dream.  I hope we find more about these fossil apes so mysterious to us. And I hope today’s apes can hang on when their habitats are condemned to death by short-sighted greed; that the animals we know exist don’t join the ranks of Paranthropus and Gigantopithecus.

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