22 June 2015


Bryan Sykes. The Nature of the Beast: The First Scientific Evidence on the Survival of Ape-men into Modern Times. Coronet, 2015.

Bryan Sykes is one of the pioneers of DNA ancestry, and in previous books has traced the migration patterns of modern humans around the world, and the peopling of the British Isles. Here he turns his attention to claims that there other kinds of hominids, humans and their relations in the world.
He collects physical evidence in the form of skin, bone and other traces of DNA among alleged remains of creatures such as the yeti, bigfoot, the almasty and so on.

Based on a Channel 4 documentary, this book examines this possible DNA evidence. As the fact that the world of anthropology hasn’t been shaken to its foundations demonstrates no unambiguous evidence for such creatures was in fact found. The majority of the samples of Bigfoot weren’t even from the bears which probably give rise to most Bigfoot reports, but from cattle, dogs, deer and in one case a modern human. The vignettes of his interactions among the Bigfoot hunters demonstrate how far removed from his kind of science many of them are. One tell him that Bigfoot has telepathic abilities; another that she encountered a Bigfoot walking into the sea, however this was through remote viewing!

Perhaps the oddest of these claims was that a Bigfoot lived under an old tree and communicated by knocking. Things were getting sticky because the Bigfoot was getting jealous of the boyfriend of the woman who communicated with it and the knocking was getting more agitated. A local game warden that Sykes brought in to investigate had a more prosaic explanation: the sound was being carried down a nearby tree as its branches brushed together in the wind, the old log acting as a sounding board. It struck me that in another context these knockings or ‘raps’ would have been evidence of a poltergeist or spirit communication.

Not all the evidence was as weak as this. There was a flurry of interest in that some of the yeti DNA appeared to come not from an anomalous primate but from an anomalous bear, one which showed a relationship to a fossil ancestor of the polar bears, or was a polar bear/brown bear hybrid. This has now been challenged by another group http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-30479718 who argue that the DNA was from an ordinary Himalayan bear.

An even more interesting case is that of Zana, an alleged almasty captured in the Caucuses in the 1850s, who lived in captivity until 1892. She had two surviving sons and they left several descendants. Their mitochondrial DNA appears to be West African and suggests that Zana may have been wholly West African.

Sykes however seems to try and argue that Zana was remembered as being very different from the average west African and her DNA was rather different. From this he suggests that she might have been a descended of some relict population that had left Africa before the modern human mainstream. However there are at least a couple of problems with this; first she was described as dark skinned, but a people who had been in the Caucuses many thousands of years before the majority of the population would have paler not darker than the mainstream and secondly they would have almost certainly interbred with the majority population many times over through the millennia.

In fact there is no actual evidence as opposed to assertion that Zana originated from the local area at all; she had passed round from one person to another several times over with just a legend that she had been captured in the wild. Such tales were used by showmen to display ‘wild men’ who were often just ordinary people with some form of learning difficulty or genetic malformation.

How tortuous her journey to Caucasus was we will never know, but we do know it involved probably removal from her people at a very early age, treatment as a wild animal or show freak, imprisonment, degradation, slavery, repeatedly the victim of rape and sexual assault. Her mutism is not evidence of her animal nature but of trauma on a scale which beggars comprehension. Yet she lived to see two of her children accepted into the community. She is not a cryptozoological specimen but a testament to human courage, endurance and survival against almost insupportable odds. Her descendants should be proud of her.

The search for surviving Neanderthals and the like is likewise futile. Because the recent evidence of some significant interbreeding shows that they too would not cryptozoological specimens, but just another human ethnic group, and would long have been assimilated into the human mainstream. Any surviving group of other hominids would have to be very different from us indeed, such as the famous “hobbits” of Flores.

Though Sykes remains impressed by ‘eyewitness testimony’ he has to concede not only the lack of real physical evidence, but that to many of its practitioners cryptozoology, like ufology, is a religion rather than a science. And as with ufology they not so much interested in evidence to help solve a scientific puzzle as ‘evidences’ for some quasi-theologically held world view. Bigfoot is almost certainly not a paws and pelt creature but an inhabitant of the goblin universe of the human imagination.

The book sadly lacks an index. -- Peter Rogerson.

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