The furry man-monster of the North American continent has achieved such legendary status that the term "Bigfoot" is in danger of becoming a generic label applied to any big hairy creature that walks like a man. The following discussion will focus on the "original" Bigfoot, the seven-foot apelike beast sighted in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and in Canada, where it is traditionally known as Sasquatch.
Some Bigfoot hunters believe that the creature's earliest history can be found in ancient Native American legends, particularly in the tales of the Witiko, or Wendigo, a giant spirit-beast from the lore of the Algonkian tribe. Others argue that Bigfoot seems to be a 20th century phenomenon, and any earlier documentation of the creature's existence is tenuous at best. If Bigfoot has indeed been known to Native Americans for ages, it's only in the past hundred years that persons of European descent have begun to report seeing him.
During the 1900s, the Colonist newspaper in Victoria, British Columbia, ran several stories about people spotting "monkey-men" in remote wooded areas. In the 1920s, British Columbia schoolteacher J. W. Burns wrote extensively in newspaper and magazine articles about reports of giant hairy creatures. Burns's writings were responsible for popularizing the term "Sasquatch," which he identified as a derivation from the language of the Coast Salish Indians. Sasquatch quickly became known among the general public of western Canada, long before tales of such a creature ever found notoriety in the United States.
Following the publicity surrounding Eric Shipton's 1951 photograph of a Yeti footprint, interest in Sasquatch increased dramatically. John Green, a newspaper publisher in British Columbia, began reporting Sasquatch sightings in 1955. Green initially intended this coverage to be purely a circulation booster for his small newspaper, and some of his reports were completely fake -- such as an April Fool's story about Sasquatch kidnapping a young woman. But over time Green became genuinely captivated by the creature, and his extensive compilation of stories and sightings made him the leading Sasquatch authority of his day.
One Sasquatch spotter Green interviewed was William Roe, a trapper, who claimed to have a close encounter with a female of the species in 1955, while hunting on British Columbia's Mica Mountain.
"The thought came to me that if I shot it I would probably have a specimen of great interest to scientists the world over," Roe said. But he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger on his rifle. "Although I have called the creature 'it,' I felt now that it was a human being, and I knew I would never forgive myself if I killed it," he said.
The publication of Roe's account would later inspire another man to step forward with his own Sasquatch experience, which he said had happened more than thirty years before. Albert Ostman, a 64-year-old retired lumberman from British Columbia, went public in 1957 with a tale he had kept to himself since 1924, for fear of being ridiculed. Ostman's story was the most dramatic report ever in the history of Bigfoot studies: a first-person account of abduction by Sasquatch.
While on a camping trip near Vancouver Island, Ostman found that something had disturbed his supplies and food on two nights in a row. A Native American trail guide had warned him about the presence of local Sasquatches when Ostman set up his camp, and this was the first time Ostman had ever heard of the creatures, but he didn't think they could be the culprits messing with his gear.
Then one night Ostman was shaken awake to find himself being indelicately carried away inside his sleeping bag. The opening of the sleeping bag was held shut, and Ostman had no choice but to be dragged along the forest ground for what he estimated to be 25 miles, nearly suffocating. After what seemed like a three-hour ordeal, he was thrown to the ground in a heap, and emerged to find himself in the company of four Sasquatches. Ostman described them as a family, with a father and a mother and their pair of offspring, one male and one female. He indicated that the adult male, his kidnapper, was over eight feet tall and powerfully built, covered in dark hair all over. The children, though smaller, were still about seven feet tall.
Ostman said the Sasquatches chattered amongst themselves in a seemingly intelligent language, and although they did not hurt or threaten him, they were determined not to let him leave. Their lair was inside a small valley enclosed by cliffs, and the adult male stood guard at the only apparent entry passage. Ostman suggested that he may have been selected as a prospective mate for the young female.
Ostman claimed that he was held captive for a period of six days. In that time he formed a tentative bond with the younger male, who became fond of sampling Ostman's snuff. That gave Ostman an idea. He offered his snuff to the adult male, who impulsively dumped the entire container into his mouth. The tobacco rush incapacitated the big Sasquatch in short order, making him writhe on the ground in overwhelming discomfort. Ostman seized the opportunity to escape, and never told anyone his fantastic tale until three decades later, when it seemed the world might be ready to listen. As unbelievable as his story may seem, many of those who heard Ostman tell it firsthand remarked that his earnest demeanor made it come across as surprisingly convincing.
Ostman's "sleeping-bag snatch" remains the most elaborately detailed account of Bigfoot contact, but as any amateur cryptozoologist knows, it is far from the most famous sighting of the creature. That honor belongs to 952 frames of 16mm film, shot one fine day in the California woods.
Although the North American Bigfoot may be slightly more famous, the Yeti of the Himalayas probably merits distinction as the great-granddaddy of the missing links. The giant, dark-furred creature that leaves mammoth footprints in the snow has been described in the folklore of Nepal and Tibet for countless generations. Its name is derived from the Sherpa term yeh-teh, which loosely translates as "that-there thing."
The first European to encounter evidence of a Yeti was British explorer L.A. Waddell, who saw large footprints in the snows on a Himalayan peak. But the creature would not become internationally known until 1921, an expedition led by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury found footprints while climbing Mt. Everest, and Howard-Bury spotted distant dark figures through his binoculars. The explorer later told journalists that his Sherpa guides had called the creatures metoh-kangmi, a generic Nepalese term for mountain beasts. This word was accidentally mistranslated, and suddenly news reports were claiming that explorers had seen a man-monster the natives called the "abominable snowman."
The erroneous phrase had a certain ring that aroused people's imagination around the world, and the myth of the Yeti was instantly immortalized. The popularity of the "snowman" term probably helped generate the misconception that the Yeti has white fur, sort of like the Wampa snow beast in The Empire Strikes Back, when in fact most sightings specify that the creature has a coat of black or dark brown hair.
In 1951, mountaineer Eric Shipton, the leader of the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, discovered a well-preserved giant footprint at 18,000 feet. It was longer than an axe handle, measuring 18 inches long by 13 inches wide, and appeared to bear only four toes, which were extremely broad. Skeptics analyzing his photo argued that such oversized prints can be formed by normal tracks that melt and spread out in the snow. That's a logical hypothesis in snowy areas that are easily accessible, but in this case, no one could say what man or animal might possibly have left the original, pre-melted print at such a high elevation on Mt. Everest.
The Wildman has been a part of the folklore of southern and central China for centuries, sighted primarily in the heavily forested areas of these regions. Frequently referred to as the Yeren (a Chinese word meaning "wildman"), the creature has been described as about six and a half feet tall with a thick coat of brown or red hair. It is said to walk upright, and footprints reportedly belonging to the Wildman have measured sixteen inches.
Although widely considered a superstitious myth in contemporary Chinese society, the Yeren boasts a history of sightings by scientists and dignitaries, rather than just common folk. In 1940, biologist Wang Tselin claimed to examine the corpse of a Wildman that had been killed in the Gansu region. He said it was a female specimen over six feet tall, with striking features that appeared to be a cross between ape and human. Geologist Fan Jingquan in 1950 reported seeing Wildmen live and in the flesh, a pair that he construed as mother and son, in the forests of the Shanxi province.
In 1961, a team of road builders allegedly killed a female Yeren in the forests of Xishuang Banna. By the time officials from the Chinese Academy of Sciences made it to the scene, the body had disappeared. The scientists' investigation concluded that the creature, which was described as only four feet tall, had been an ordinary gibbon. But twenty years later, a journalist who had been involved in the investigation came forward to claim that the creature killed was no gibbon, but an "unknown animal of human shape."
In 1976, a car carrying six local government bureaucrats came across an unidentified creature on a rural highway in the Hubei province. The purported Wildman attempted to flee by climbing up an embankment, but slipped and fell onto the road in front of the car, crouching on all fours in the glare of the headlights. One of the frightened passengers threw a rock at the beast and caused it to run away. This incident sparked another intensive Wildman investigation by the Chinese Academy of Sciences,but it turned up no conclusive results.
The closest thing to concrete proof of the Yeren's existence surfaced in 1980 in the form of the preserved hands and feet of an unknown hominid creature. Supposedly, villagers had killed a Wildman in the Zhejiang province in 1957, and a biology teacher had removed and preserved all four of its extremities . Upon examining the hands and feet,researcher Zhou Guoxing at first announced that they belonged to an unknown species of monkey, but later decided they had come from a large macaque monkey. But Zhou made clear that this discovery did not mean that all Wildmen are macaques.
Another monkey species that has been suggested as a candidate for Wildman sightings is the rare and endangered golden monkey, whose unusual appearance could seem like a man-monster to some observers. Other researchers propose the more unlikely hypothesis that the Yeren is a surviving Gigantopithecus, a giant extinct primate believed to have lived in China three hundred thousand years ago.
Although mysterious hairy bipeds are stereotypically imagined as giant, hulking brutes, there have been reports of exceptions to that rule. The Orang-Pendek of the Indonesian island of Sumatra is described as a petite creature standing about two and a half to five feet tall. Its name means "little man" or "short person." The creature is said to have a pinkish-brown skin covered by a short, dark fur with a mane of long hair around the face that flows down the back. The Orang-Pendek is sometimes called the Sedapa, and in the forests of nearby Borneo there are similar reports of a creature known as the Batutut.
Considered more humanlike than apelike, the Orang-Pendek is said to walk mostly upright and to possess relatively short arms. Pint-sized footprints about six inches long, shaped very much like human footprints except for being proportionately rather broad, have been presented as evidence of the creature. Some accounts indicate that the Orang-Pendek walks with its feet reversed so that its toes point backward. According to Bigfoot investigator John Napier, this peculiar podiatric condition is a long-recurring theme common to man-monster stories around the world.
Natives of Sumatra have generally accepted the Orang-Pendek as a genuine animal for centuries, and because they believe it to be a gentle creature that only attacks small animals for food, they regard it with tolerance and respect, rather than fear. Skeptics argue that people have mistaken the island's orangutans, gibbons and sun bears as this creature, but Orang-Pendek eyewitnesses insist that what they have seen is none of those animals.
In 1910 there occurred one of the first Orang-Pendek sightings by a European, who reported "a large creature, low on its feet, which ran like a man, and was about to cross my path; it was very hairy and it was not an orangutan; but its face was not like an ordinary man's." A Dutchman named Van Herwaarden reported a similar encounter in 1923. He was an experienced hunter and armed with a rifle, but as would also be the case with Bigfoot spotter William Roe, he found himself unable to shoot the creature because it looked so human. "I suddenly felt that I was going to commit murder," Van Herwaarden said. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in the Orang-Pendek, thanks primarily to the efforts of British travel writer Deborah Martyr. During a tour of southwestern Sumatra in 1989, Martyr's guide pointed out areas where Orang-Pendeks were frequently spotted, claiming that he had seen the creature twice himself. This was the first Martyr had ever heard of the Orang-Pendek and she was highly skeptical, but she was intrigued enough to investigate further. Before long, she had the opportunity to examine firsthand the characteristic tiny tracks allegedly made by the creature, and she judged them to be unidentifiable. Martyr was thorough enough to address the most obvious explanation for scaled-down humanlike footprints:
"If we had been reasonably close to a village, I might have momentarily
thought the prints to be those of a healthy
Martyr took a plastic cast of the tracks, but unfortunately she sent it to the Indonesian National Parks Department and never saw it again, leaving some to speculate whether the evidence was lost or purposely suppressed. But Martyr continued her search, making a second career out of stalking the Orang-Pendek. In 1994, while on an expedition with an organization called Flora and Fauna International, Martyr reported making a personal sighting of the creature. She has since claimed to see the Orang-Pendek a total of three times.
There was a confused flurry of news reports in 1997 that a Flora and
Fauna International group had succeeding in taking
clear and convincing photographs of the Orang-Pendek, but these proved
to be unsubstantiated rumors. The only
photographic evidence yet collected is dark and blurry, leaving us
to consider nothing more substantial than a series of odd
footprints and scores of colorful stories of the short man of the Sumatran