Listener Feedback: Cryptozoology
De Loys' Ape
Public domain photo
Any public discussion of Bigfoot or other mythical beasties alway delivers plenty of emotion; some of it humorous, some of it enraged, much of it passionate. It is one of those topics that is amusing to some people, a source of interesting intellectual or zoological discourse to others; and to some, it is an absolute religion. It's one of those fringe topics that draws a small number of people into its deepest core, turning them into fanatics who will defend the existence of their favorite cryptid in spite of all other information, even that coming from their fellow believers. Consequently it always makes for interesting feedback emails to me. But what's more interesting are the questions resulting from coherent and reasoned discourse. Today we're going to open the mailbag, and respond to some such questions asked by listeners to our recent episodes on cryptozoological creatures.
The first such question comes from Dave in Florida, in response to the episode on the Fouke Monster, the creature made famous by the pseudo-doumentary film The Legend of Boggy Creek. It was, in broad strokes, an Arkansas version of Bigfoot. Dave wrote:
When I was a little kid reading all of the books written by the early famous Bigfoot authors, one of the statements that truly convinced me Bigfoot had to be real (reminder: when I was a little kid) was that either the greatest hoax in all of history has been pulled off by thousands of people over hundreds of years, OR there was an unknown species of great ape living in the American northwest. Even at that age I knew hoaxes of that magnitude aren't possible, and so I was convinced the other possibility had to be the true one. And just as Dave says, it's hard to believe that 100% of the sightings are fabricated. In fact, it's virtually impossible. Does that force us to accept the great ape theory?
No, and the reason is something I was too young to understand at the time. This is a false dichotomy. Greatest hoax in history or Bigfoot being real are not the only two possibilities. In fact, they are the two least likely of all possibilities. Certainly some sightings are fabricated, I don't think anyone denies that; but what's much more likely to come from your average person is an honest yet mistaken identification. Unless someone finds a real Bigfoot one day, honest misidentifications are probably the cause of nearly all trustworthy reports. We can say this with increasing confidence, and the next couple of listener emails will help us focus in on the resons we can be pretty certain that no Bigfoot-like creatures exist anywhere in North America. Here's a suggestion from Brenda from Kalamazoo, Michigan:
We know a lot about Gigantopithecus, the genus of great apes that lived in Asia perhaps as recently as 100,000 years ago. The reason we know so much is that we have both ancient fossil evidence and more recent dental evidence of them. They were essentially big orangutans who knuckle walked on all fours. We know they didn't stand upright very often because their jaw was too narrow for the neck to be vertical (also they were just too darn enormous and heavy). Their diet was mainly soft bamboo shoots, which we can tell from their teeth. And we also know that they didn't live in North America, because their fossil record exists in Asia. Fossil evidence exists for the ancestors of every animal that exists in North America, and at no time were there ever any great apes living on the continent.
We can be really, really sure of this; and one reason is that we have substantial fossil evidence of the primates that did used to live in North America. They were tiny little guys, around 50 million years ago, when North and South America were separated. But as the climate changed, all American primates except those living near the equator died off; which, unfortunately, was the end of all North American species. Even though the continents later became connected, Mexico was a climate barrier that no primate species ever crossed. So we do have a fairly complete record of primates in North America, and it has never included any great apes at all.
Another argument that I always found compelling as a kid was mentioned by Ron from Calgary, Alberta:
This argument has often been used to challenge the assertion made by scientists that if there were any Bigfoots or Boggy Creek monsters out there, someone would have stumbled across a dead one at some point. Some cryptozoologists have argued that that's not the case; even if the Bigfoot society does not bury their dead, natural predation erases all traces of animal corpses very quickly. This is true, but it's not instantaneous. A great piece of evidence from current pop culture is Les Stroud's TV show Survivorman, which he films all by himself in remote wilderness locations, and arguably spends more time in the wilderness than most of us. He happens across the carcasses of dead large animals all the time, and is himself a Bigfoot believer. Or, do a Google image search for bear carcass, moose carcass, or any animal you want, and you'll see that we do, in fact, find the remains of all known animals in the wild, natually. In Death Valley, where I hang out, we find the bones of wild burros practically every day.
Matt from Sacramento, California took issue with my episode on De Loys' Ape, which is really just a hoaxed 1920 photograph of a dead spider monkey propped up on a crate. We have sufficient documentary evidence to know that De Loys took the picture in town when his pet monkey died, but the tall tale he invented to go along with it is what created the legend. They'd been on an oil prospecting expedition, but had been attacked by natives, and no fewer than seventeen of De Loys' men had been killed. The straggling survivors — including De Loys himself with an arrow wound in his leg — stopped briefly to rest on the shore of a river when he claims they were attacked by the ape and shot it, then took the picture. Matt, who says he gave me a C grade for the quality of my arguments why this was implausible, said:
It's flat as a billiard table west of La Fría, and even in 1920 the whole region was laced with oil roads and packing trails. La Fría was only one of dozens of oil towns in that part of Venezuela, and these prospecting trips took no more than a week or two at most. They certainly never went anywhere on foot for that long; photos from the day show trucks, pack mules, and mule wagons. Given how easy it is to find this stuff (see the books in the references section of the episode transcript page), I felt it was implausible that De Loys, having lost 17 men and running on foot for their lives from pursuing tribesmen, would have been carrying wooden crates of stuff by hand, or bothering to make a nice clearing with their machetes as a backdrop for the photo of the unfortunate monkey. Matt says my facts are invalid. I invite Matt to point out the errors from my reference materials, or produce better ones. As far as my assessment of the credibility of De Loys' story, that is of course a matter of opinion, and was never presented as otherwise.
On several episodes about cryptids, a few people mentioned that respected primatologist Jane Goodall has expressed her belief in Bigfoot, and so she has, though also adding there's an element of romance in her decision to believe. I had some responses to this, but I threw the question up on Twitter and here are some of the best replies:
And the two honorable mentions:
And my #1 favorite:
It's quite simple: there is no such thing as an expert on something that nobody has ever been able to study.
So listeners, keep that feedback coming in. There's no episode I've ever done that's pleased everyone, so you've probably all got a bone to pick with me somewhere (just probably not a Sasquatch bone you found in the forest), and two-way discourse is how we learn to understand each other. So please drop me a line, or comment on the transcript page for any episode.
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