Sunday, January 15, 2012

Hairy Homonids

A still from the Patterson film.
It was bound to come up eventually: Bigfoot. Or more specifically, a load of explanations for various types of hairy bipeds spotted around the world. Heavily inspired by Loren Coleman's wonderful book The Field Guide To Bigfoot And Other Mystery Primates, which I got for Christmas and have probably read cover-to-cover three times already. The main aspect that a lot of researchers seem to miss is the blatantly obvious conclusion that this phenomenon can't be accounted for by a single species! Anyone seriously looking into these reports will see a number of clearly delineated types of being. In no particular order, the classifications I use (derived and simplified from Coleman's) are: giant anthropod, primitive hominid or wildman, mystery simian, and one that might be a bit of a cop-out, uncategorized or not fitting with any of the above. I'll limit each type entry to one or two regional holotypes and an analysis of their theorized origin and behaviour.

A possible photo of Bigfoot.
Might as well start with the one most everybody has heard of: North America's Sasquatch. Better known as Bigfoot. With a range stretching from southern Alaska to northern California, and sightings concentrated from British Columbia through to Washington, this is probably the most-spotted entry on the list. Holotype entry is, of course, the creature filmed by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin at the Klamath River in northern California. The general description reported in sightings of the Sasquatch (or giant anthropod) are strikingly similar. Witnesses describe an ape-like creature 7-10 feet tall, covered in a shaggy coat of brown or reddish brown hair, with a cone-shaped head and a sloped, flat face. The usual habitat for the Sasquatch is the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, with isolated populations east into Utah and Colorado. They tend to prefer high-altitude forests. Many researchers speculate that the Sasquatch is a relative of Gigantopithecus, a species of giant ape that lived in south-central Asia until approximately 300,000 years ago. This is quite plausible, as Gigantopithecus blackii existed in China at the same time a land bridge between Asia and North America was passable. I, personally, liked Paranthropus boisei, a robust Australopithecine, before learning that no specimens have been found outside of Africa, and none stand above 4'7" tall.

A classical European wudewasa.
Up next is the wildman, or primitive hominid. Commonly known in Europe as woodwoses, woodhouses and similar, derived from the Old English wudewasa, or forest-dweller (interpreted, of course. The direct translation is roughly equivalent to woods-liver). Further east, the people of the Caucasus mountains know them as almas or almasty. A number of reports also come from Southeast Asia and the Indo-Malayan archipelago.  Names in this region are, of course, far more varied, and the specimens reported are often much smaller than a European wudewasa or almasty. The two holotypical examples are oddly, both scientifically named, albeit not recognized. The woodhouse or wildman was named Homo ferus by Carl von LinnĂ© (AKA Carlus Linnaeus) in 1735. The other commonly reported type (moreso in Southeast Asia) is referred to by the Sumatrans as the orang-pendak, essentially a pygmy. This lines up quite well with a new hominid found on the island of Flores, commonly called a Hobbit, Homo floresiensis. Both holotypes seem to describe a relict population of a primitive human species. The European wudewasa and almasty seem to describe something similar to H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis. The almasty in particular appears to be a form of Neanderthaloid. Similar specimens have been described in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia. However, further south, the hairy pygmy, orang-pendak or H. floreseinsis are more common. The obvious suspect here would be H. floresiensis, as it may have survived until up to 12,000 years ago.

De Loys' Ape
The mystery simian is a bit more complicated. Sightings are primarily restricted to the New World, with scattered reports coming from Africa. Known by a large variety of names including devil monkeys, napes (short for North American apes), skunk apes, boogers, El Mono Grande and Coleman's ape, their range seems to be the southern United States through to Brazil and central South America. Most witnesses report a creature similar in size to known primates, most closely resembling a baboon or chimpanzee. The baboon-like specimens, commonly called Devil Monkeys, tend to have long tails and move by leaping. The chimpanzee type, often known as a skunk ape, walk with a more traditional knuckle walk. The skunk ape type are also associated with a foul odour, often likened to rotting meat or wet dog. There are a number of theories on mystery simians. In places where no monkeys are naturally found, there's speculation that sightings may be escaped chimps. I tend to lean towards the escaped exotic theory for most North American specimens, as a population of baboon or chimpanzee relatives would be difficult to conceal in the heavily-surveyed regions they are commonly spotted in. However, the South American examples, such as De Loys' Ape and El Mono Grande seem much more plausible. A 4-foot spider monkey relative would be quite difficult to find in the vast jungles of South America, and none of the usual problems associated with mystery animals (food supply, habitat, range) would be out of the ordinary. I suspect that as the Amazon continues to be cleared, these will become verified and known to science.

Skull of H. heidelbergensis, a possible giant.
Finally, the cop-out: unclassified or outside the classifications discussed above. This category covers anything from unidentified gigantic anthropods spotted in the Pacific Northwest to aquatic anomalies, so a single holotype won't be named here. The one I find most interesting in this class would be what Coleman refers to as True Giants. True Giants range from 10-15 feet in height, and are often reported as being significantly less robust than the Sasquatch, to the point of being quite lanky. They are, of course, covered in a thick pelt of reddish brown hair. Oddly, however, some reports paint them as being apparently more intelligent than their smaller cousins. True giants have been seen carrying primitive clubs, wearing basic fur clothing, and making sounds that could be a form of language. The range of the true giant seems to have greatly decreased since antiquity. It's commonly believed that the true giants existed almost globally at some point in the past, as almost all cultures have lore of gigantic man-eating homonoids. Most current reports place them as being restricted to isolated regions the world over. Aquatic specimens are also quite interesting, in that their range is again global, and their existence fits quite well with a fascinating theory I've run into a few times, the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. In essence, the aquatic ape hypothesis theorizes that the root ancestor of the modern human as well as H. neanderthalensis was partially aquatic. A branch of the Hominidae specifically adapted for marine life would explain a large number of mythical beings. Note that I'm not accepting this as much as previous classes, as evidence for the true giant and aquatic homonoid is far rarer and more difficult to verify than that of the more common types. Both are theoretically possible, but strike me as being much less plausible than the above mentioned categories.