Sunday, October 26, 2008

If there's a sasquatch, what is it?

Scientific speculation is an endlessly entertaining exercise and sometimes leads to important insights. Cryptozoologist Loren Coleman started a good thread on Cryptomundo with the question (I am paraphrasing him here): "If we assume there is a large upright North American primate, what was its ancestor?"

Now we don't have much to go on here, as we have no ape fossils from Siberia, where the presumed species must have crossed over. The primary candidates for ancestry, Coleman writes, are Gigantopithecus and Paranthropus. The former, a gigantic orangutan relative (it might have stood up 3m tall), is normally reconstructed as a fist- or knuckle-walker, not a habitual upright critter like sasquatch, but its sheer size makes it at least potentially a source for a descendant which got slightly smaller and changed posture. Paranthropus is a complex topic. About 1.6m tall, it was big for its time, during which (and this is debated among anthroplogists) it spread eastward from Africa under the successive names Austrolopithecus robustus, Paranthropus, and Meganthropus. Here you have an upright primate that must have grown larger. Either candidate must have migrated far to the north from its known habitats in Asia. The lack of further evidence is important but not damning: gorilla fossils are nonexistant, but no one doubts we have big apes roaming Africa.
If we set aside for a moment doubts about sasquatch's existence, this is an interesting exercise.

Here's what I wrote in on Cryptomundo:

(earlier poster) has a good point - “insufficient data.” IF we assume there is a sasquatch, then it had to have evolved from something. Giganto was an obvious favorite because its estimated size would cover the range reported for sasquatch, but it still seems likely Dr. Russell Ciochon is right and that an animal this size used knuckle-walking. (I quizzed him once on Dr. Grover Krantz’s reconstruction of it as a biped, and he felt Krantz had inferred too much from the shape of the jawbone, given that jawbones and teeth are all we have.)
Could the sasquatch ancestor be something else, maybe from the Paranthropus line? Certainly. But we just don’t know.

Here are two thoughts I can’t recall seeing discussed.

1. You’d think that, sooner or later, someone would have to discover preserved Giganto tracks. It seems odd we don’t have any, given that we have preserved tracks of ancient humans and their much smaller primate ancestors. Giganto was apparently widespread, at least on the Asian continent. It likely has to do with preferred habitats, but it still bugs me. Comparing Giganto tracks to alleged sasquatch tracks would tell us a lot.

2. If we assume Paranthropus or a relative as the ancestor, why did it get so big? This is an interesting question because the creature must have established itself first in the Arctic regions (on both sides of the Bering Strait, as it gradually migrated to North America). The species didn’t just take a running start in SE Asia and keep going until it hit moderate climes in North America. Bergmann’s Rule suggests that growing large would be a likely adaptation to that northern habitat. In contradiction, though, no tribe of known humans which settled at high latitudes ever got big. They got compact and stocky to minimize skin area relative to body mass, but they never grew big.
So many puzzles….

Later post by me:

To get back to the original point, it is, at this point, not critical what guess we make about the ancestor, but it’s an animal and therefore must have an evolutionary ancestor. It could be Giganto, it could be Paranthropus, or it could be an offshoot of some other line we know of OR of a line we have yet to find fossil evidence of. They key is to find the extant species, if it exists. It’s possible that, in the meantime, paleontologists will turn up fossil evidence of an interim species, like a Paranthropus relative in Siberia. We need something closer to the present day and location to make any strong connections.

Subsequent posts by others included claims by one witness of multiple encounters, where a sasquatch got habituated to him to some degree (Jane Goodall's chimp work was mentioned as a comparison), and the claim that modern physical evidence has been gathered but suppressed. I've always thought this ridiculous, and I responded to both points thus:

OK, we are off track, but I thought this was an opportunity to share a couple of thoughts from an admitted armchair (or library, as I prefer) student of this business and see what folks with field experience think.

Point one: Pardon me, but the comparison to Goodall is inaccurate. No one has done what Goodall did - find the species and stay out there until the species accepted her presence, then provide voluminous documentation, including photos/film and the accounts of other researchers, including students and photojournalists, who stayed with her. (Granted, this requires some source of support.) I don’t reject anyone’s personal account without reason, but it is only that - one personal account, which zoology is not going to accept, even in the aggregate, as proof of ANY species without better supporting evidence.

Point Two: As to the claim made above about extant but unavailable supporting physical evidence (bodies or parts thereof) that’s been deliberately suppressed, this is an extraordinary claim of its own, which requires proof. The idea that any scientist who had in hand physical proof of a spectacular species would reject the idea of becoming famous as its discoverer because other scientists would shun him is absurd. They’d be breaking down his door if he had an actual type specimen. Professional disapproval may explain the reluctance of some zoologists to consider the subject without hard evidence: it does not explain the alleged action of any scientist to hide or destroy physical evidence which would put him or her in the pantheon of heroes with Goodall, Darwin, Simpson, et. al.

The thread marches on - see the title link above for more.

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