Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Primate Problem (from Shadows of Existence)

SInce I'll be appearing on Sasquatch Detective this evening (8PM EST) I thought I would post the following essay (one of four on unknown primates) from my 2006 book Shadows of Existence.

Don't forget to tune in!

Of all the mammals, it is our relatives, the primates, which attract the most popular interest. This is understandable, as is the fascination with the idea that more primates, including large ones related to humans, may still await discovery.
The idea of unknown humanlike primates has been floating around our collective consciousness since humanity’s time began, but a thunderbolt of a discovery from the Indonesian island of Flores, announced October 27, 2004, raised the concept to a new level of awareness. When scientists led by Australians Mike Morwood and Peter Brown and Indonesian Thomas Sutikna found the three-foot human relative, Homo floresiensis, cryptozoologists were almost as excited as anthropologists. H. floresiensis might have lived as little as 12,000 years ago, when it would have coexisted with the larger modern humans. Paleontologist Henry Gee of the journal Nature, which published the report, commented, “They are almost certainly extinct, but it is possible that there are creatures like this around today.” Dr. Gee added, “Large mammals are still being found. I don't think the likelihood of finding a new species of human alive is any less than finding a new species of antelope, and that has happened."
The natives of Flores had tales of the ebu gogo, little men about three feet tall who, the islanders say, was still around only a century ago. From 12,000 years to 100 is a big leap, but it’s hard to call it an impossible one. Some scientists, inevitably, have begun to refer to the dwarf humans of Flores as “Hobbits.” (A humorous note is that, just before publishing the discovery of Flores man, Dr. Gee had completed a book called The Science of Middle-Earth.)
With the shock waves of the Hobbit discovery still reverberating through the world of anthropology, let us turn to the claims that unclassified living primates – some smaller than man, some the same size, some considerably larger – still haunt the Earth.
Such creatures are reported from every inhabited continent except Europe (and even there, are represented in old folklore about “wild men”). This global distribution is one of the major stumbling blocks in obtaining scientific credibility for the present topic. It is one thing to ask a primatologist to accept there is an unclassified ape at large. It is quite another to suggest the planet houses several good-sized bipedal primates, all uncaught and unclassified. Such a claim, made seriously by some cryptozoologists, is extremely difficult to even consider without hard evidence. That, in turn, makes many specialists unwilling to admit that any of these alleged animals could exist, the Flores discovery notwithstanding.
This problem raises the standard by which evidence is judged. The current situation can be stated very simply: the only evidence likely to result in widespread acceptance of any unknown large primate is a type specimen.
As of now, no case meets that standard. The yeti is known mainly from tracks and local traditions, plus a few reports by Westerners. The evidence for other primates, including Africa’s kikomba, Australia's yowie, China’s yeren, Siberia’s chuchunaa, and South America’s di-di and sisemite, is similar or weaker. North America’s sasquatch adds some disputed film evidence and many recent sightings. (The yeti and sasquatch, as the most famous primates in the crypto-zoo, merit more detailed essays later in this section.)
Anthropologist Myra Shackley has put forth a great deal of effort to prove relict Neanderthals, known as almas and by many other names, inhabit Mongolia, the Pamirs, and the Caucasus mountains. Unfortunately, she, too, has turned up no evidence more concrete than footprints and anecdotes. Along the rugged border shared by Pakistan and Afghanistan – a region in the news lately due to the search for terrorist Osama bin Laden – the local “wild men” are known as barmanu. In August 2002, Spanish zoologist Jordi Magraner was searching for these creatures when he was murdered. His death was a sobering reminder that finding new animals in remote regions is neither simple nor safe. (Reportedly, some local men involved in the region’s chronic border conflicts assumed Magraner’s communications gear marked him as a spy.)
Cryptozoologists must be open-minded, and generally hate to write off a seemingly insubstantial story which may prove to have been important. Still, some prioritization is necessary. Researchers must sort through the many reported primates and decide which cases, if any, most plausibly point to a real animal.
Sasquatch or bigfoot is the most widely reported of all such creatures, but is still highly problematical. There are thousands of sightings and footprint reports, and supporters say it would it be impossible to fake them all. As Craig Woolheater of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center put it, "What it comes down to is that if just one (witness) is telling the God's honest truth ... then there's something out there."
Critics, like anthropologist Kevin Wylie, respond that the problem arises when you examine these reports in detail. To Wylie, none of the sightings or other pieces of evidence is impressive enough to encourage acceptance of something as improbable as a huge, undiscovered North American ape.
Sasquatch-like creatures are widespread in Native American lore, although the origins and meaning of these stories are difficult to evaluate. The Salish word from which “sasquatch” is derived refers to a supernatural creature, not an animal. On the other hand, zoologist Ivan Sanderson wrote in the 1960s that, when one Indian was asked about the subject, the reply was a derisive, “Oh, don’t tell me the white men have finally gotten around to that.”
The late Dr. John Napier was the most prominent primatologist ever to examine this problem in depth. In his 1972 book Bigfoot, Napier endorsed sasquatch as a real animal, although he doubted all other such primates.
Concerning the almas, it seemed to Napier the inhabitants of its rugged homeland make the animal sound too plentiful, as if it should be easy to find. Napier recounted the story of one Caucasus resident who was asked if the almas was mythical. The man, proud of his people’s rich mythology, was actually offended that anyone would think it included something as common and boring as the almas. It was reported in 1985 that 5,000 almas sightings and fifty footprint reports were on file with the U.S.S.R. Geographical Society.
Some cryptozoologists suggest it is this creature which is represented by Bernard Heuvelmans’ Homo pongoides, the ape-like man. Dr. Heuvelmans did publish a description and identify an alleged type specimen. This was the famous Minnesota Iceman, a hairy corpse six feet tall. Heuvelmans, along with Ivan Sanderson, examined this traveling exhibit (frozen in a block of ice) in 1968. Heuvelmans was convinced the thing was genuine, although his colleague had reservations. The Iceman was being shown by one Frank Hansen, who told at least three different stories of its origin. Heuvelmans believed the Iceman was actually shot in Vietnam during the U.S.-Vietnamese war and then smuggled into this country. However, he had only secondhand reports to substantiate these events. There are ongoing reports of apelike primates in Vietnam (the Ngoi rung, or forest people), but no evidence connecting them to the Iceman.
Interviewed in 2000, Hansen said he never did know what the thing was. “It’s history,” he told a reporter. “I don’t care to get involved in that.” Such a comment, while not constituting a confession, is unlikely to reinforce the Iceman’s credibility. That credibility was already in question thanks to a 1981 newspaper article which claimed the Iceman was a creation of the late Howard Ball, a maker of animal models for Disney. Ball's widow and son supported the story.
Even if the Iceman was not - as seems likely - a clever hoax, the thing’s current whereabouts are unknown. It isn’t unknown for science to accept a description based on missing evidence. After all, no one doubts the validity of Peking Man, whose bones have been lost for over sixty years. H. pongoides, however, represents such a startling claim that the reluctance to accept it is understandable unless the mysterious corpse surfaces again.
Just to further confuse the issue: as noted above, many who accept the Asian ape-man reports believe they concern Neanderthals. Heuvelmans was one of these, and felt his H. pongoides was an example of such a survivor. However, Sanderson, the only other scientist to see the Iceman, strongly dissented. Not only did he feel the Iceman might have been an expertly-made model, but he wrote, "This creature is almost as far removed from the standard neanderthaloid construction as is possible." Heuvelmans' supposition was based on the controversial belief that the common reconstructions of Neanderthals as broad-faced, heavy-browed people are substantially inaccurate.
The yeti is in a state similar to that of the almas. Despite the long-standing local traditions and the efforts of determined cryptozoologists, the beast remains elusive. After a half-century of serious investigation, the best yeti evidence is still the broad, strange-looking footprints photographed by mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951. Reported yeti remains have either been lost or identified as having belonged to known animals.
So the alleged large primates of the world are supported, at best, by an interesting but inadequate collection of local traditions, reports, footprints, and hair samples. For now, the motto of science remains habeas corpus, or “bring the body forth!”
Anonymous. 1982. “Big Foot Fraud,” OMNI, September.
Coleman, Loren, and Patrick Huyghe. 1999. The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Avon.
Coleman, Loren. 1999. Cryptozoology A to Z. New York: Fireside.
Dalton, Rex. 2004. “Little lady of Flores forces rethink of human evolution,” Nature,
Published online October 27.
Davis, Anthony. 2003. “Searching for Sasquatch,” Texarkana (TX) Gazette, October 20.
Gee, Henry. 2004. “Flores, God, and Cryptozoology,” Nature, Published online October 27.
Hocking, Peter. 1992. “Large Peruvian Mammals Unknown to Zoology,” Cryptozoology (11), p.38.
Napier, John. 1972. Bigfoot. New York: Berkeley.
Sanderson, Ivan. 1969. "The Missing Link?" Argosy, May, p.23.
Sanderson, Ivan. 1961. Abominable Snowmen. Philadelphia: Chilton.
Shackley, Myra. 1983. Still Living? New York: Thames and Hudson.
Wylie, Kevin. 1980. Bigfoot. New York: Viking.
Meryhew, Richard. 2000. “Old tractor up for sale, reluctantly, by owner,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 23, p.A1. (Article on Frank Hansen)

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