The History Channel unexpectedly made tonight’s episode of America Unearthed, S03E11 “Tracking Bigfoot,” available for viewing on its website this morning in advance of its airing on H2 tonight at 9 PM ET. I have therefore taken advantage of the online viewing opportunity to produce an early review of this evening’s episode.
When America Unearthed debuted, Scott Wolter vowed that he would never become the kind of cable TV researcher who goes on fruitless quests for Bigfoot. Yet as he admitted in a radio interview this week, the producers are in control of the show, and Wolter found himself in the unusual position of questing after a legendary monster he did not believe existed. This puts him in the unfortunate position of having his ridiculous search through the woods for the legendary giant ape compared with Giorgio Tsoukalos’s similar search for the same on In Search of Aliens on the same H2 network a few months ago. To his credit, Wolter remains skeptical of Bigfoot throughout and therefore is one up on Tsoukalos, who more or less decided that Bigfoot flits between dimensions and rides in flying saucers.
Bigfoot is one of those creatures that is so well known that very little background is necessary. But I’ll talk about it anyway. Please note that some of the background information below first appeared in my earlier piece on Wolter’s hunt for Bigfoot.
Stories of wild men and hairy creatures the live in the woods are as old as time, though only rarely do they take the specific form of an ape-like creature, at least not before the modern era. The first wild man in literature is perhaps Enkidu, the hairy wild man from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Roman god Sylvanus influenced medieval myths of the wild man of the woods. Others have a more scientific basis. When Hanno the Carthaginian, for example, encountered actual apes in Africa during his famous journey down the African coast in the sixth century BCE, he had no idea that apes (probably chimpanzees) were a different species and not hairy humans. He wrote that he came across a land “full of savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called Gorillae” (trans. I. P. Cory). Pliny records what seems to be an account of gibbons and calls them wild men of the woods: “These people screech in a frightful manner; their bodies are covered with hair, their eyes are of a sea-green colour, and their teeth like those of the dog” (Natural History 7.2, trans. Bostock and Riley). Similar stories occur in the Americas, where distant tribes were sometimes described as a giants, hairy, or even cannibals—typical descriptions of found globally to symbolize the distinction between civilization and savagery.
The best known of such legends is probably that of the Yeti, an originally mythical snow god who became more and more humanoid in the telling. In 1832, B. F. Hodgson reported seeing what he considered an orangutan in Nepal, but otherwise the story only starts to really take off in 1899, when L. A. Waddell reports on the legend in his Among the Himalayas:
Some large footprints in the snow led across our track, and away up to the higher peaks. These were alleged to be the trail of the hairy wild men who are believed to live amongst the eternal snows, along with the mythical white lions, whose roar is reputed to be heard during storms. The belief in these creatures is universal among Tibetans. None, however, of the many Tibetans I have interrogated on this subject could ever give me an authentic case. On the most superficial investigation it always resolved itself into something that somebody heard tell of. These so-called hairy wild men are evidently the great yellow snowbear (Ursus isabellinus), which is highly carnivorous, and often kills yaks. Yet, although most of the Tibetans know this bear sufficiently to give it a wide berth, they live in such an atmosphere of superstition that they are always ready to find extraordinary and supernatural explanations of uncommon events.
Funny how no one goes looking for the mythical white lion. Somehow that story failed to resonate the way an ape-man did in the wake of the Origin of Species and the quest for the Missing Link. When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay spotted some of these same footprints while scaling Mt. Everest in 1953, the Yeti became internationally famous, building on an earlier flap from 1951 in which some distorted and melting footprints photographed by Eric Shipton were taken for those of the Yeti.
The modern history of Bigfoot is scarcely six decades old—the first Bigfoot report was in 1958, the result of reports coming out of California of extra-large footprints. It is likely not to be a coincidence that the earliest Bigfoot claims came on the heels of the Yeti flap and took a very similar form to the growing Yeti story. The more recent history of the creature is so familiar that I doubt anyone needs to be reminded of the various sightings, the strange claims made for the creature, or, after 1976, its increasing ties to UFOs, the Nephilim, and interdimensional travel. Today, there are those who believe that Bigfoot is a “relic hominid” that somehow survived millions of years and crossed the Bering Strait, and others who believe Bigfoot hitches rides on UFOs or could pop in between dimensions.
Bigfoot researchers have reached into the past to tie the modern myth of a giant ape to various precedents from the past. These involve tying the beast to Native American legends of cannibal giants (themselves of somewhat dubious origin) and wild men of the woods, as well as to pretty much any weird thing that ever happened in the forest. That’s how, for example, Theodore Roosevelt became a Bigfoot theorist.
Roosevelt, as Wolter says in a scene cut from this episode but posted online months ago to promote the show, “was the only president to publicly endorse the idea that Bigfoot could be real.” This is false. Bigfoot was not so named in Roosevelt’s time, nor did he ever describe the creature as a large ape-like being. What Roosevelt actually said about “Bigfoot” is too long for met to paste in here, but I’ve added it to my Library for your reading enjoyment. The long and short of it is that in 1890 an old backwoodsman told Roosevelt a tall tale about something that he said had happened to him decades before, which even Roosevelt implies might well have been a bear walking on two legs. There is no mention of Bigfoot, nor is there any indication that the story involved an ape. Roosevelt himself called it a “goblin story” and attributed it to the superstitious belief of the backwoodsman:
He must have believed what he said, for he could hardly repress a shudder at certain points of the tale; but he was of German ancestry, and in childhood had doubtless been saturated with all kinds of ghost and goblin lore. So that many fearsome superstitions were latent in his mind; besides, he knew well the stories told by the Indian medicine men in their winter camps, of the snow-walkers, and the specters, and the formless evil beings that haunt the forest depths, and dog and waylay the lonely wanderer who after nightfall passes through the regions where they lurk. It may be that when overcome by the horror of the fate that befell his friend, and when oppressed by the awful dread of the unknown, he grew to attribute, both at the time and still more in remembrance, weird and elfin traits to what was merely some abnormally wicked and cunning wild beast; but whether this was so or not, no man can say.
But to our purpose, the piece of evidence that drives this episode of America Unearthed is a petroglyph, the “Hairy Man,” a roughly 500- to 1,000-year-old shamanic Native American drawing known since the nineteenth century and often cited as resembling Sasquatch, even though it could equally depict a bear, Swamp Thing, a shaman in fringed suit, or any number of other things. A Victorian drawing of the pictographs differs a bit from the way the image appears today; the “hair” today extends above the shoulders.
What’s interesting is that when the image was published in The Beginning of Writing by Walter James Hoffman in 1895 (and described before that, in 1889), no one pronounced it evidence of a giant man-ape, or even of Roosevelt’s “unknown beast-creature.” Hoffman recognized these pictures for what they were, though he was perhaps over-hasty in attributing to them proto-writing:
The figures are those of human beings, the largest approaching life-size, the remaining ones being relatively smaller. The largest figure, that on the right (a), represents weeping, the arms with hands pendent, being extended as when making the gesture sign for rain, while the lines extending downward from the eyes denote tears, signifying, literally, eye-rain or weeping. It is evident that the recorder intended to convey the idea of sorrow, on account of the suffering expressed in the gestures and attitudes of others of his band shown in connection herewith. The six figures (designated by c) appear to be persons of different degrees of rank or social standing in the tribe, as indicated by the various lengths of the plumes. […] The Indians who now occupy this valley know nothing whatever of the origin of the record, nor the tribe that made it. (emphasis in original)
Hoffman wasn’t just making that up. The Tule River Indians, band of the Yokuts, identify that so-called Hairy Man was a weeping figure from their creation myth—though at a distance of 1,000 years, it’s impossible to determine the original intention of the artist.
It’s fascinating that the image only became associated with Bigfoot after the Bigfoot myth developed in the middle twentieth century. In fact, it was only in 1973 that the identification was made. By rights, were there anything to the Bigfoot myth, we ought to have clear indications much earlier—surely someone would have argued that this picture was a giant ape-man sooner. Bigfoot enthusiasts point to oral traditions that identify Hairy Man with Bigfoot-like behavior, but these stories were collected only after the Bigfoot myth became popular (it calls Bigfoot by name); versions collected before featured a more mythological and godlike character. Some anthropologists feel that the original intention may have been to depict a shamanic bear-man figure, or even a simple depiction of a rearing grizzly.
We open with a map of the United States glowing red with the more than 3,300 pulsing locations of Bigfoot sightings and intercut with dramatic reenactments of such sightings. In Lind Lakes, Minnesota, Ed Welch leaves a voicemail for Scott Wolter informing him of his own Bigfoot sighting, and then we cut to the opening credits. After that, Wolter tells us that eyewitnesses are consistent in their description of Bigfoot, but because no remains of the creature has ever been found, so he remains a “hard core skeptic” of the creature. He admits, too, that as a geologist, he has little standing to investigate Bigfoot, except that he hopes to discover whether Native American rock art can help determine whether Bigfoot “is or was real.” To that end, he’s off to Rice Creek Park Reserve in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, to meet Bigfoot eyewitness Ed Welch.
Welch takes Wolter into the woods and recounts his October 2008 sighting of Bigfoot. He says he heard a loud crack, turned, and saw an eight-foot-tall gray creature that made no sound and seemed to float through the trees. Welch says he chased the creature, which seemed to disappear. Welch reports that he immediately suffered a panic attack and spent three days in shock. I’ll give him this: This is at least a more realistic reaction than the people who report encounters with aliens, demons, and monsters as a more or less orgasmic experience.
Wolter likens the Bigfoot to other monsters of world folklore, like the Australian Yowie (last seen on In Search of Aliens) and the South American Mapinguari, which the show illustrates with a drawing of a giant ground sloth. The Yeti, of course, is the most famous of these analogues, and one whose legend predates the 1958 creation of Bigfoot.
Welch sends Wolter to Blaine, Minnesota, to meet with Doug Hajicek, described as a Bigfoot investigator. What the show doesn’t tell you is that Hajicek is the former producer of the History Channel series MonsterQuest as well as Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science for the Discovery Channel. He is the president of Whitewolf Entertainment, and his appearance here continues the incestuous round-robin of History Channel affiliated figures mutually reinforcing each other’s views. Hajicek says he’s been researching Bigfoot for 24 years, but he’s found nothing that would convince a skeptic.
Wolter wonders if Bigfoot is related to Gigantopithecus, the extinct giant ape from Asia that stood around ten feet tall and was the largest primate known to science. Hajicek shows Wolter a model of a Gigantopitecus skull and some casts of alleged Bigfoot footprints. Hajicek speculates that Gigantopithecus crossed the Bering Strait land bridge to enter North America, though it left behind no bones. “Who’s to say it didn’t migrate over to North America with other species?” Wolter asks before saying there is no evidence that they did so and he is unconvinced. As we go to commercial, Hajicek claims that he has “authentic” Bigfoot hair.
After the break, Hajicek gives Wolter some alleged Bigfoot hair he obtained from a man who claims to have seen the beast. The men look at the hair under a microscope, and Hajicek claims that the scaling pattern on the hair is consistent with a primate. Because the hair has never been cut, he says this represents the hair of a wild animal. Wolter and Hajicek agree to have the hair tested for DNA to prove whether it belongs to the legendary ape. Wolter says he remains skeptical of the creature’s existence because there are no bones or bodies. Hajicek says that the response to that is that no one finds skeletons of black bears, but Wolter has! We get some gross video of a deer rotting and being scavenged to show how fast an animal corpse can vanish.
Hajicek directs Wolter to the painted California pictographs I discussed above, as well as to another man who claims to have seen Bigfoot and to have taken video of it.
So Wolter is off to Stanislaus National Forest in Sonora, California, to look at the famous “Hairy Man” petroglyph and evaluate it as evidence of Bigfoot. Wolter meets with archaeologist Kathy Moskowitz Strain, who is a Bigfoot researcher and the author of Giants, Cannibals & Monsters: Bigfoot in Native Culture (2008). She holds an M.A. in Behavioral Science and serves as the Forest Heritage Resource and Tribal Relations Programs Manager for the Stanislaus National Forest. As we cut to commercial, Strain says she’ll show Wolter Bigfoot’s bones.
After the break and the typical on-screen recap, Strain takes Wolter to a pile of rocks that Strain says “symbolize” Bigfoot bones, but the story she tells is one of giants that she seems to be linking to Bigfoot. Strain says that mythic giants are large and hairy and therefore are Bigfoot stories. She shows Wolter an image of the Hairy Man pictograph, and both identify the Hairy Man figure as Bigfoot. Wolter finds the picture and Native American folklore to be “very compelling” evidence of Bigfoot, but neither consider other explanations for the Hairy Man figure beyond Bigfoot, nor place it in any sort of context. The identification of the picture as the Hairy Man, for example, dates to 1900 (reported in 1929) and cannot be assumed to be an accurate translation of the intention of the artist who drew it sometime between 1 CE and 1200 CE. As we saw above, when Hoffman investigated in the 1880s, the Native people of the area denied knowledge of the images.
Wolter flies off to the Himalayas to investigate whether the Yeti is related to Bigfoot and therefore supports the Bering Strait crossing hypothesis.
After a very long travelogue and recap, Wolter is in the Himalayas, in Nepal, at Namche Bazaar. Wolter buys a hat and explains to us who the Sherpa are. He meets with Sona Hishi Sherpa, a retired guide, and asks him about legends of the Yeti. He tells Wolter that in the 1960s the Yeti killed six yaks by squeezing them to death. He says that the Yeti lives only above the timber line and that there are no other animals who live so high and could explain the death of the yaks.
The men trek high into the mountains and meet with an old man who claims that he saw a white-fur-covered Yeti when he was fourteen years old. He tells Wolter that the Yeti will only come when everyone is quiet and there are few people around. Sona Hishi Sherpa tells Wolter that there is some tangible proof, a Yeti scalp kept in the Khumjung monastery. Sir Edmund Hillary obtained an alleged Yeti scalp from this same monastery in 1960, and it turned out to be the hair of a serow, a Himalayan antelope. Wolter does not mention this.
After an on-screen recap, Wolter arrives at the monastery where caretaker Tenzig Tashi Sherpa shows him the alleged Yeti scalp, which he claims is 500 years old. Wolter asks the caretaker to let him examine the scalp in order to compare the hair to alleged Bigfoot hair, and he agrees on the condition that Wolter take only pictures and lay no hand on the artifact, which identifies as of special value to the Sherpa people. Wolter’s photo shows that the hair has been cut and therefore is likely to be that of a domestic animal that had been sheared at some point. Logically, this isn’t necessarily true; in theory, a shaggy Yeti could have been trimmed after death to be more presentable for display, but it’s unlikely.
Wolter’s trip to the Himalayas was a huge waste of time, and it produced less interesting evidence that Josh Gates’s similar trek in search of the Yeti on Destination Truth back in 2008. On that show, Gates found alleged Yeti footprints that Bigfoot researcher Jeffrey Meldrum (seen on In Search of Aliens) authenticated before changing his mind. Wolter went all the way to Nepal and didn’t even try to go on a Yeti stakeout.
Back in Minnesota, Wolter recaps the episode and reminds us about the DNA testing he commissioned on the alleged Bigfoot hair. Meeting Hajicek on a road, Wolter informs him that the DNA test completed in May 2014 revealed that the hair was human. “I disagree,” Hajicek said. “Every time I have had a Bigfoot hair tested, they always come back as human.” Hajicek, who seems to be a bit fuzzy on the concepts of DNA and evolution, says that the hair tests as human because Bigfoot is the “missing link” between human beings and the extinct great apes like Gigantopithecus. He believes Bigfoot is humanity’s closest living relative! I think I liked it better when Bigfoot was a time-travelling Nephilim.
Following this, Joe Frascella arrives to tell Wolter about his encounter with Bigfoot in Minnesota. He has an iPad with him and says that he saw on the news that in July 2011 a farmer and his wife recorded an auburn-colored animal using an iPhone, and this video of an encounter just ten miles from where Frascella saw Bigfoot is therefore proof of Bigfoot’s reality. Hajicek tells Wolter that Frascella’s testimony and the iPhone video support one another and prove that each is “legit.” The blurry video, which made the rounds in August 2011, was first posted on YouTube, and the couple who claim to have shot the footage naturally refused to discuss it once investigators began poking around and some began to suspect it was a person wearing a coat. Remember, folks, Hajicek is a TV producer—this is the quality of the “evidence” used for nonfiction TV.
Wolter tells the two men that he won’t abandon his skeptical opinion of Bigfoot without hard evidence such as a body. However, he says that he feels oral history is an important resource and that because so many people believe Bigfoot is real we can’t discount Bigfoot’s existence just because there isn’t any evidence in favor of it. The producers clearly had a hand in making sure Wolter left open the door to the “mystery” of Bigfoot, but his final statement is unintentionally a description of his own quixotic quest for the Holy Bloodline of Jesus. Wolter’s efforts to find any scrap of support for a hypothesis born of fraud and faith mirrors that of the Bigfoot believers, but it’s doubtful that he would ever see the parallels.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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