UF study: Bigfoot myth persists because it depicts humans' wild side

Published: December 15 2004

Category:Natural History, Research, Sciences

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There’s plenty to debunk about the Bigfoot myth, but people may not listen because they have a love-hate relationship with the gigantic hairy monster, says a University of Florida researcher.

“People express a reverence for the grandeur of the animal and derive meaning from Bigfoot because it represents where we came from,” said UF anthropologist David Daegling. “I think Bigfoot depicts the wild and uncultured side of who we are, a side we are both attracted to and repulsed by.”

Bigfoot has captured the popular imagination with tantalizing clues and alleged sightings since 1958, when mysterious giant footprints were found in the northern California wilderness and documented on the front page of a local newspaper in 1958. In his new book “Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America’s Enduring Legend,” published this month by Altamira Press, Daegling examines some of the most celebrated Bigfoot claims regarding the number, size and frequency of footprints found deep in the forest, hair samples that defy description and famous film footage that some people hold up as the strongest proof of the creature’s existence.

“The problem historically has been that investigators have been too quick to believe in Bigfoot rather than be critical about the evidence from the start,” Daegling said.

Michael Dennett, scientific and technical consultant to Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that tells what the scientific community knows about paranormal claims, said in his 20 years researching Bigfoot, Daegling’s work is the “best book I’ve seen, way above anything previously available.

“In truth, many of the issues are far more complex than might seem, yet this book cuts through the fog to reveal the real as well as the unreal parts of the story,” Dennett said.

Daegling became familiar with the legend as a child growing up in northern California. These days, because of his scientific background, he has been asked to speak publicly and review books on the subject, and he worked with a colleague who specializes in locomotion studies to analyze the 1967 Bigfoot film. The footage was shot by Roger Patterson, who reportedly was searching for Bigfoot with a friend and caught images of what he claims was the creature stomping through the wilderness.

While the film contains no “smoking gun,” the possibility of a hoax can’t be ruled out, Daegling said.

Bigfoot proponents claim the creature must be real because its ape-like walk differs from that of a human, but people could easily duplicate the gait by roughly imitating Groucho Marx’s walk, he said. Daegling said what’s seen on the film has been studied in biomechanics literature for years.

Some Bigfoot advocates insist it would be impossible for the character in the film to be a person in a bulky costume because it moves so fluidly, with muscles appearing to move as the animal moves, Daegling said. But that lifelike movement could be achieved by an old Hollywood trick of placing water bags underneath the costume, he said.

“The guys who took this movie did not go to the local costume shop and rent a gorilla outfit,” he said. “It’s definitely not a cheap carnival suit.”

Adding to the confusion is that the film was shot with 16mm film under less-than-ideal conditions, giving it a jerky, fuzzy quality. “It’s entirely possible that in 1967 a very convincing costume in conjunction with a rather poor-quality film could produce a series of images that people would find very compelling,” he said.

Another Bigfoot clue, the presence of giant footprints, doesn’t argue for the creature’s existence either because someone could easily have put on a pair of fake feet or made such impressions with their hands or some sort of tool, Daegling said. In fact, when Bigfoot enthusiast Ray Wallace died recently, his family revealed in widely published reports that he had faked Bigfoot footprints by strapping on a pair of large wooden feet he had asked a friend to carve and stomping around in the wilderness near sites where he worked paving roads, he said.

If any of the footprints are real, it raises the question of why no bones have ever been found, Daegling said. “These so-called footprints belong to an uncataloged primate for whom we have not a single specimen,” he said. “If there is something that exists that weighs a ton, is 8 feet tall and roams around the forest, how is it we’ve got museums full of bones from bears, squirrels and badgers, but we don’t have a single Bigfoot bone?”

There was a report of a hunter saying he shot and killed Bigfoot, but as luck would have it he shot it at the edge of a canyon, it fell into the canyon and the body was never found, he said. “When you look at the evidence scientifically, it’s far more likely that what’s behind Bigfoot are people for whom the legend is meaningful and people who perpetuate the legend through hoaxes,” he said.

Followers live in such hotbeds of reported Bigfoot activity as Ohio, Michigan or Texas. Perhaps the most important development in the hairy giant’s recent history is the technological advance of the Internet infusing new life into the legend, Daegling said. “The Internet assures Bigfoot is saved from cultural extinction by allowing a diffuse group of people all over the country to share stories and information,” he said.


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186
David Daegling, daegling@anthro.ufl.edu, (352) 392-2253, Ext. 245

Category:Natural History, Research, Sciences