It seemed like most of the about 50 people at the Triad Theater last Thursday either believed or wanted to believe.
Believe in what?
Bigfoot. Sasquatch. The “abominable snowmen of America.” Take your pick.
But for Idaho State University Professor Jeffrey Meldrum, Ph.D., who the spectators came to see, Bigfoot is a scientific mystery, not a matter of belief.
Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropology and an expert on foot morphology and locomotion in primates, explained his approach to scientifically documenting the perhaps not-so-mythical creature most famously known as Bigfoot.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in order to involve myself in a professional capacity is to translate the perception of this topic from the tabloid squarely into the realm of biological science,” Meldrum told the audience. “The approach I take as an anatomist and a physical anthropologist, is the fundamental question: Is there a species of large bipedal upright primate in North America behind the legend of sasquatch?”
Meldrum said that while his personal belief has no bearing in a scientific investigation into Bigfoot’s existence, the evidence he’s studied has left him convinced an unknown species of animal exists in North America.
He first began studying that evidence in 1996, he said, when he had the opportunity to observe fresh tracks, purportedly left by a Bigfoot, in Southwest Washington.
He was well-versed in comparing the anatomy and “functional morphology” of primate feet, from small monkeys to the fossilized skeletons of extinct hominids, he said.
Meldrum used that background to analyze the tracks, and a bump in the middle of one track led him to believe the foot possessed a “midtarsal break”— a flexible break in the middle of the feet of primates like chimpanzees that allows them to grasp branches as they climb through trees.
In some of the tracks, only the forward part of the foot left an impression on the ground. This also suggested a foot far more flexible than a human’s, Meldrum said.
If the tracks were the product of a hoax, who would have known to make a half track, and known exactly where to stop the tracks? he asked.
So what is Bigfoot?
One of the most popular theories is that the creatures are Gigantopithecus, a genus of ape believed to be extinct.
Australopithecus robustus, a hominid believed to have lived 1.2 to 2 million years ago, is another possibility, he said.
In his presentation, Meldrum scaled an A. robustus skull to the subject of the famous Patterson-Gimlin film, which features footage of a purported sasquatch. The crest, brow ridge, nose, jaw angle and other features matched up perfectly.
A gorilla face would not have matched up with the subject, and yet in 1967, when A. robustus had “just barely” been discovered, a King Kong-like gorilla would have been the likely inspiration for a Bigfoot costume, Meldrum said.
“If Patterson or somebody faked this, they came up with a face that anticipated this specialized adaptation and being exactly what one might expect, in hindsight, for an ape that lives in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
While A. robustus only stood about 5-foot-5, Meldrum said it could have survived, spread across Asia, increased in body size and spread across North America through the Bering land bridge.
Skeptics argue that supposed Bigfoot behavior contradicts the behavior of apes currently in existence, but a closer inspection reveals otherwise, Meldrum said.
For example, sasquatch are reported to eat fish such as salmon. After declaring the conventional wisdom that “No known ape eats fish,” he showed a photograph of two orangutans catching fish. They had been observed eating their catch, he said.
Skeptics also use the testimony of alleged hoaxters as a more plausible explanation for Bigfoot.
After Ray Wallace of Toledo died, for example, his family claimed he had used wooden carvings of Bigfoot-like feet to fabricate some of the most famous Bigfoot tracks.
Meldrum doesn’t buy the hoax story. Showing photos of the carvings and the tracks side-by-side, he pointed out numerous differences and said the carvings couldn’t have produced the tracks in question.
Criticism of the Patterson-Gimlin film also falls flat, Meldrum said. He said the contention that the sasquatch depicted in the film is a human actor in a gorilla suit falls apart when one observes the muscles coming up to the back of the head and flaring out at the shoulders.
Because human heads balance so well on the spine, we don’t require as many muscles to support it, he said. Apes like gorillas, which have massive facial skeletons and small brains, have muscles that come up to the back of the skull to help hold the head up.
In the film Shoulder blades are visible contracting under the creature’s skin as well, he added.
“There’s no costume I’ve ever seen where you can see the massiveness of the muscles,” he said.
The creature in the film consistently leans forward at about 5 degrees at all times, much like an ape, he added.
Meldrum offered possible explanations for the lack of physical evidence of Bigfoot.
In the outdoors, remains are quickly “recycled back into the nutrient cycle” by scavengers, he said. The acidic soils of wet coniferous forests quickly dissolve any remains the scavengers miss, he said.
Limestone caves, whose alkaline environments would be conducive to the preservation of bone, would be a good place to look for Bigfoot remains, Meldrum said. But even then, finding extensive skeletal remains of any creature, let alone a Bigfoot, is rare, he said.
Meldrum’s next big project, if the funding comes together, is called “The Falcon Project.”
The idea is to attach high definition cameras and state-of-the-art thermal imaging equipment to an unmanned aerial vehicle that can survey possible sasquatch habitat in an attempt to document the creatures, Meldrum said.
The project is in the fundraising stage right now and has attracted a few corporate sponsors, foundations and individual sponsors, he said.
If all goes according to plan, the project will be up and running by next summer.
In the meantime, Meldrum has launched a peer-reviewed online journal called “The Relict Hominoid Inquiry,” featuring research papers, essays, news, book reviews and other information.
To read the journal, go to www.isu.edu/rhi/