Searching for questions, not answers: On the quest for cryptids

Illustration of ghosts and music notes in a forest
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Editor’s note: The original illustration attached to this story was removed for internal reasons.

In 1847, Thomas S. Savage returned to the U.S. from West Africa with a box of bones and a point to prove. Up until that point, gorillas were classified as cryptids, a word seeped in doubt, but their acknowledgment by the scientific community brought them into the realm of “discovery” and bolstered Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Gorillas aren’t the only animal to first appear in human history as a cryptid, with other notables being the komodo dragon, the manatee and the megamouth shark, to name a few. In the years since these discoveries, a persistent misconception that cryptids are exclusively the stuff of myth has blossomed. Yet, in spite of the overwhelming societal doubt and even dismissal, there is still a dedicated group of cryptozoologists who search for these creatures.

Perhaps the most famous are the people who search for sasquatch, or Bigfoot. While belief in Bigfoot remains niche, the figure of the tall, hairy, giant, stomping humanoid has seeped into popular culture for decades, particularly in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where many of the historic Bigfoot sightings occurred, including the glimpse recorded by the Patterson-Gimlin footage which was shot in Bluff Creek, Calif. and has been hotly debated for decades. Over the years, several pieces of evidence have emerged, including a couple of Bigfoot tracks and hundreds of eyewitness sightings.

But what distinguishes Bigfoot from the other cryptids? For one, there has been a version of Sasquatch in nearly every region of the world for centuries. There is also some physical evidence that, while contested, lends at least enough credence to the eyewitness accounts to interest some members of the scientific community.

Jane Goodall, a British ethologist who revolutionized research on chimpanzees, has said on several occasions over the years that she is a believer, and other scientists have also conducted inquiries, including Grover Krantz, a UC Berkeley alumnus who taught at Washington State University and Jeffrey Meldrum, who wrote “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science” and teaches at Idaho State University. UC Berkeley even hosted an exhibition at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology back in 2008 to display the infamous “Cripplefoot tracks.”

To be clear, the existence of Bigfoot has not been substantiated, but it is a question worth exploring — and several serious academics have done just that. On the other side, however, are cryptids like Mothman.

Mothman is a cryptid whose entire existence is based on one sighting in 1966 in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Over the years, it has amassed a cult following, with the subsequent release of a book and a movie, along with a museum in Point Pleasant devoted to the creature. What it is lacking, however, is enough evidence to inspire any sort of devoted investigation. It is an incredibly fun story, but the chances of discovering a herd of wild Mothmen are slim.

What it is lacking, however, is enough evidence to inspire any sort of devoted investigation. It is an incredibly fun story, but the chances of discovering a herd of wild Mothmen are slim.

These two cryptids do share a commonality — in fact, what they share is the backbone of cryptozoology, possibly the reason these searches persist, and also the reason many scientists don’t take them seriously: They all depend on eyewitness testimony.

The question of the reliability of memory has been the subject of immense controversy in the last few decades. In the 1990s, Elizabeth Loftus began to chip away at the then-pervasive belief in repressed memories, most famously with her “Lost in the Mall” study, in which participants were presented with three of their real memories and then told a prewritten story about being lost in a shopping mall. What Loftus discovered was that after hearing the story, 20% of participants would suddenly “remember” being lost in a shopping mall, an event which they had not actually experienced. Loftus’s work has been extraordinarily influential in criminal justice, and it raises serious questions for investigations into cryptids.

To this point, in their book, “Abominable Science!” Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero raise the point that the pervasive nature of Bigfoot stories actually makes eyewitness accounts even less reliable. When people see something troubling that they can’t immediately make sense of, they can simply fill in the narrative of sasquatch (or alien abduction, or a lake monster, etc.) to explain the inexplicable. And given that many of these stories are set in the wilderness, often in moments of extreme stress, it’s far from surprising that people can’t always clearly make out what they’re seeing.

While eyewitness testimony isn’t enough to carry an entire investigation, it isn’t a bad starting point. We may never know for sure if sasquatch really does roam the woods of the West Coast, at least not until there is a box of bones to examine, but dismissing the question of the existence of Bigfoot — or any cryptid for that matter — serves nobody. Science is a chorus of voices that is always growing and shifting, and shutting out curious minds only serves to narrow the possibilities of discovery.

There is something deeply beautiful and humbling about the enduring search for something elusive and magical that we, as adults, often lose. Those of us out there searching for a flash of fur, a ripple in the water or a flutter of giant wings have held onto that. They deserve our admiration and respect, and, when we see something strange, we owe it to them to widen our eyes and let ourselves wonder.

Contact Paige Prudhon at [email protected].