Field of Science

The true Geology behind The X-Files: The Jersey Devil

Mulder: "But, but what if through some fluke of nature, a human was born, who reverted to it's most animal instincts, a kind of carnivorous neanderthal. Wouldn't he occupy a space above us on the food chain?"

In the X-Files episode "The Jersey Devil" (season 1, episode 5) special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a supposed serial killer with cannibalistic tendencies hiding in the woods of New Jersey. Strange drawings let Mulder speculate about a surviving population of prehistoric man-beasts..
The idea of the missing link, an intermediary creature between apes and man, was introduced by Victorian geologist Charles Lyell in 1837 but still it´s very popular in our imagination.

On a cold morning in 1969 local residents of Colville  (Washington, U.S.A.) found more than 1.000 tracks of an unknown creature in the snow. Strangely the tracks resembled a gigantic human foot, one track showed even a malformation, caused supposedly by a severe injury. Casts were made of the more unusual tracks and send to anthropologist Grover Sanders Krantz (1931-2002), who soon was convinced that no trickster could fake such tracks – the creature was surely bigfoot, a supposed giant ape living in the forests of North America.
Fig.1. Reconstruction of Neanderthal man as ape-man for a newspaper, art by Frantisek Kupka (1909).

First tales of strange creatures living in the woods were collected by schoolteacher and amateur mythologist John W. Burns in the 1920s, who however described a myth of a giant race of Indians, not apes.  
However the modern story of bigfoot started not in America but in Asia. In 1951 with the discovery by Alpinist  (with a strange sense of humour) Eric Shipton of large tracks in the Himalayas. Eminent zoologist Wladimir Tschernezky was sure that the tracks were made by a large, bipedal and unknown hominid, maybe a descendent of the extinct gigantic ape Gigantopithecus, living during the Pleistocene in Asia. Journalist John W. Green (1927-2016) published in 1968 “On the Track of Sasquatch”, a book where he, even if not claiming that bigfoot is in fact Gigantopithecus, made the argument that if in the past large apes existed it´s not impossible that such animals still exist.
Fig.2. The famous Patterson-Gimli film, showing a supposed encounter with a female bigfoot in California, from 1967 shows bigfoot suspiciously ape-man and Mulder´s supposed culprit in the X-file:

The direct connection between Giganto and anomalous primates was made first by zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans in 1952, based on reconstructions of Gigantophitecus by German palaeontologist Franz Weidenreich (1873-1948) and Ralph Von Koenigswald (1902-1982) as primitive man. Heuvelman writes “this theory, which is utterly hypothetical, provides the only entirely acceptable explanation of the mystery of the Abominable Snowman.” Krantz after reading Green´s book popularized this idea in TV. Krantz argued that migrating groups of Giganto evolved into local populations of anomalous primates, in Asia into the Yeti and in America into the Bigfoot. In 1955 a certain William Roe claimed to have encountered bigfoot, describing it appropriately now as a “giant ape” (Roe´s story was however never verified) - the idea of humans living hidden in the woods was replaced by apes and suddenly people started to talk about strange encounters with hairy ape-man beasts. 
Bigfoot got its name finally in 1958, with an article about alleged bigfoot tracks found at Bluff Creek (California), revealed later to be in fact only fakes.


However the entire Gigntopithecus-hypothesis is based on an outdated reconstructions of the species, as is the idea of a linear evolution of humans.
Franz Weidenreich reconstructed Gigantopithecus, known only from a fragmentary fossil record, as a sort missing link between apes and man - with the appearance of a hairy ape but bipedal locomotion as humans do. However modern reconstructions see it as related more closely to the orangutan than any other large apes or humans. Bigfoot is however rarely (make it never) described as large orangutan.

Mulder muses that his idea of surviving large hominids is highly unlikely, but not outside the realm of extreme possibilities. However as primatologist John Napier (1817-1987) explains, the existence of past species in an entire different ecosystem doesn´t give veracity to modern sightings and misidentifications with no unequivocal physical evidence to back them:

By postulating that a monster is a relic form -  a hangover from the past – monster fans feel absolved from the necessity of explaining how such an outrageous unsuitable creature has evolved in the light of present-day ecology.”

*As for the tracks of Colville. Amateur bigfoot hunter Renè Dahinden (1930-2001) considered the tracks more than suspicious, as no creature was spotted despite thousands of tracks and the first discovery was made by Ivan Marx, a known hoaxer of bigfoot encounters.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

DELISLE, R.G. (2012): Welcome to the Twilight Zone: a forgotten early phase of human evolutionary studies. Endaevour Vol.36 (2): 55- 64
KJAERGAARD, P.C. (2011): 'Hurrah for the missing link!': a history of apes, ancestors and a crucial piece of evidence. Notes Rec. R. Soc. 65: 83-98
LOZIER, J.D.; ANIELLO, P. & HICKERSON, M.J. (2009): Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modelling. Journal of Biogeography: 1- 5
MELDRUM, J. (2007): Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. Forge-Publishing: 297
REGAL, B. (2008): Amateur versus professional: the search for Bigfoot. Endaevour Vol.32 (2): 1- 5
REGAL, B. (2009): Entering dubious realms: Grover Krantz, science, and Sasquatch. Ann. Sci. Vol.66(1): 83-102
REGAL, B. (2011): Searching for Sasquatch – Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. Palgrave Macmillian Publisher: 249

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