Sometimes I tell people Bigfoot is real and I have a mandible I excavated to prove it.

Sometimes I tell people Bigfoot is real and I have a mandible I excavated to prove it.

Bigfoot has been in the news quite a bit recently, with considerable hoopla being generated in both mainstream and social media by one recent report on an anthropologist seeking money to buy a blimp for the purpose of finding Bigfoot and even more hoopla following a press release purporting a team of scientists has sequenced Bigfoot DNA. The academic-oriented Twitterverse and  Blogosphere were both ablaze with comment, almost entirely negative.

Of course both stories have more value in the realm of entertainment than in that of scholarship.  If the anthropologist gets the money for a blimp it is more likely to come from a reality television show than a scholarly funding agency, and the expectation that scientists have sequenced Bigfoot DNA is less than reasonable. Recent popular interest in Bigfoot however may have implications for archaeology in North America.

Archaeologists have a long history of being largely silent on Bigfoot, leaving it to their colleagues in biological anthropology and cultural anthropology to comment on almost anything related to its purported existence. Biological anthropologists, for example, often offer critical perspectives, citing the principles of science, evolutionary theory, the fossil record, and primate behaviour.  Cultural anthropologists often comment on Bigfoot-like figures in the belief systems of the Indigenous Peoples of North America.

Archaeologists too can make useful contributions to the science or pseudoscience of Bigfoot and for those so inclined the timing is good to start now. I think interest in Bigfoot goes in cycles and we are in a period of peak Bigfoot popularity right now. In addition to the recent stories involving blimps and DNA, for example, Finding Bigfoot is a popular television program, the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization is becoming widely known, and the director of the Blair Witch Project is reportedly working on a movie about Bigfoot.

There is something useful in Bigfoot for archaeologists in the classroom and in the field.

In the classroom Bigfoot can be used to launch into a variety of topics, including the nature of scientific enquiry, obtaining funding, field methods, and evaluating hypotheses.  When I first saw the media report, via Twitter, about the anthropologist seeking $300,000 to buy a blimp to look for Bigfoot, I immediately re-tweeted the story, adding that I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to find one and it was a waste of money. Archaeologist Tim Rast (@ElfshotGallery), in turn, humorously tweeted that “Nothing says science like looking for Bigfoot with a blimp”.    Within an hour I was in class using the original story and the media it generated to launch into a discussion. Because my students were most interested in the money, I decided to spend some class time on educating them on the process of obtaining project funding, reasoning the likely reason why the anthropologist was looking for private funding was because no legitimate scholarly source of funding and scholarly peer review would see this as a worthwhile project or use of money.

In future classes, when popular interest in Bigfoot is high, I may consider using Bigfoot  to launch into topics relating to research design (eg. what kind of evidence would an archaeologist seek; predictive modelling), field methods (eg. not likely to use a blimp), preservation (a common explanation by believers for the lack of skeletal remains is that Bigfoot buried their dead, clearly not understanding that burial is more likely to preserve the remains and archaeologists can identify burials from the surface), and ways of evaluating hypotheses (eg. not accepting one hypothesis by merely rejecting the others).

For archaeologists working in the field there are a few things to consider. Firstly, maybe they should be on the lookout for Bigfoot when looking for archaeological sites in forests, or since Bigfoot reportedly like pastries and bagels, archaeologists should also be on high-alert around donut shops. More seriously though, since Bigfoot-like creatures are prominent in belief systems of many North American Indigenous groups, archaeologists should be respectful of those beliefs when working with Indigenous peoples and/or in their territories.  I have heard of at least one Indigenous group that requires archaeologists working within their territories to report any Bigfoot sightings to the Indigenous group and thereafter maintain confidentiality. I am also aware that when some archaeologists undertake traditional use studies for Indigenous groups they sometimes identify areas of purported Bigfoot activity under the category of “spiritual areas.”

It may be useful for archaeologists working in the field to understand Indigenous beliefs about purported Bigfoot-like creatures in order to understand the archaeological record. Archaeologist Rudy Riemer/Yumks is an assistant professor in both the Archaeology and First Nations Studies departments at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Squamish First Nation. In an article called “Smaylilh or Wild People Archaeology” he discusses the possibility that when people have sighted Bigfoot-like beings they may in fact be seeing young men on multi-year vision quests to become shamans, and remote archaeological sites may have been created by the same (ie. young men on vision quests, sometimes mistaken for Bigfoot-like beings).

Although there is potential for using Bigfoot to teach archaeology in the classroom and to become aware of, and respectful of, Indigenous beliefs about Bigfoot-like beings, I’m not proposing anything like an archaeology of Bigfoot project. It could be a slippery slope, potentially leading the archaeology of fairies, leprechauns, mermaids, and unicorns. Wait a minute, according to some news reports, archaeologists in North Korea have recently discovered a unicorn lair. Archaeologist John R. Roby blogged about it.

By the way, the mandible in the photo isn’t real. It is a cast created by my friend, colleague, and artist George Rammell for an art installation called the Epiphany of St. Pithecus. I just use it to get the conversation started.

Robert Muckle has been practicing, teaching, and writing about archaeology for more than 20 years. He has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, all published by the University of Toronto Press. He has archaeological field experience in both the United States and Canada, continues to direct field projects in the summer months, and is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at bmuckle@capilanou.ca

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