Yeti, Bigfoot, Sasquatch and Yowie - names that conjure up images of giant reclusive creatures that never quite stay still long enough for the photographer to focus their camera.
Over the years, hundreds of sightings of these supposedly mythical beasts have been recorded around the world by the public and so-called cryptozoologists, who scour the world in search of evidence for their existence. “Proof” comes in many forms, from fuzzy photographs and shaky videos to plaster casts of footprints and tufts of hair. But, as yet, none of these encounters has provided any conclusive evidence and cryptozoology remains a field largely disregarded by science. Instead, with a knowing look and a snigger, “sightings” of “cryptids” are explained away as hoaxes, existing species or the products of over excited imaginations.
So it makes it all the more extraordinary that established scientists would become involved in a search that, on the face of it, looks like it could help to prove whether or not these undocumented creatures exist. But, in May of this year, researchers from Switzerland and the UK did just that when they launched the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project.
“It’s one of the claims by cryptozoologists that science does not take them seriously. Well, this is their chance. We are calling for people to send us their evidence, and we will test it through DNA analysis,” says Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford in the UK.
It is likely that the project is the biggest and most comprehensive attempt yet to probe suspected “remains”. “Nothing like this, on this level, has been done before,” says Richard Freeman from the Centre for Fortean Zoology in the UK. But therein lies the rub. For people like Freeman who devote their lives to looking for these creatures, it is the biggest signal yet that after years out in the cold mainstream science is finally taking the seriously. But for some scientists, the whole venture is an embarrassing curiosity to be held at arm’s length.
Sykes is no stranger to media storms. As well as his work retrieving ancient DNA samples and mapping human migration through DNA analysis, he is also the founder of a business called Oxford Ancestors, which helps people trace their relatives through DNA for a fee. In 2003, the company claimed that an accountant from South Florida was a direct descendent of the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan – something that sparked headlines around the world. Later analysis – and headlines –suggested that his company’s interpretation was incorrect.
If the episode scarred Sykes, it does not show. His new project was similarly announced to much fanfare, again sending headline writers into overdrive. “Scientists seek big genes of bigfoot”, read one. But the professor says that the response was to be expected. Myths and legends about these creatures loom large in every culture and the idea of finally finding solid evidence for their existence is appealing, no matter who you are. “It’s a story that just does not go away. We are so intrigued by these quests for the unknown, even doubters want to hear about developments,” he says.
For his own part, he says that he sees “no reason why there cannot be species not yet known to science”, but adds the caveat that he would “need to see the evidence”. He is also keen to point out that he is not – nor intends to become – a cryptozoologist. “I don’t not want to become completely eccentric,” he adds.