Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, is a giant ape-like creature that some people believe roams North America. It is a cryptid (opens in new tab) (or species rumored to exist)and just like the Chupacabra or Loch Ness monster (opens in new tab), there's scant physical evidence to suggest Bigfoot is actually out there. But that doesn't stop alleged sightings of the ape that never shows its face or Bigfoot buffs from trying to prove there's life in the legend.
Most Bigfoot sightings occur in the Northwest, where the creature can be linked to Indigenous myths and legends. The word Sasquatch is derived from Sasq’ets, a word from the Halq’emeylem language used by some Salish First Nations peoples in southwestern British Columbia, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia (opens in new tab). It means "wild man" or "hairy man."
What started the Bigfoot phenomenon?
As early as 1884, the British Colonist newspaper in Victoria, Canada published an account of a “gorilla type” creature captured in the area. Other accounts, largely decried as hoaxes, followed, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia (opens in new tab). Sasquatch book author John Green compiled a list of 1,340 sightings through the 19th and 20th centuries. But the modern Bigfoot or Sasquatch myth gained new life in the late 1950s.
In 1958, the Humboldt Times, a local newspaper in Northern California, published a story about the discovery of giant, mysterious footprints near Bluff Creek, California. In the story, they referred to the creature that made them as “Bigfoot”, according to Smithsonian Magazine (opens in new tab). Bigfoot curiosity grew rapidly during the second half of the 20th century, after an article in True magazine (opens in new tab), published in December 1959, described the 1958 discovery.
The footprints near Bluff Creek were a prank by a man called Ray Wallace, his children revealed after his death in 2002, according to Smithsonian Magazine. By that time, though, Bigfoot was firmly established in popular culture across the continent. Since the 1958 article was published, a wealth of other claims have been made about Sasquatch tracks, casts, photos, videos, and other "evidence."
Related: Infographic: Tracking belief in Bigfoot (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab)
There have been more than 10,000 eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot in the continental U.S. in the last 50 years, Live Science reported (opens in new tab) in 2019. In these accounts, Bigfoot is usually described as being about 8 to 10 feet (2.4 to 3 meters) tall and covered in hair.
Eyewitness reports, or sightings, are the most common evidence put forward for the existence of Bigfoot. Unfortunately, these are based on human memories, and memories are not reliable, Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab). In crime cases, for example, witnesses can be influenced by their emotions and may miss or distort important details. In the same vein, people also often overestimate their ability to remember things. When it comes to cryptids like Bigfoot, the human brain is capable of making up explanations for events it can't immediately interpret, and many people simply want to believe they exist, Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab).
Related: Real or not? The science behind 12 unusual sightings (opens in new tab)
Bigfoot video and photographs
The most famous Bigfoot video is a short film taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, known as the "Patterson–Gimlin film," or "Patterson film." Shot in Bluff Creek, the video shows what appears to be a large and hairy bipedal ape, or Bigfoot, striding through a clearing. The video's authenticity is still debated but it was likely a hoax, with the ape-like figure just a human wearing a costume.
With the rise of high-quality cameras in smartphones, photographs of people, cars, mountains, flowers, sunsets, deer (opens in new tab) and more have gotten sharper and clearer over the years; Bigfoot is a notable exception. The logical explanation for this discrepancy is that the creatures don't exist, and that photographs of them are merely hoaxes or misidentifications.
Some people claim to have heard Bigfoot shrieks (opens in new tab), howls, growls, screams or other vocalizations. The creatures are also associated with other noises, such as wood-knocking, according to Scientific American (opens in new tab). Strange noise recordings associated with Bigfoot occasionally attract media attention but the noises can often be attributed to known animals, such as foxes (opens in new tab) or coyotes (opens in new tab).
Experts can't always identify the exact animal in strange recordings that cryptozoologists, people who search for creatures rumored to exist, point to as Bigfoot evidence. In 2019, for example, a YouTube video (opens in new tab) of mysterious howls and screams in a forest in northwestern Ontario, Canada went viral, driving Bigfoot speculation. Jolanta Kowalski, Ontario’s Ministry of Resources and Forestry media relations officer, told Vice News (opens in new tab) at the time: “Our biologists say it could be a larger mammal–for example a wolf–but because it’s a considerable distance from the recorder there is no way to know for sure.”
The late anthropologist Grover Krantz investigated sound recordings claimed to be of Bigfoot for his book "Big Footprints: A Scientific Inquiry Into the Reality of Sasquatch (opens in new tab)" (Johnson Books, 1992). He listened to at least 10 tapes and found "no compelling reason to believe that any of them are what the recorders claimed them to be," Live Science previously reported.
Elusive hard evidence
There is no hard evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. Krantz, the anthropologist who investigated sound recordings, also discussed alleged Bigfoot hair, feces, skin scrapings and blood in his "Big Footprints" book. "The usual fate of these items is that they either receive no scientific study, or else the documentation of that study is either lost or unobtainable," he wrote. "In most cases where competent analyses have been made, the material turned out to be bogus or else no determination could be made."
When alleged Bigfoot samples are subject to vigorous scientific analysis, they typically turn out to be from ordinary sources. For example, in 2014, a team of researchers led by the late geneticist Bryan Sykes from the University of Oxford in England, conducted genetic analysis on 36 hair samples claimed to belong to Bigfoot or the Yeti (opens in new tab) — a similar ape-like creature said to exist in the Himalayas. Almost all of the hairs turned out to be from known animals such as cows, raccoons (opens in new tab), deer and humans. However, two of the samples closely matched an extinct Paleolithic polar bear (opens in new tab), Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab). These samples may have come from an unknown bear species or a hybrid of modern bears, but they were from a bear, not a primate.
Related: Bigfoot's FBI file reveals strange story of a monster hunter and 15 mysterious hairs (opens in new tab)
The study of genetics (opens in new tab) provides another reason to doubt the existence of Bigfoot. A single creature can't breed and maintain a population, much less a species. For Bigfoot to be viable, it would need to have a population, or populations, large enough to avoid inbreeding and low genetic diversity, (opens in new tab) or else face extinction.
The existence of multiple Bigfoot increases the chances that one would be killed by a hunter or hit by a motorist on a highway, or even found dead (by accident, disease, or old age) by a hiker or farmer at some point, yet no bodies have ever been found. People do occasionally claim to find bones or other large body parts. For example, a man in Utah discovered what he thought was a fossilized Bigfoot skull in 2013. A paleontologist confirmed that the "skull" was simply an oddly weathered rock, Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
Bigfoot hoaxers (opens in new tab) have further complicated the problem of sorting Sasquatch fact from fiction. Dozens of people have admitted or been found out to have faked Bigfoot prints, photographs, and nearly every other type of Bigfoot evidence. One prominent example is Ray Wallace, whose family revealed he was responsible for the footprints near Bluff Creek in 1958. An even earlier example is the late Rant Mullens, who was a logger in Toledo, Washington. In 1982, he admitted to carving giant feet out of wood and using them to make fake tracks with the help of a friend in the 1920s, The Chronicle (opens in new tab), a Washington newspaper, reported in 2007. This built on the legend of ape-like men decades before Wallace's footprints helped make Bigfoot a phenomenon.
There are also 21st century examples of Bigfoot hoaxes. In 2008, two men from Georgia claimed to have a complete, frozen Bigfoot specimen that they found on a hike. Their Bigfoot turned out to be a gorilla (opens in new tab) costume, Reuters (opens in new tab) reported in 2008.
Justin Humphrey, an Oklahoma lawmaker, proposed creating a Bigfoot hunting season in January, 2021, CNN (opens in new tab) reported. Humphrey suggested that the hunting season could coincide with an annual Bigfoot festival that takes place in Honobia, Oklahoma, and would help to bring more tourists to the area. Oklahoma tourism officials later announced a $2.1 million bounty in March for the capture of a live Bigfoot, NPR (opens in new tab) reported.
Related: 'Expedition Bigfoot' scours Oregon woods for signs of the mythical and elusive beast (opens in new tab)
The real Bigfoot
Scientific evidence for the existence of a modern-day Bigfoot may be proving elusive, but a giant, bipedal ape (opens in new tab) did once walk the Earth. A species named Gigantopithecus blacki was about 10 feet (3 m.) tall and weighed up to 595 lbs. (270 kilograms), based on fossil evidence. However, Gigantopithecus lived in Southeast Asia, not North America, and went extinct hundreds of thousands of years ago. The extinct ape is also more closely related to modern orangutans than to humans or our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, Live Science previously reported (opens in new tab).
Many books about Bigfoot have been published. For a critical history of the Bigfoot phenomenon, check out "Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend (opens in new tab)" (University of Chicago Press, 2010). Another option is "Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology (opens in new tab)" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which explores the relationship between professional scientists and cryptozoologists, as well as the nature of monster hunting in the late 20th century.
The Times-Standard (opens in new tab), a newspaper covering California's North Coast, looks at the reporting that sparked the Bigfoot phenomenon if you want to learn more about the origins of the contemporary myth. The University of California Berkeley's Cal Alumni Association (opens in new tab) offers great information on whether bigfoot is worthy of scientific analysis and whether science benefits from such monster hunts.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Tracking the Chupacabra (opens in new tab)" (University of New Mexico Press, 2011) and "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries (opens in new tab)" (Rhombus Publishing Company, 2010). His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.
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Robert Roy Britt, Live Science, "'Skull' Claimed as Rock-Solid Evidence of Bigfoot," June 29, 2013. https://www.livescience.com/37858-skull-claimed-as-bigfoot-evidence.html (opens in new tab)
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Stephanie Pappas, Live Science, "Eyewitness Testimony Can Be Tragically Mistaken," Sep. 22, 2011. https://www.livescience.com/16194-crime-eyewitnesses-mistakes.html (opens in new tab)
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Tia Ghose, Live Science, "Sorry, That 'Bigfoot DNA' Came from a Raccoon," July 2, 2014. https://www.livescience.com/46631-bigfoot-samples-from-existing-animals.html (opens in new tab)