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Media madness

Here we highlight doubtful claims that have been made in the press or on TV which we think are flawed or not well supported by evidence.

Yeti, Bigfoot and Sasquatch

The Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot and Sasquatch are some of the names used to describe various "cryptic primates" - large ape-like mythological beasts that have supposedly been sighted in different parts of the world. However, reliable evidence in the form of fossils, bodies or body parts, has never been found - if they existed we should see dead bodies occasionally. DNA analysis of hair samples, blood and tissues purporting to originate from the beasts will always, it seems, be popular in the media.

Dr Melba Ketchum's Sasquatch Genome Project analysed blood, tissue, hair and other samples purporting to have come from the elusive hominim Sasquatch in North America. The mtDNA was found to match that of modern humans, but the authors claimed that the "Sasquatch nuclear DNA is a mosaic comprising human DNA interspersed with sequence that is novel but primate in origin". However, the "scientific journal" in which the research was published is Dr Ketchum's own journal Denovo, launched in February 2013. As of July 2014 the Sasquatch paper is the only article that has yet appeared in this journal. Eric Berger, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, sent some of Dr Ketchum's DNA samples to an independent geneticist for analysis, and the samples were found to have the genetic make-up of an opossum. The results are disputed by Dr Ketchum who has asked for a new independent study.

The Oxford Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project, a collaborative venture led by Bryan Sykes, a former professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, and Michel Sartori, Director of the Lausanne Museum of Zoology, was set up to use genetic techniques to investigate organic remains from the Yeti and other purported hominid species. Hair and teeth samples claimed to come from Bigfoot and Yeti were solicited from individuals and institutions from around the world.  A peer-reviewed scientific paper "Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates" was published in July 2014 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Thirty-six of the 57 samples received were selected for DNA testing, and mitochondrial DNA was extracted from 30 of the samples. Perhaps not surprisingly the samples were found to have come from a variety of well known animals (bears, cows, horses, etc). More controversially, two of the samples were found to match the mtDNA of a Pleistocene polar bear that lived more than 40,000 years ago. However, another researcher, Dr Frank Hailer from the Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany, was unable to to confirm the authors' reported results and suggested that the sequences were from a Siberian/Alaskan polar bear that was sampled around ten years ago.

The findings were also challenged by Ceiridwen Edwards of the University of Oxford and Ross Barnett from the Natural History Museum of Denmark in a letter published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in December 2014. Edwards and Barnett found that the two mtDNA sequences matched a modern polar bear sequence on GenBank and not that of an ancient polar bear. They further suggested that the single mutation that led the authors to assign the sequences to an ancient polar bear was in fact a damage artefact. They offered the more plausible explanation that the two hair samples were from Himalayan brown bears. In an invited reply in the same issue Melton, Sartori and Sykes acknowledged the error in their GenBank search but stood by their methodology.

A further challenge came from Eliécer Gutiérrez of the Smithsonian Institution and Ronald H. Pine from the Biodiversity Institute in Kansas who published a critique in ZooKeys in March 2015. They conducted a phylogenetic analysis and concluded that "there is no reason to believe that the two samples came from anything other than Brown Bears."

The Sunday Times subsequently reported that the Institute of Genetics at Oxford University, which Sykes had used as his affiliation for the Royal Society article, did not exist. (Thanks to Jonathan Leake, Science Editor, The Sunday Times, for permission to reproduce his article below.)


The Royal Society announced in April 2015 that the paper would be corrected to remove the reference to the non-existent Institute. The correction was published online in Proceedings B on 20 May 2015.

In October 2013, prior to the publication of the paper Channel 4 broadcast The Bigfoot Files, a three-part series, in which TV presenter Mark Evans and Professor Sykes examined the legend of Bigfoot.

A book by Prof Sykes, entitled The Nature of the Beast: The First Genetic Evidence on the Survival of Apemen, Yeti, Bigfoot and Other Mysterious Creatures into Modern Times was published in April 2015.

The following articles are recommended for further reading on this subject:

- DNA analysis indicates Bigfoot may be a fake, by Girl Scientist, The Guardian blog

The bigger the Bigfoot claim the bigger the need for evidence by Dr Dustin Welbourne,The Conversation

DNA 'evidence' for Himalayan yetis doesn't bear scrutiny" by Professor William Amos, The Conversation

The truth is out there by Professor Mark Jobling, Investigative Genetics

Cheddar Man

In 1997 Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University claimed to have obtained mitochondrial DNA sequences from Cheddar man, Britain’s oldest complete skeleton. The Mesolithic remains were found in Gough's Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, and now reside in the Natural History Museum in London.  Results were obtained for hypervariable region 1, and a DNA match was found with a local man Adrian Targett. The story was reported in a number of newspapers at that time including The Independent and the Los Angeles Times. The story of the DNA testing of Cheddar Man was subsequently recounted in Chapter 12 of Sykes’ book The Seven Daughters of Eve (Bantam Press, 2001). Significantly, however, the research has never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Ancient DNA testing has advanced considerably since 1997, and it is now appreciated that very strict protocols need to be followed. (See, for example, Ancient DNA: do it right or not at all and How to tell if an ancient DNA study is legitimate.) The results of the 1997 testing are, therefore, subject to reasonable doubt. Bandelt et al (2005) have suggested that the sequence was from contaminating modern DNA. We understand that the Natural History Museum have plans to resequence Cheddar Man’s DNA.

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