Other Dubious Commercial and Media Claims
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 the late 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
ConnectMyDNA is an American company which "combines a DNA test with a personality test to identify those most like you". Your DNA profile is then transformed into a GeneRing, your "personalized genetic emblem". This is genetic astrology at its worst. There have been many dissatisfied customers. See the complaints on RipOff Report and ReviewsTalk. See also the article A DNA test not to bother with by the "Legal Genealogist" Judy Russell.
A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
Nicholas Wade, a former journalist on the New York Times, has published a controversial new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (Penguin Press HC, May 2014). A troublesome start to his argument is his claim that genome studies have revealed a biological basis for human races: they haven't. There are genetic differences around the world, but we have known for some time that genetic differences usually vary smoothly with distance and do not fall into a number of discrete "races".
He goes on to argue that recent gene-culture evolution has led to genetic differences between human groups that can explain at least some aspects of, for example, the industrial revolution and consequently the world's current economic and political situation. Following a critical review of the book in the New York Times Book Review by their feature writer David Dobbs, over 130 leading geneticists, including UCL's DJB and MGT, wrote to the Review to confirm that they did not support Wade's "misappropriation of their research" and that they were "in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade's conjectures".
The story was also reported in Science and Nature. For a detailed overview of the coverage see Jennifer Raff's blog post Genetics professors unite in criticism of Nicholas Wade's book.
There have been many excellent reviews describing Wade's problematic interpretation of the science, the best of which include the following:
- A three part guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance by Chris Smith: Part I: The genetics of human populations; Part II: Has natural selection favored violent behavior in some human populations?; Part III: Has natural selection produced significant differences between races?
- Nicholas Wade and race: building a scientific façade and Yet more responses to scientific racism by Jennifer Raff
- On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy by Michael Eisen
- A detailed review for the US magazine Genewatch by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History
In addition five critical reviews of the book by Agustin Fuentes, Jonathan Marks, Jennifer Raff, Charles C Roseman and Laura R Stein were published in the scientific journal Human Biology (2014; 86; 3). The reviews were made available on open access to facilitate discussion.
Alternative theories of human origins
The story of human origins is complicated. Many of the genetic studies cited in support of the Out of Africa hypothesis have been based on analysis of Y-chromosome DNA and mitochondrial DNA. Yet Y-DNA and mtDNA represent only a tiny fraction of the human genome, and we have until recently been reliant on the analysis of DNA extracted from contemporary people.
The surviving Y-DNA and mtDNA lines represent only a subset of those present in the ancestral population. Advances in ancient DNA testing in the last few years are now beginning to transform our understanding and knowledge. Analysis of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA have provided evidence that archaic humans contributed to our ancestry. For some good articles summarising the current thinking see the links below:
- Rethinking the dispersal of Homo sapiens out of Africa by Huw Groucott et al, Evolutionary Anthropology, 2015. Available from Academia.edu.
- Human dispersal out of Africa: a lasting debate by Lopez, van Dorp and Hellenthal, Evolutionary Bioinformatics Online, 2016.
- Toward a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA (£) by Joseph Pickrell and David Reich, Trends in Genetics 2014. Available as a preprint on BioRxiv.
- The impact of whole-genome sequencing on the reconstruction of human population history (£) by Krishna R. Veeramah and Michael F. Hammer, Nature Reviews Genetics, 2014.
- Why we are not all multi-regionalists now by Chris Stringer, 2014.
Because of the uncertainties involved in making inferences about human origins it is easy for maverick researchers to come up with seemingly plausible alternative hypotheses, which often attract attention because most of us are curious about human origins, and editors are reluctant to turn down stories that may attract attention, often irrespective of merit.
While these hypotheses can sometimes highlight the shortcomings in the current theories, the evidence provided for the competing hypotheses is often thin, with authors citing their own self-published research in support of their theories, rather than the work of a range of other scholars. We highlight below some of the more problematical theories that have been brought to our attention.
The Into Africa hypothesis
The Into Africa hypothesis has been proposed by Anatole Klyosov, a chemist from Russia who is now living in America. He writes prolifically on the subject of what he calls "DNA genealogy". His research is almost all self-published. Klyosov is the editor of Advances in Anthropology published by the questionable open access publisher Scientific Research Publishing.
None of the members of the journal's editorial board has a background in population genetics. Klyosov has published two articles in this journal (2012 and 2014) supposedly refuting the Out of Africa hypothesis and proposing his alternative Into Africa theory. But these papers focus on a questionable analysis of Y-DNA and mtDNA which are of limited value for inferences about human origins. (Y-DNA and mtDNA tests can, however, be used legitimately for genealogical purposes.)
In January 2015, a group of leading Russian academics published a letter in the popular science magazine Troitskii Variant denouncing Anatole Klyosov's "DNA demagoguery".
The Out of Australia hypothesis
Steven Strong, a former teacher with an interest in archaeology, has become a prolific writer on the subject of Aboriginal Australians, and has put forward a theory that humans arose not in Africa but Australia. He cites a mixture of scientific and pseudo-scientific papers (including some from Advances in Anthropology) in support of his argument but the scientific papers he cites often state the opposite of what he proposes.
His articles seem to be designed to promote sales of his pseudoscientific books. It appears that his "groundbreaking" new theory of human civilisation is that not only did humans originate in Australia but that we are all "children of beings from the stars"
We have covered elsewhere on this website the misleading stories generated by BritainsDNA which have included outrageous claims about Eve's grandson, the Queen of Sheba and "bringing the Bible to life". However, BritainsDNA are not alone in their attempts to try to find associations between haplogroups and biblical figures.
The Creation Science Wiki claims to have found an "amazing" perfect correlation between haplogroups and biblical "nations".
Dr Georgia Purdum claims to have confirmed the existence of Adam and Eve through "an extensive DNA research". She cites the mitochondrial DNA research of the "creation geneticist" Dr Nathaniel Jeanson who has supposedly shown that "the common human female ancestor of us all (biblical Eve) lived within the biblical timeframe of several thousand years ago". However, evidence from mtDNA sequence data places the date of the most recent common matrilineal ancestor of all living humans between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.
Purdum further claims "genetics clearly shows that human and chimps do not share a common ancestor". Her "research" is presented in a documentary on "The Genetics of Adam and Eve". Purdum's claims are in contradiction to the DNA evidence from sequence data pointing to a common ancestor for chimps and humans. See, for example, the Nature 2005 special on the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome.
The article The Chimpanzee and Us in that issue provides a good overview. A subsequent article in Nature by Prüfer et al (2011) compared the genomes of humans, chimps and bonobos. See also the blog post by Steven Novella on Debunking Creationist study criticizing similarity between human and chimpanzee DNA.
A contributor to the Before it's News website has made the remarkable inference that haplogroup I1 is associated with the Nephilim, the "fallen angels" who were spoken of in the Book of Genesis. The apparent finding of alien DNA extracted from some elongated skulls in the desert peninsula of Paracas on the south coast of Peru is offered as evidence in support of the theory.
Genetic homeland case reports
Genetic homeland case reports are offered by Tyrone Bowes through his Irish Origenes, Scottish Origenes and English Origenes websites. The reports purport to pinpoint the place of origin of one's patrilineal ancestors one thousand years ago based on the results of a 37-marker Y-DNA test from Family Tree DNA. However, the methodology used in the reports does not appear to have been subjected to systematic testing or scientific peer review, and the reports make a number of false assumptions and fail to quantify or report uncertainty. See Debbie Kennett's critique of the Origenes' genetic homeland case reports for a summary of the problems. See also Debbie's letter in the August 2014 issue of Family Tree Magazine.
Historical haplotypes - Genghis Khan and Niall of the Nine Hostages
A number of companies offer Y-DNA tests for customers who might wish to find out if they are related to historical figures such as Genghis Khan or Niall of the Nine Hostages (see for example here, here and here). The purported Y-DNA signatures of Genghis Khan and Niall of the Nine Hostages have been published in scientific papers but these studies merely found unusually prevalent Y-chromosome lineages, and proposed the association with Genghis Khan and Niall of the Nine Hostages as a possible explanation. The hypotheses have not been confirmed, and even if these historical figures possessed the Y haplotype attributed to them, it is likely that many of their contemporaries also carried it so that direct descent cannot be established simply from carrying that haplotype.
The Genghis Khan study was published in 2003 by Zerjal et al. The authors provided evidence of a predominant Y-chromosome lineage found throughout a large region of Asia, which they attributed to descent from the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. The Niall of the Nine Hostages claim derives from a 2006 study by Moore et al who identified a Y-chromosome signature that was found at an unusually high frequency in northwestern Ireland. They suggested an association with the Uí Néill dynasty which traces back to a "possibly mythological 5th-century warlord" known as Niall of the Nine Hostages.
Ideally one would like to extract DNA from the remains of the historical figure under investigation, but that was not possible in either of these cases. It is not known that Niall of the Nine Hostages actually existed, and the burial place of Genghis Khan has not been identified, although there has been much speculation. In the absence of ancient DNA we are reliant on testing the DNA of living people and using statistical methods to estimate the time to the most recent common ancestor (TMRCA).
There is considerable uncertainty in all such estimates, and both these studies were based on low-resolution Y-STR testing (17 and 16 markers respectively) with no SNP testing to filter out Y-STR matches due to "chance" rather than recent shared ancestry. Consequently there is a wide error margin in any such TMRCA estimates. Even if it were possible to estimate the TMRCA accurately the link with a historical figure remains speculative (Royal et al 2010). There are other possible explanations for the high prevalence of a particular haplotype. If you take a Y-DNA test and you match a Niall or a Genghis Khan signature then there is a possibility that the famous man was your ancestor but there is no way to be sure and it is also possible that all your ancestors had no claim to fame beyond their success in contributing to what is today a highly prevalent haplotype.
The medieval historian Catherine Swift wrote an excellent critique of the Niall hypothesis from a historical perspective in Interlaced scholarship: genealogies and genetics in twenty-first century Ireland, a chapter in Princes, Prelates and Poets in Medieval Ireland (Seán Duffy, ed, Four Courts Press, 2013).
See also the article by Paul Frijters Why Genghis Khan won't have had 16 million descendants.