Art by Nhatt Nichols
By Liz Carey
Reprinted from The Daily Yonder with Creative Commons License
Across rural America — in its forested woods, its remote lakes, and its sprawling fields — there is plenty of room for the wild and weird to take root. Just beyond the gaze of “normal” existence, strange sightings and odd encounters have lingered in the minds and memories of many rural communities.
Contrary to what you might think, these stories are not simply silly or scary. Call them foolish or farfetched if you must, but they offer a valuable window into the unique culture and community life of places often unseen and under-appreciated.
The Daily Yonder invites you to join us in this closer look at the cryptids of rural America. Let your imagination roam, welcome feelings of wonder or dread, and, if only for a moment, ponder the possibilities beyond what’s proven and known.
Of all the things you expect to find in the hills of Appalachian Kentucky, proof of Bigfoot’s existence might not be at the top of the list.
Among the legends and myths in rural America, tales of Bigfoot may be some of the most well-known. Folk tales of a large, hairy, humanoid-like creature roaming the woods are most associated with the American Northwest.
But a team of paranormal researchers and reality TV show investigators thinks Kentucky’s southeastern mountains may hold the key to proving the cryptid (an animal whose existence is disputed) is out there. Bigfoot, or Sasquatch as he’s sometimes called, is generally described as being 6 to 9 feet tall, covered in hair, and ever-elusive.
For centuries, Native Americans in the Northwest have told tales about giant ape-like men living in the mountains. The Lummi Indian tribe talked about Ts’emekwes – a tribe of ape-like people with furry white faces that blend into the snow. In some tales, they’re peaceful; in others, they are violent creatures that carry off naughty children. Starting in the 1840s though, white men working as miners and loggers in the rural parts of Oregon and Washington started telling tales of giant, hairy creatures that walked upright like humans living in the woods. The tales added a sense of mystery to rural and remote areas where people were few, but unrecognized sights and sounds were plenty. In fact, many states have their own version of Bigfoot. There’s the Skunk Ape in Florida, the White Thang in Alabama, the Fouke Monster in Arkansas, Momo in Missouri, and the Wildman of Tennessee. According to the magazine Mental Floss, there have been Bigfoot sightings in every state in the country, except Hawaii. In 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert “‘Bob” Gimlin were walking alongside Bluff Creek, about 25 miles from Orleans, California, when they spotted and subsequently filmed what they said was Bigfoot. The roughly minute-long film shows a large creature, fully covered in hair, walking away from them into the forest. The Patterson Gimlin film catapulted Bigfoot into pop culture. Now, small towns in California, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, to name a few, hold Bigfoot festivals – hoping to use the creature’s unproven existence as a draw for Bigfoot fans and fanatics. Thousands of people flock to these festivals each year – driving tourism dollars to the rural communities that otherwise might not be able to compete against larger cities. In July and August of 2020, members of the Travel Channel’s TV show Expedition Bigfoot filmed their second season in Kentucky. As part of their investigation, the team thinks they may have found the Bigfoot DNA. The team – Bryce Johnson (expedition operations), Dr. Mireya Mayor (primatologist), Russell Acord (ex-military/survivalist), and Ronny LeBlanc (Bigfoot researcher) – uses the latest in technology to search for the elusive cryptid. From drone footage and trail cams, the group collects data and sends it to experts in the field to analyze. And it’s not just a team of amateurs out combing the woods either. Johnson, Acord, and LeBlanc have extensive histories as Bigfoot researchers, while Dr. Mayor is a world-renowned primatologist. For nearly 20 years, she has been a wildlife correspondent, including for National Geographic. Her explorations have led to several scientific discoveries, including the co-discovery of the world’s smallest primates, and brand new species – Russ’s mouse lemur, which she co-discovered with her colleague Dr. Ed Louis on an expedition in Northeastern Madagascar. Using an advanced algorithm, the team determined the location of a 75,000-acre area in southeast Kentucky held the greatest mathematical odds of encountering a Bigfoot during the specific 21-day window they were filming. Starting there, they were able to find what they believe are migratory patterns of the famed cryptid, as well as a possible structure made from trees similar to what others claim are made by Bigfoot creatures. According to Sasquatch Investigations of the Rockies, tree structures are thought to be an indication of Bigfoot creatures marking off their territory from other Bigfoot creatures. The team then collected soil samples from under the structure and sent them to the UCLA California Environmental DNA program for analysis. Environmental DNA (eDNA) is genetic material naturally left behind by animals in the environment. Analysis of the samples generates a snapshot of whatever animals or creatures are living in the area. According to Miroslava Munguia Ramos, the eDNA program project manager, analysis of the sample indicates another primate other than humans was in the area. “What we’re looking at are the unique organisms that we were able to identify. Our software does what’s known as meta-bar coding. So, it’ll match up all the DNA sequences that we were able to detect and try to cross-reference them with the thousands of genomes that have been published…,” she said in an email interview. “What I found very interesting was that, yes, we have detected human DNA in these areas, but we’re still seeing different primate DNA. There wasn’t just one human primate, there are several different primates, some sort of primate relative that exists in the data.” Ramos said the DNA seemed to come from a species of chimpanzee that would not normally be seen in the rural hillsides of Kentucky. “It’s a real head-scratcher,” she said. “It’s important to note that the higher the detection, the more confidence we can say that whatever organism, whatever taxonomy we’re looking at was apparent in the area. And in this case, we’re looking at the Pan genus, or the chimpanzee genus…. there’s 3000 reads.” For Mayor, the discovery is significant because it’s based on science, not on lore or legend. “Finding what appears to be a very large structure, seemingly created with intention and requiring great strength as well as foresight, is interesting,” Mayor said in an email. “It is not unheard of for primates to stack sticks or rocks, although, for me, the jury is still out as to what that was. There is no guesswork in science. It is great that eDNA was collected from that site. That may give us the answers we are looking for.” Mayor said the DNA found was surprising. “Since living things shed DNA, eDNA gives you a snapshot of anything that has been in the area. In this case, one of the samples taken from under the tree structure surprisingly yielded, chimp DNA, and unsurprisingly, human DNA as well as hawks, deer and other animals you’d expect to find there,” she said. Chimps are apes, and not monkeys, she said, and it was unlikely that an ape was living in the Appalachian Highlands. “The DNA findings do not suggest a new species, but rather a match to known species of chimpanzee,” she said. “Because there are no known non-human primates in North America this is an extremely surprising find, and one that warrants further investigation.” But the investigative team is a long way away from declaring that they’ve found proof that Bigfoot exists. They are, however, a little bit closer, she said. “You have eyewitness accounts from tens of thousands of people who say they have encountered Bigfoot, some coming forward with blurry videos and photographs,” Mayor said. “But that is just not going to cut it. What we need is indisputable genetic evidence to really put this mystery to rest. And there’s no doubt in my mind that we are headed in the right direction.”