When it comes to myths and legends and folktales, humans tend to be protective of their own. So our interest was piqued last week when the FBI released its 40-year-old file on Bigfoot.
Yes, Bigfoot. Or Sasquatch. Or any other name that means a giant ape-like creature who inhabits the forests of the Northwest. At least, according to legend.
It turns out that in 1976, noted Bigfoot researcher Peter Byrne sent the FBI a small sample of skin and hair left on a tree by some unknown creature in the forest. Byrne asked the bureau’s forensic scientists to examine the sample. In one letter sent to the bureau, he wrote: “Please understand that our research here is serious. That this is a serious question that needs answering.”
FBI officials agreed to study the hair. Months later, they responded that they had used “transmitted and incident light microscopy to study the morphological characteristics such as root structure, medullary structure and cuticle thickness in addition to scale casts.”
The result? “It was concluded as a result of these examinations that the hairs are of deer family origin.”
Byrne, now 93, told The Washington Post that he was unaware of that response until it was made public last week. Then again, somebody who has devoted decades to the study of Bigfoot probably would not be quick to publicize those findings. “We’re just finding this out,” he said. “It’s disappointing.”
While the fact that the FBI had a Bigfoot file has received much attention in recent days, the entire episode provides a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche. As John A. Johnson wrote in 2017 for Psychology Today, “A myth is neither completely true nor completely false. A good myth is one that artfully represents human experience.”
We guess that means it is understandable that some people hiking or working in the forests of North America would see something lurking in the underbrush and convince themselves that the indistinguishable creature is a 9-foot-tall biped. As Albert Einstein is credited with saying: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”
In the case of Bigfoot, that mystery was planted in 1958, according to History.com. Journalist Andrew Benzoli of the Humboldt Times in Northern California highlighted a dubious letter from a reader about loggers discovering large, mysterious footprints.
The legend took root. It developed such a hold on the public that last year a woman sued two California state agencies for being “derelict in their duty by not acknowledging the existence of the Sasquatch species.” She apparently came across three Bigfoot creatures while on a hike, reporting that they were “barrel-chested,” looked to weigh about 800 pounds and were about 30 feet from the ground in a tree.
The origin of the Bigfoot story and the California woman’s close encounter clearly are fabrications. Because everybody knows that Bigfoot lives in the Northwest. Usually in Washington, sometimes in Oregon, though we can’t quite determine how he gets across the Columbia River. Maybe the Bridge of the Gods during the dark of night.
On the other hand, he might simply be a figment of our imagination and the result of a human desire to embrace myths and legends and folklore. Believing in a giant creature that extends the boundaries of our experience is certainly more fun than being told that skin and hair is from a deer.
As The Columbian wrote editorially in 2006, “Bigfoot doesn’t exist.” And you can’t get any more definitive than that.