In the search for Bigfoot, or indeed any cryptid, the ultimate goal of cryptozoologists has always been physical evidence, and the Holy Grail of such evidence is DNA. Cryptozoologists need this, as blurry photos and witness accounts are not traditionally held up high in the realms of mainstream science as particularly of worth. Over the decades there have been many instances of people claiming to have found just this, yet it has always been an elusive specter. One of the more notable claims of finding supposed Bigfoot DNA and "proof" of their existence was released in 2012 by a genetics lab, and would take the nation and world by storm.
Melba Ketchum was an active, practicing veterinarian in Texas, as well as the owner of a laboratory for studying animal genetics and the chair of the International Society for Animal Genetics Equine Genetics Standing Committee, specializing in animal forensics, disease diagnostics, and other pursuits animal DNA, as well as serving as the director of the lab DNA Diagnostics Inc. It is all pretty impressive, but she would not become a major name and an instant celebrity in the field of cryptozoology if it were not for an amazing announcement she made on November 24, 2012. On this day she made a public statement that she had finally proven that Bigfoot exists, and not only that, but that she knew what kind of creature it specifically was. Wait, what?
According to Ketchum, her genetics lab had acquired various pieces of Bigfoot DNA evidence for analysis, including hairs, blood, mucus, pieces of toenail, bark scrapings, saliva, and even purportedly a scrap of skin from one of the beasts, all of which were “extracted, analyzed and sequenced DNA from over one hundred separate samples... obtained from scores of collection sites throughout North America.” Over a 5-year period, Ketchum claimed that these samples, 111 of them in total, were laboriously compared with the genetic sequences of similar samples from a wide range of disparate wild animals, including humans, dogs, cows, horses, deer, elk, moose, foxes, bears, coyotes, and wolves, but no match could be found. The conclusion was that these samples had come from a “human hybrid species” that came about around 15,000 years ago, when a mysterious hominid and humans had interbred, and she made the very bold statement:
Hair morphology was not consistent with human or any known wildlife hairs. DNA analysis showed two distinctly different types of results; the mitochondrial DNA was unambiguously human, while the nuclear DNA was shown to harbor novel structure and sequence ... the data conclusively proves that the Sasquatch exist as an extant hominin and are a direct maternal descendent of modern humans. Sasquatch nuclear DNA is a mosaic comprising human DNA interspersed with sequence that is novel but primate in origin. Sasquatch nuclear DNA is incredibly novel and not at all what we had expected. While it has human nuclear DNA within its genome, there are also distinctly nonhuman, nonarchaic hominin and non-ape sequences. Further study is needed and is ongoing to better characterize and understand Sasquatch nuclear DNA. Our data indicate that the North American Sasquatch is a hybrid species, the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.
The results were published in the Denovo Journal of Science under the title Novel North American Hominins: Next Generation Sequencing of Three Whole Genomes and Associated Studies, and considering how spectacular it all was and the pedigree of Ketchum herself, this was all over national news at the time, going viral and being featured on many shows such as Good Morning America. It was seen as completely groundbreaking, the find of the century. After all, Bigfoot had finally been proven to be real! Well, anyone reading this knows that we in fact don’t know if Bigfoot is real or not, it is not considered to be scientific fact, so you can probably tell where this is heading. If it all seems to be too good to be true, that is because it was.
Even before the initial viral excitement died down, it did not take long at all for holes to start appearing in the whole thing. First and foremost was that fact that the paper had not appeared in a legitimate peer-reviewed scientific journal, and not only was the Denovo Journal of Science actually owned by Ketchum, but her paper was the only one that had ever appeared in it. Indeed, it would turn out that the paper had been rejected by all other scientific journals. If this was such an earth-shattering scientific discovery then why should this be? Shouldn’t these discoveries be jumped on by the scientific world if they have merit? Not a few people were asking this question, and it gets worse. There was also the fact that Ketchum refused to release her alleged samples to other labs for verification, although some were apparently procured by Eric Berger, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, who sent them in to be analyzed by an independent lab to find that the samples looked as though they had come from a possum, something which Ketchum has adamantly denied. Eliécer Gutiérrez of the Smithsonian Institution and Ronald H. Pine from the Biodiversity Institute in Kansas would also apparently get their hands on some of the samples and determine that “there is no reason to believe that the two samples came from anything other than Brown Bears,” with the idea being that Ketchum had been working with samples that had been contaminated with human DNA and which were also likely degraded, which she also refutes, continuously stating that there was no chance of contamination or degradation of the samples. She would say of this:
We had two different forensics labs extract these samples, and they all turned out non-contaminated, because forensics scientists are experts in contamination. We see it regularly, we know how to deal with mixtures, whether it's a mixture or a contaminated sample, and we certainly know how to find it. And these samples were clean. It's non-human hair—it's clearly non-human hair—it was washed and prepared forensically, and it gave a human mitochondrial DNA result. That just doesn't happen. Within the first year, we knew that we had them, it was just a matter of accumulating enough proof to satisfy science. We've done everything in our power to make sure the paper was absolutely above-board and well done. I don't know what else we could have done short of spending another few years working on the genome. But all we wanted to do was prove they existed, and I think we did that.
Despite these efforts to defend herself, there were other problems with the findings as well. It was pointed out that the research includes questionable methods, withholds important information such as how the samples were handled or under what specific circumstances they had been found in the first place, and generally seems to jump to conclusions in many places. Then there was also the fact that even Ketchum’s team had gotten some strange results from some of their various samples, despite their insistence that there had been no chance for mixed up or contaminated samples. For instance, Ketchum has said:
We had one weird sequence that we blasted in the genome BLAST, and we got closest to polar bear of all things. And then we'd turn around and blast and get 70 percent rhesus monkey with a bunch of SNPs [single base changes] out. Just weird, weird stuff. We would get these crazy different variants of sequence. Some reactions produced the expected human-sized PCR products. Others produced products with unexpected sizes. Still others produced the sorts of things you'd expect to see if the PCR had failed entirely or there was no DNA present. We would get these things that were novel in genbank. We would get a lot of failure, and we'd get some that would have regular human sequence. We could not account for this, and it was repeatable.
This certainly suggests that they were working with samples from various sources and which had likely been contaminated, yet they stuck with the ones that most supported the theory they had had from the beginning, that Bigfoot exist. There were myriad other problems with the research and approaches the team took, and many flaws in the reasoning behind some of the findings, with a good break down presented here. In the end, it seems that this was most certainly not what it had been made out to be, although Ketchum's heart seems to be in the right place and this does not appear to have been an outright intentional hoax. However, it just goes to show how stringent the standards for these things really are. We all hope for true physical evidence of these mysterious creatures, but if we are to find it, it has to be done properly and carefully. Maybe one day we'll get there, but this doesn't seem to be it.