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Bigfoot Language on Tape? The Strange Case of the Sierra Sounds Recordings

There have long been numerous pieces of evidence offered up for the existence of the giant, hairy hominid known as Bigfoot, or also Sasquatch and many other regional names. Everything from blurry photos, to shaky video footage, footprints, hairs, scat, and others have been brought forth, not leading to much so far. One area of Bigfoot evidence that is perhaps not so hotly pursued is recordings of supposed vocalizations of these creatures. It turns out that Sasquatch can be very vocal, issuing a wide range of howls, whoops, bellows, growls, barks, and other miscellaneous noises, and it seems they may even be capable of language. The issue of whether these creatures communicate in a sophisticated way has been discussed and debated, but there has actually been very compelling audio evidence that this just might be the case, and that Sasquatch might speak.

By far the clearest, most compelling, well-known, and oft-debated of the numerous recordings of Sasquatch sounds are what have come to be commonly called “The Sierra Sounds.” The origins of these anomalous recordings begin in 1971, when a man named Ron Morehead, of Merced, California, heard an account from a friend of his, in which he had been on a hunting trip in the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains of California and Nevada, during which he and his hunting companions had encountered a huge, hairy ape-like beast that had approached them and issued otherworldly screeches and howls, enough to cause one of the hunters to run away in abject terror. This unnamed friend convinced Morehead to go back to the site with him to search for any physical evidence left behind, and they ventured out into the remote wilderness area along with a journalist from Sacramento named Alan Berry, who was just along for an interesting story and did not at first put much stock into all of this talk of hairy wild men. Indeed, one of the reasons he had tagged along to begin with was to debunk the whole thing. It is probably important to note at this early point in the story that Berry was a former officer in the Vietnam War and held a Master’s Degree in Science. He was considered by his peers as a no-nonsense investigative reporter who was known to be obsessed with facts and accuracy, so this was no true believer going into the woods expecting to really find Bigfoot.

Ron Morehead and Alan Berry

They were unsuccessful in finding anything of interest at the high-altitude deer hunting camp on their first trip, but a follow-up excursion would prove to turn up some bizarre things indeed. Morehead and Berry came up with the idea to place some microphones in the bushes and the trees and see what happened, and after several rather uneventful nights the group was apparently finally able to make some form of contact with the elusive creatures. What they would catch on tape is some of the clearest, most puzzling audio evidence of Bigfoot ever obtained, when one night they began to capture recordings on microphones they had set up in trees, eventually capturing 90 minutes of what they claim to be Sasquatch that are possibly communicating with language.

What are now known as the Sierra Sounds themselves consist of a truly bizarre sequence of a mixture of apparent wood-knocking and odd vocalizations, including grunts, whoops, howls, whistles, and rapid-fire utterances that are thought to be perhaps actual Sasquatch speech, and have been nicknamed “Samurai Chatter,” as they sound vaguely like a non-Japanese speaker trying to do an impersonation of a Japanese samurai from movies and TV. During these weird encounters, Morehead and Berry claimed that the massive creatures would boldly come rather close to the camp, but would melt away into the wilderness as soon as anyone tried to leave their tent, meaning that the group had very little  visual confirmation of what they were hearing, instead hunched down in their tent listening to the spooky noises echoing out through the night outside, which must have been quite tense indeed, as the creatures do not always sound particularly friendly in the mysterious recordings. Berry, who had been very skeptical going into this, was astonished, and would say of the experience:

It was very startling. I didn’t know what to think … viscerally, my knees were shaking and my insides were turning a bit. … I was wondering if what I was hearing was some creature that was stranger than anything we know.

Image by Steve Baxter

The alleged Sasquatch, of which there were clearly more than one, were not shy about freely vocalizing, being recorded, and even interacting with the men, as there is a good portion of the recordings where the humans can be heard trying to mimic the sounds they are hearing, calling out to the mysterious intruders and actually getting a response, incredible instances of possible communication between the two caught on tape. The next day, they would find giant footprints in the snow outside, convincing them that they had indeed heard the sounds of a group of Bigfoot. At first, Berry had been convinced that this had to be a hoax being carried out by Morehead and his friend, even going so far as to rummage through their packs for evidence of trickery, but he found none, and as these encounters continued he became more convinced that something truly strange was going on.

Morehead and Berry would make several more trips to the site over the next year, making further recordings of the enigmatic creatures, as well as collecting numerous plaster casts of the enormous footprints they allegedly left behind. Unfortunately, the strange beasts were supposedly very shy, extremely adept at avoiding camera traps, and so no photographic evidence was produced, but the collection of recordings made by Morehead and Berry are still considered to be the best alleged audio recordings of Bigfoot ever made, and are still considered to be the gold standard for such audio evidence.

Image by Steve Baxter

The sounds were baffling to everyone who heard them, and even the journalist Berry, who had been highly skeptical at first and convinced that he was having his leg pulled by the other two men, was unable to find any evidence of fakery and was ultimately forced to concede that they had truly heard something beyond conventional understanding. The recordings were so intriguing and inexplicable that they made the rounds amongst several experts. One of the first of these to listen to the tapes was retired U.S. Navy linguist R. Scott Nelson, who had over 30 years of experience as both a linguist and code-breaker, and is a speaker of four languages. Nelson would extensively make transcripts of the sounds and study them, to come to the conclusion that the creatures caught on tape were utilizing an actual unknown language with its own grammar and syntax. Nelson would go on to craft a whole theory on the workings of the potential Sasquatch language, as well as a phonetic alphabet for it, and has said of the language he believes is on the Sierra Sounds tapes:

Sasquatch Language is spoken approximately twice as fast as any known language in most analyzed recordings, therefore it must be slowed down to be transcribed accurately. Because of what I did in the Navy, spending years and several thousand hours speeding the human voice up and slowing it down, I could just detect language in those vocalizations.

Researcher and linguist Ronald Cosper has also shed more light on Nelson’s research in to this potential Sasquatch language and more about Nelson’s controversial ideas on how it actually works, as well as his own thoughts on the matter. Cosper has said of the Sierra Sound recordings:

The most extensive transcript we have of purported sasquatch communication is the set of recordings made in the Sierra Mountains of California by Al Berry and Ron Morehead, and subsequently transcribed an analyzed by cryptolinguist Scott Nelson. These communications were allegedly made by a group of Sasquatch in the woods around the hunting camp. Nelson has segmented these utterances into short sequences he calls “morphemes” and says they are composed of “phonemes.” These terms are descriptive terms used by structural linguists in analyzing human language. But in fact we know so little about sasquatch communication, that it really has not been established that their “language” is structured in this manner. For example, phonetic variation could be continuous and not divided into specific phonemes. These sequences of sounds that Nelson has identified as morphemes are really more properly called “syllables.” Since we do not know whether specifically defined meanings are associated with these syllables, we cannot call them “morphemes” with any assurance. I admire Nelson’s perseverance and skill at transcribing these unusual sounds.

Image by Steve Baxter

Others who analyzed the tapes, including a year-long evaluation by a Dr. R. Lynn Kirlin at the University of Wyoming, concluded that the sounds seem to come from something with a larger lung capacity and vocal range than a human, with lower frequencies than a human can produce, and that they performed verbal acrobatics, thunderous howls, and high-pitched squeals and whistles that no human being would possibly be able to orally duplicate. There was also found to be no solid evidence at all that the tape had been sped up, slowed down, or altered in any way. Most came to the conclusion that whatever made the sounds was likely some sort of large, non-human primate. Ron Morehead himself is confident in the expert opinions, and has said of the extensive analysis done on the Sierra recordings:

Years ago it was established that the vocalizations which were recorded were not manufactured by an alternative source, i.e., speakers, amplifiers, or man. Most of the vocalizations are outside the human range. In 2008, it was established, through a Crypto-Linguistic study, that the sounds have a complex language structure and, anything with a language ‘must’ exist.

Cosper has offered some other insights into how feasible it would be for a non-human primate to develop a complex language. He has mused on this, saying:

If we are going to maintain that language is an evolutionary product, it is obviously important to study vocal communication in other species. Some primates are said to have systems of “calls,” and others communicate with various actions and displays. If Sasquatch are a close human relative, it would be extremely important to understand their vocal communication. Such knowledge would revolutionize our understanding of human language. Linguistics could then become a truly comparative field of study, in which language would be seen as one type of communication that evolved in certain circumstances among some species. It may be true that sasquatch have vocal communication similar to language, as quite a few of the observational reports of sasquatch indicate. Of course, many of these reports are observations of single individuals, and it is unlikely that speaking would occur in these situations. However, when several Sasquatch are present together, there are often reports of “language-like” behavior. Also occurring are various other oral noises, less similar to articulated language, and more like noises or cries made by other species of primate. Long distance communication may also be carried on by sounds like whistles, howls, etc.

 

There is a general context, but not a great deal of associated behavior to figure out meanings for these utterances. From an evolutionary perspective, it is certainly interesting that a primate species rather similar to Homo sapiens (bipedalism, use of hands, utterance) seems to have a vocal communication system that includes something potentially similar to human language. This might suggest quite a close kinship with modern humans, although other anatomical features (height, breadth, strength, skull shape, arm length) may reflect an earlier branching. Perhaps the two traits of vocal “language” and well-developed bipedalism suggest a close relationship, and one in which these two traits evolved prior to a separation of these two species. Therefore, if vocal communication evolved only once for these species, it becomes more likely that they may share elements of form, meaning and use.

Of course, not everyone is convinced of the veracity of the “Sierra Sounds” recordings or the possibility on a non-human primate developing language, and there have been many skeptics who say that there is nothing on the tape that could not have been done by a human dedicated hoaxer. This would mean that either Morehead was being unwittingly hoaxed, although why anyone would be out in the middle of nowhere doing such a thing remains unknown, and I’d say the prospect of someone out there producing those noises is perhaps even scarier than the notion of giant hairy ape-men, or that he was actually in on it, something both he and journalist Berry adamantly deny. One very straightforward criticism of the recording was made by Karen Stollznow, of Scientific American, who does not mince words when she says:

The vocalizations are an amateur impression of how a proto-language might sound if it evolved from non-human primates. This “Bigfoot” is likely human, and the ‘Sierra Sounds’ a combination of hoax and misidentification, like all of the other evidence for Bigfoot. Similar to the claims of the (so far mythical) Orang-Pendek, Bigfoot would probably communicate using vocalizations. However, non-human primates don’t have the physiology to produce a wide variety of speech sounds, so it is unlikely that Bigfoot would have developed language, or would be able to speak existing human languages. This “Bigfoot” is likely human, and the Sierra Sounds a combination of hoax and misidentification, like all of the other evidence for Bigfoot. There is no solid physical evidence to support the existence of Bigfoot. Before we establish the existence of Bigfoot language, we would need to establish the existence of Bigfoot.

She has also criticized Nelson’s methods in analyzing the so-called Sasquatch language in the Sierra Sounds recordings and the mindset of studying such a hypothetical language without even knowing if it even exists or not. She says of Nelson’s research:

Self-proclaimed “Bigfoot language expert” R. Scott Nelson has taken the Bigfoot language claims one-step further. As though it is the Linear B of Bigfoot language to be deciphered, Nelson has created a transcription of the Sierra Sound Recordings. He is a retired U.S. Navy Cryptologic Technician Interpreter who speaks Russian, Spanish and Persian. He also believes he can speak “Bigfoot”. Nelson claims he has identified not only vocalizations such as whistles, grunts, and snarls, but also individual phonemes, i.e., the sounds that combine to create words. Nelson has created a pronunciation key for these phonemes, and he uses the Latin alphabet, diacritics and various other symbols to represent these sounds. He calls this the Sasquatch Phonetic Alphabet (SPA), or the Unclassified Hominid Phonetic Alphabet (UHPA). It is unclear why he doesn’t use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), the standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language. Bilingualism(speaking two or more languages) and working as a translator doesn’t qualify someone to identify or describe undocumented languages. This is an area of anthropological linguistics, although it appears as if many cryptozoological fans confuse “crypto-linguistics” as a field that researches the language of cryptids. The Sierra Sounds are used not only to support the claim of a Bigfoot language, but also to legitimize claims of Bigfoot’s existence.

It certainly seems there is much disagreement and debate on the authenticity of the Sierra Sounds recordings and what they are of, but they nevertheless remain the clearest and most compelling recordings ever made of supposed Sasquatch, and by some accounts the best evidence for Sasquatch, period. Ron Morehead has collected the recordings into two complete collections along with narration, Bigfoot Recordings Volume One: A True High Sierra Wilderness Story, and Bigfoot Recordings Volume Two: The Bigfoot Recordings, and he has also written a book of his adventures in the Sierras looking for Bigfoot. The complete collections of the recordings are available on Morehead’s website, and in the meantime, you can hear three different portions of the Sierra Sounds recordings, with the “Samurai Chatter” audible here, and other parts here and here to make up your own mind.

It is unfortunate that Morehead has always remained so secretive about where the site where the recordings were made is actually located. He has only cryptically suggested that it is a deer-hunter’s camp 8 miles from the nearest road over perilous terrain and rough wilderness, that it is at an altitude of over 8,000 feet, and “somewhere between Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, in other words, it could be anywhere. Morehead further explained that there was never any sign whatsoever of other humans anywhere near the area. Wherever itis, it seems to have an incredibly high frequency of Bigfoot activity if these reports are to be believed.

In the end we are faced with a series of very weird recordings that, despite the skeptics, have never been successfully duplicated. What was going on here? Did they actually manage to record not only Sasquatch, but Sasquatch engaged in complex communications? Is this some kind of elaborate hoax to bring in some cash? Why would the skeptical Berry endorse any of this if that were the case? There is no way to really know the answers to any of this, but the Sierra Sounds have gone on to live on into infamy in the field of Bigfoot studies, sparking much discussion and debate that doesn’t seem to be close to being laid to rest any time soon.