Bigfoot and beyond: Why tales of wild men endure

Why We Wrote This

Since the dawn of storytelling, people have turned to fantasy as a respite from reality. But some fantastical tales, especially those that transcend borders and time, can tell us something about ourselves.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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Whether it’s about Bigfoot and Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest, the Yeti in the Himalayas, or the Yeren of China’s Hubei province, people all over the world love telling stories about big hairy humanoids that live in the wild. And they have been doing so for a very long time. From Enkidu in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” one of humanity’s earliest known works of literature, to Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” franchise, the “wild man” has provided a reliable stock character to countless generations of storytellers. But where do these stories come from? Are they cultural memories of a time when Neolithic farmers coexisted with hunter-gatherers? Or are they manifestations of a deeper psychological need to imagine a less domesticated version of ourselves? “Instead of becoming civilized and wearing pants every day,” says Laura Krantz, the journalist behind “Wild Thing,” a podcast about Bigfoot and those who try to prove his existence, “[Bigfoot] decided to stay in the forest and maintain a more primal existence. I think some people in a romantic way yearn for that idea.”

You may be familiar with Bigfoot and the Yeti, but what about the Yowie and the Chuchunya?

The image of a big hairy humanoid hiding in the wilderness appears not just in movies like “Harry and the Hendersons” and the animated film “Smallfoot,” which premieres on Friday, but also in cultures all over the world. Visitors to the mountains of the Chinese province of Hubei report sightings of the Yeren, or “wild man,” who dwells in the forest. In Cameroon, the fearsome Dodu is said to dine on grubs. The Mapinguari stalks the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia; the Yowie walks about the Australian outback. In Russia’s Sakha Republic, it’s the Chuchunya, and in the Caucasus and Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, it’s the Almas.

Why do stories of giant ape-men keep popping up in such disparate places, despite the persistent absence of physical evidence? And what does that say about us?

“It certainly strikes a chord,” says Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and former director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that defends evolutionary biology and climate science. “When we are out in wild places and we hear noises and rustling and we hear sounds that we can’t explain, the inclination may be for us to infer that those come from a human-like creature.”

Sasquatch-like creatures play important roles in some of our most enduring stories. In one of humanity’s earliest known works of great literature, the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” written more than 4,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, there’s Enkidu, a wild man created by the gods to act as a countervailing force against the civilized but harsh King Gilgamesh. Enkidu ends up wrestling with the king and becomes his close companion.

Western literature kept returning to the theme of a creature standing at the intersection of human and animal. The Old English epic “Beowulf” has the title character battling Grendel, said to be a descendant of Cain. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” one of the founding texts of English literature, Gawain was said to occasionally battle with Wodwos, wild men who dwelled in the rocks. In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” we meet the half-human, half-demon Caliban who has been tamed by the sorcerer Prospero. In Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Lemuel Gulliver encounters the Yahoos, whom he characterizes as “brute[s] in human form” and compares unfavorably to the equine-yet-rational Houyhnhnms.

The theme continues right up through our modern mythology. Consider the dual nature of Han Solo’s loyal companion, Chewbacca, an able spacecraft pilot and mechanic who is perpetually one holographic checkmate away from dismembering someone, and who, as we’ve learned from Disney’s most recent addition to the “Star Wars” canon, occasionally eats people.

“It's a great mystery of something that can exist outside of our modern constructs,” says Gail de Vos, a Canadian librarian, author, and professional storyteller who writes about folklore and contemporary legends. “It’s beyond civilization.”

But how did these mental images of wilderness-dwelling man-apes first arise? Is it a cultural memory from when farmers coexisted with hunter-gatherers? Or did it begin even earlier?

“Even if Bigfoot doesn’t exist now, perhaps once upon a time it was some sort of distant relative, some sort of evolutionary branch, that then died out,” says Laura Krantz, the journalist behind “Wild Thing,” a podcast about Bigfoot and those who try to prove his existence. “I have no idea if that’s true or not, but where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

For Ms. Krantz, stories about Bigfoot prompt us to think about an undomesticated version of ourselves, which she calls a “road not taken.”

“Instead of becoming civilized and wearing pants every day, [Bigfoot] decided to stay in the forest and maintain a more primal existence,” she says. “I think some people in a romantic way yearn for that idea.”

Krantz, who says she grew up hiking and camping in Idaho, says she is drawn to the idea that, despite industrial civilization’s pervasiveness, there are still some wild places.  

“It's this idea that the world can still be unexplored enough so be wild and and untamed,” she says.

But that idea, says Donald Prothero, a former Occidental College geologist and paleontologist who, with Canadian writer and illustrator Daniel Loxton, wrote the 2013 book “Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids,” has been untenable for a long time.

“In fact, nearly all the great forests of the world, and especially in the Western US, where most supposed Bigfoot reports come from, are not unexplored and not pristine by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “Most of our primary forests have been logged more than once.”

The insistence that there may still be something lurking out there in the woods, says Dr. Prothero, is perhaps a reaction to the very scientific advancement that continually debunks Bigfoot and other cryptids.

“Mystery is part of what we need to believe about the world,” he says. “And science has of course been ruthlessly stomping out mystery for a century now at least.”

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau.]

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