Neanderthals in Nooks

  Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

Neanderthals may have been—or perhaps are—the hardiest critters to have ever come down the pike. They live on in books, in movies, and in our imaginings, tens of thousands of years after they presumably checked out. But more to the point of this wonk, they seem to keep popping up in the (hairy) flesh! The two most famous examples are Bigfoot (aka Sasquatch) in our Pacific Northwest and the Yeti or Abominable Snowman in the Himalayas. And these are only two examples. I mentioned in “The Neanderthals Next Door” that some speculate that ogres, our favorite villains in folklore, derive from racial memories of Neanderthals. And a friend points out that Grendel (and his charming mom) in Beowulf may have been based on legends of Nordic Neanderthals. Wherever you have wilderness you’ll have rumors of Neanderthals—or at least of something inexplicable out there. The locals—Andean Indians, Siberian tribesmen, African bush people, Alaskan trappers—can tell you all about them.

I just watched a film clip of Bigfoot. It is from 1967, shot in northern California by a guy named Roger Patterson. I’m not sure if it is the only footage, but it is the best known. And darned if the creature doesn’t look real. He—or she, as some claim—is good sized, hairy as a gorilla but walking erect. Strolls along nonchalantly, in fact. It could, of course, be a friend of Patterson’s in a very convincing costume, which is what most skeptics say. And if Bigfoot is as shy and elusive as reputed, why does it mosey along so obligingly? One half-expects it to wave at the camera! If it is a fake—and I’m going to assume that it is—then Patterson was facing a dilemma: he could have filmed it running frantically (and add to that Patterson’s jouncing along with a hand-held camera), in which case the viewer would have no idea what he was seeing; or he could film the beast strolling along as he did, in which case we have very obliging shots but very uncharacteristic behavior for a Bigfoot. Sigh. What’s a Bigfoot stalker to do? Most of the comments about the clip are clearly those of true believers. If Sasquatch isn’t out there, his acolytes certainly are.

Half a world away, we have the even more renowned yet even more elusive Yeti. There is film footage of the Yeti also, but it is a very blurry business. Reports of the Yeti go back at least two centuries and in lieu of film we have many reports of footprints. The Yeti seems to be a close cousin of the Bigfoot, big and hairy. In Tibetan monasteries one finds (purported) bones of the Yeti. We have found Yeti scat, supposedly containing unique micro-organisms from the digestive tract. A Yeti has been filmed in Poland. There are Yeti cousins in Australia (the Yowie), Siberia (the Chuchunaa), Quebec (the Windigo), South America (the Maricoxi), and many other places. But none has ever been captured alive or even found dead, darn it.

A couple of other things worth mentioning. We do have a hairy brown creature that stands about seven feet tall on its hind legs, and that, of course, is the grizzly bear. A grizzly can stand on its hind legs (like man, it is plantigrade, i.e., it walks on the whole foot, not the toes), but walking as opposed to just standing is an awkward business, I’m told. “Tottering” might be the best word for it in the grizzly’s case. Another intriguing possibility that my research has turned up is the prehistoric gigantopithecus or giant ape, which—like the Neanderthals—really did exist. Nine feet tall on its hind legs. Could Bigfoot be the last gasp of gigantopethicus?

Whatever. We are always going to be drawn to the fantastic and the seldom seen, to what is called cryptozoology, a borderline and very suspect science. (The collective name, in fact, for Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster, and others is cryptids.) And if an early human like the Neanderthal has survived against all odds, well, that is even more alluring than a bear or a big ape. Something is out there, and maybe someday we shall find out.

If you want to know about Neanderthals or anything else from the crepuscular past, hie yourself to the works of Loren Eiseley (1907-1977), American anthropologist, scholar, educator, and writer. Eiseley had the soul of a poet (if not a shaman), though I find in rereading him now that a little goes a long way. But like that little girl who had that little curl, when he is good he is very, very good. Among his collections of essays are The Immense Journey, The Firmament of Time, and The Night Country. Yesterday I pulled The Unexpected Universe off my shelf and it fell open to “The Last Neanderthal”—an omen, surely. Of course you will want to read it; it will be on the test.

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