Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Bigfoot and the yeren (Part II): the conversation continues

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We recently asked Joshua Blu Buhs—author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend —and Sigrid Schmalzer—author of The People’s Peking Man: Popular Science and Human Identity in Twentieth-Century China—to expound upon the similarities and differences between the wildmen of their books. Their far ranging discussion began here. In Part II, Schmalzer begins by asking Buhs about Bigfoot and race.
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Sigrid Schmalzer: I wanted to pick up on your mention of the way Bigfoot has naturalized racial hierarchies. Your book offers an effective analysis of racialized imagery in Bigfoot stories and art. I wonder if you had also thought about the possible relationship between anthropological theories about Bigfoot and anthropological theories about race. I was interested to see the anthropologist Carleton Coon appear in your book—not in his usual role as author of one of the most notoriously racist scientific books on human evolution, but for his involvement in Abominable Snowman work (which I don’t recall knowing about). He appears in my book in that former role. He argued that separate evolutionary paths had led the modern races to be inherently unequal, and he even sought to bring these ideas to bear on civil rights issues—including Brown v. Board of Education. Perhaps significantly, the key U.S. Bigfooter anthropologist Grover Krantz was also interested in the origin of modern races. He was a proponent of multiregional theory—considerably less offensive than Coon’s ideas, but still notable (in contrast with the more widely accepted recent Out-of-Africa theory) for its contention that the modern races separated relatively early in evolutionary history. I wonder what could be made of this connection.
Joshua Blu Buhs: I have thought about the relationship between anthropological theory and Bigfoot—or wildmen more generally, at least from a North American point of view. The connections, as I’m sure you know, are quite numerous. First, there is what might be termed the imperial context. Why were the British in the Himalayas in the first place, looking for the Abominable Snowman? Because conquering Everest was a form of Empire making. And why was Carleton Coon drawn into the discussion about wildmen? Because he was in Asia at the same time that the American oil magnate Tom Slick was leading a hunt for the Yeti. Coon was there on a study for the U.S. Air Force, photographing local peoples so that downed pilots could recognize their position by the physiognomy of the natives. Imperialism in action!

This extended to interest in Bigfoot and Sasquatch, as well. In the 1950s, Ivan Sanderson, a naturalist and popularizer of all things wildmen, argued that America needed to hunt for the wildmen in North America because the Russians were hot on the trail of those in Asia. And if the Russians got there first, they would use the wildman to propagandize that Darwin was right, evolution was real, the universe was material all the way down, and the religious instincts of Americans would be disproved, leading the nation to wander aimlessly. The hunt for the wildman was the battle for humanity’s soul, part of the Cold War. The theme continued in the writings of John Green, who emphasized in the 1970s that China and Russia were pulling ahead of the West in commitment to science. His argument was persuasive enough that Roderick Sprague, an anthropologist who edited Northwest Anthropological Research Notes, chose to open his pages to anthropological studies of Bigfoot, and that was where Krantz’s first papers appeared. Bigfoot, in other words, was key to maintaining world hegemony, at least in the viewpoint of some of those who chose to study the creature.
I wonder to what extent the study of yeren might have been influenced by similar factors. For example, the West was always worrying about Chinese activity in the Himalayas. (It’s been claimed—by the Russians—that US hunts for the Yeti were covert missions to spy on the Chinese.) Was there any way in which attempts to find the yeren was folded into the Cold War? Also, I am vaguely aware that the Chinese were involved in an attempt to classify and census the various ethnic groups in the hinterlands. I can imagine ways in which interest in the yeren may have fit with this. Did it?
Second, there are what might be classified as institutional factors. By the 1950s, the main thrust in North American anthropology was against racial typing—a tendency that was only strengthened in the 1970s with the increasing prominence of anthropological genetics, which showed that racial classification was hopelessly muddled and probably not useful at all. Thus, to hold out for the legitimacy of racial types was to stand against the tide of disciplinary change. So was, of course, holding that there were yet undiscovered primates. It is pretty clear from the record that both Coon and Krantz relished their roles as mavericks. Whether they expected to be mavericks from the beginning, or grew into the part, I don’t know, but they came to accept, and even entice the label, and so in a sense their interest in wildmen grew naturally out of their position within anthropology.
Third, certain theoretical commitments made the acceptance of wildmen possible. Both Coon and Krantz emphasized that the human family tree was branching and not linear. This was true of most anthropologists of the time, certainly, but with their different multiregional theories, they emphasized the branchiness to the extreme. Coon argued, as I understand him, that modern humans arose from Homo erectus several times during the course of history, and at several different points, so that some races—whites—were more developed than others—Africans, Australian aborigines. Given this model, it is relatively easy to assume, as well, that other primates evolved several different times, as, for example, in the case of the Yeti and Bigfoot. The one does not necessarily follow the other, but the thoughts are compatible. Krantz’s ideas were similar. For him, racial differences first evolved in Homo erectus, and the transition to modern humans is hard to discern from the fossil record—for it was culture and language that separated H. erectus and Homo sapiens. This model could be used to explain wildmen, as well. Krantz argued that the prehistoric ape Gigantopithecus evolved into both the Yeti and Bigfoot, just as H. erectus had evolved into modern humans several times.
Hence, there’s a way in which theoretical commitments to naturalizing the differences between races led to—or allowed on to imagine—the evolution of wildmen, though, as best as I can tell, no really strong connection between the two exists.
Were there any connections between the yeren and Chinese anthropological theory? This discussion about the relationship between wildman and official science naturally raises the opposite. How can we understand the relationship between wildmen and those who were interested in the beasts but not officially (or by credentialing) given the privilege of speaking authoritatively about it?
SS: I see similar Cold War competition in the 1950s and 1960s materials on human evolution. For example, some Soviet and Chinese books on human evolution highlighted the Scopes Trial as evidence that, despite U.S. claims to be scientifically advanced, in fact religion (which found a welcome home in the capitalist, imperialist U.S.) held it back. By the time “yeren fever” took hold in the 1970s, China’s position in the Cold War had transformed. Relations with the Soviet Union were tense, and China and the U.S. were rebuilding a “friendship.” What I see in the yeren materials is a feeling of urgency to prove China’s ability to make a contribution in the new international scientific community it was joining. To be first to demonstrate the existence of a wildman (understood to be a “missing link” in the human evolutionary tree) would be a very large feather in China’s cap.
The bulk of the ethnic classification work happened in the 1950s, while yeren research didn’t take off until the 1970s. Nonetheless, there are uncomfortable moments in the yeren literature where yeren (and also yeti) are compared with members of minority nationalities who live near them. (Minority nationalities tend to live in peripheral areas, which are also for obvious reasons where stories about yeren typically arise.) For example, researchers sometimes suggested that certain environments had preserved ethnic minorities in a state of primitiveness and thus could also have supported the survival of the primitive yeren. In other cases, they talked about the possibility that yeren were in fact just members of some unknown primitive ethnic group or emphasized the need to use care in distinguishing between yeren and primitive humans.
I like the way you’re relating Coon and Krantz’s ideas on human evolution and on Bigfoot. Certainly, they both position themselves as mavericks, and that goes a long way to explaining this connection. In my book I similarly portray one of the key scientists who supported yeren research in China, Zhou Guoxing, as a maverick. Since multiregionalism is the dominant theory in China, this is not evidence of his being a maverick, but in other ways he’s often challenged conventional wisdom. For example, in the 1980s he overhauled the anthropology wing of the Natural History Museum in Beijing. The authorities delayed the opening of the new exhibit because of concerns about two of his changes: he de-emphasized Engels’s theory that labor created humanity, and he created a new segment on human sexuality that included nude photographs and explicit anatomical drawings. Since then he’s consistently encouraged an openness in exploring sexuality as a facet of human experience and a whole host of unusual theories about human evolution—for example, the idea that humans evolved from a kind of “water ape.”
I see what you mean about multiregionalism’s “branchiness,” though I don’t usually think of it this way. The recent out-of-Africa theory overturns the linear model (codified during the modern evolutionary synthesis) that preserved Peking Man, Neanderthals, and other fossil humans as direct human ancestors rather than extinct branches (dead ends) on the human family tree. Multiregionalism sticks with the linear model: there are fewer extinct branches because the various Homo erectus populations (in China, this includes Peking Man) are not considered dead ends, but rather are direct ancestors of modern peoples—in that sense, they’re on the main trunk of human evolution. But looking at it another way, multiregionalism is “branchier” within our species, since the races separated earlier and all these racial branches survived until the present day. Perhaps people who see ancient branching of the races with all the branches making it all the way up the tree would also be more inclined to entertain the idea that another hominid branch (Bigfoot, yeren, etc.) could have survived as well.
I suppose the Chinese case might work to support this theory, since it is notable for support for both multiregionalism and (apparently at least) yeren research as well. I should note, though, that the key figures in multiregionalism and yeren research in China are not the same people. However, one important yeren supporter, the paleoanthropologist Huang Wanbo, has postulated the existence of a Chinese Australopithecus (which would perhaps be ancestral to both modern humans and yeren). Yeren researchers often theorized on the proper place of yeren in the human evolutionary tree. One theory (first written, but not published, in the 1960s) was that yeren were the descendants of Gigantopithecus (which would make sense given the discovery of Gigantopithecus fossils near one of the hubs of yeren stories); another pointed to Australopithecus, the discovery of which would have been very exciting for Chinese scientists.
One other way in which yeren and anthropological theory were connected—especially in the early years—was the application of Friedrich Engels’s theory that “labor created humanity” to the study of yeren. The idea was that since (according to the great authority Engels) it was labor that separated humans from other animals, any discussion of yeren’s nature would have to include the question, did yeren labor? Since there was no evidence of tool manufacture, the assumption was that yeren did not labor and thus were not human.
I’ve written far too much and I haven’t yet come to your last and very interesting question: “How can we understand the relationship between wildmen and those who were interested in the beasts but not officially (or by credentialing) given the privilege of speaking authoritatively about it?” Can I throw it back to you to start? I know there’s lots to say on the U.S. side.
JB:The discussion makes me reconsider, to an extent, just how much Bigfoot raised questions about the meaning of humanness. Certainly, this was not the main theme of Bigfoot research, but by comparison with the yeren, I see now that it was present.
You mention the importance of Engels’s maxim, “Labor created humanity” and so the need to know if the yeren labored. There were similar debates about Bigfoot’s status as a human. Much of this was prompted by workers outside of the US, in particular Bernard Heuvelmans in France and a small group of Russian “hominologists” met at Moscow’s Darwin Museum and took their lead from the historian Boris Porshnev. The Russians developed an odd theory about humanity, arguing that there was a fundamental split between modern humans and Neanderthals because Neanderthals could not speak. Further, they argued that the wildmen of Russia and Mongolia—often called Almas—were examples of Neanderthals. This view was far outside the mainstream, of course, but given that interest in Bigfoot was also outside the mainstream, it provoked some Bigfooters to ruminate on the wildman’s speech ability. (Krantz, by the way, first thought that Bigfoot might be a remnant population of Neanderthals, but he had in mind the more accepted view of Neanderthals as speaking and culturally—sophisticated; he dropped this line of thought when it became clear (to him!) that Bigfoot did not speak, make tools, or live in complex societies.) Heuvelmans was a jazz singer and popular science writer. His On the Track of Unknown Animals inspired many in the Bigfoot community, although for many years Heuvelmans was reluctant to admit that Bigfoot was a primate. He thought them more likely a relic population of giant sloths. But in 1968, along with Ivan Sanderson, he saw a carnival exhibit which was supposed to be a wildman frozen in a block of ice. Unlike many others who saw it, Heuvelmans and Sanderson believed the creature to be real—an actual example of a wildman. Sanderson thought maybe it was Homo erectus, though he was not sure. Heuvelmans became convinced that the creature was a Neanderthal. Although he saw Bozo—as Sanderson called it—in Rollingwood, Minnesota, he thought it likely that Bozo had been killed in Vietnam during the conflict there and then shipped out in a body bag along the same trade route that carried illicit drugs. In the middle 1970s, Heuvelmans and Porshnev put out a book in French arguing that Neanderthals still existed. (Porshnev had died in 1972, so his portion had to have been written before that.) Obviously, these discussions blurred the lines between humans and Bigfoots, even if Porshnev’s theory depended on making that line rather firm: because when his ideas were translated, it became easy to think of Neanderthal in the conventional way, as a “caveman.” And so Bigfoot came to be seen as a “caveman.”
This was never the majority view. The two big camps were 1) Bigfoot is some kind of ape, probably Gigantopithecus, but not necessarily. 2) Bigfoot is a paranormal being who flits between dimensions, which accounts for repeated failures to capture it. Still, there were some who thought that Bigfoot was a primitive human, most famously, perhaps, Roger Paterson, who, along with Bob Gimlin, supposedly filmed a Sasquatch as she loped through the northern California forest. Interest in Bigfoot and wildmen more generally had died out during the 1960s, largely because Sir Edmund Hillary had gone in hunt of the Abominable Snowman and declared it a myth. But Patterson’s film, taken in October 1967, revived interest in Bigfoot—big time. It was after Patterson that scientists such as Krantz and John Napier began to take the topic especially seriously. It was also after Patterson that interest in hunting Bigfoot really took off, and set the stage for popular understandings of the beast that sometimes complemented and sometimes resisted the scientific establishment.

And thus concludes our second installment of Buhs and Schmalzer’s intriguing discussion of the wildmen of their respective books. Join us tomorrow for the exciting conclusion!