DNA expert’s view of the Ketchum Bigfoot DNA claim

Dr. Todd Disotell appeared on the Parsec-award winning podcast, Monster Talk, earlier this week to discuss the press release from Dr. Melba Ketchum regarding the Bigfoot DNA study she spearheaded.

Monster Talk: SASQUATCH: KETCHUM IF YOU CAN

Dr. Todd Disotell

Dr. Disotell is a Professor of Anthropology at New York University. His research specialties include primate evolution, genetics and mitochondrial DNA and analytical techniques of phylogenetic systematics.

He had previously appeared on the very first episode of Monster Talk to talk about cryptid (unknown animals) DNA and the testing of unknown samples. This time, he volunteered his thoughts about the information released regarding the extraordinary claims by Ketchum, a veterinarian.

The press release by Ketchum’s company, DNA Diagnostics, said:

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch,” living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

The fact that this extraordinary claim was not accompanied by a paper and supporting data was a giant red flag for Disotell. He notes that science by press release never turns out well especially when the information is provided by a for-profit company, as is Ketchum’s DNA Diagnostics.

Dr. Disotell goes on cite four other key areas that made him question the credibility of the entire endeavor.

1. Ketchum’s experience. Dr. Disotell said that she did not have any publications. This is actually incorrect. She does – at least four according to a Pub Med search. But she is not the lead author on any. Considering the gravity and complexity of this study, that does not bode well for her experience. However, she does claim there are other authors. No one has spoken up to say they are included. The tremendous secrecy for such a huge finding is very suspicious and suggests that true experts have not actually looked at it.

2. Primate evolution is a small area of expertise. A peer review process for such a paper would have virtually guaranteed that Dr. Disotell would have either been a reviewer or have known someone who was. Peer review does not have non-disclosure agreements (as it was rumored that this study had). So, word does get around. If a paper was submitted to a major peer review journal (since it’s such a blockbuster finding), it would have been at least inside knowledge. This increases the chances that the paper actually does not exist or it is in publication process with a less than reputable or a cryptozoological journal.

3. Just having modern human mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) is not enough to conclude hybridization. While many primate species have evidence of hybridization in their evolutionary lineage, that is not the only conclusion that can be made here. Contamination is still a possibility. An alternate explanation proposed in the past six months as rumored in Bigfootery circles (mostly forums) was that the DNA samples may have come from an isolated Native American tribe (may account for 15,000 years of variation). This genetic code might be just different enough from other modern humans to raise questions or be passed off as Bigfoot DNA.

4. The positing of an unknown primate existing 15,000 years ago is not plausible. 15,000 years ago, humans were “us”. This is a very short span of time, evolutionarily. There is no evidence that another primate that we have not discovered was living at the time in order to mate with human females. In addition, the mention of  a “non-human sequence” is confusing. If it’s non-human or unknown, what does it most closely match? If it matches close to bear, bacteria, plants, whatever, that would give us a better idea about a reasonable interpretation. The use of “unknown” does not make sense in terms of science. Its use sparked the mention of so-called “angel” DNA further decreasing the capacity of onlookers to take this seriously.

Because all these arrows point to implausibility, Dr. Disotell is not optimistic about the claim being true.

But, the major hole in this entire story is that there’s no data and there’s no body. We can’t know what is being described, how it was tested and what details support the conclusion. We do not have the specimen that produced DNA. We are left in the dark. Also, it could be we’re being strung along with an elaborate story. Each day that goes by that a paper does not appear, but more rumors and excuses do, the odds increase that this claim about Sasquatch/Bigfoot is bogus or wrong.

What is nearly certain is that no matter what this paper says, if it comes out at all, it will not be the final word on Bigfoot’s existence.

Note: Comments are moderated. This is not a forum. Due to the controversial nature of this subject and since it sparks high emotion, please refrain from providing comments unless you have additional information, preferably referenced.

UPDATED: Breaking – Paper has been rejected?

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  33 comments for “DNA expert’s view of the Ketchum Bigfoot DNA claim

  1. December 5, 2012 at 6:02 PM

    Good summary… We’ll see what shakes out of this. I wonder if people will really believe in Bigfoot 100 years from now; 60 years of non-evidence may not be enough. But maybe 160 years of these hoaxes & bogus claims? Surely Bigfoot (and hopefully the chupacabra too) will go the way of the dragon and the mermaid in popular belief?

    • drwfishesman
      December 5, 2012 at 6:19 PM

      I don’t think so. With the ridiculous “water ape” theory meriting its own show on Animal Planet and NOAA lending credibility by actually denying the existence of mermaids. I just think this silly cryto-claims will be recycled.

    • December 5, 2012 at 6:26 PM

      If anything, in 100 years, there will be no place for them to hide. ;)

      • Anonymike
        December 28, 2012 at 2:36 PM

        Not so. Actually, natural reforestation has been taking place in parts of the eastern United States for some time– especially in the Upper Midwest and Upper New England. In the Western United State, there are vast areas with little human activity in them. Even in the east, there are vast areas of forested terrain with little human activity either.

    • Ralpus
      December 7, 2012 at 11:49 PM

      It took 80 years to find the Panda after a man claimed he saw pelts of them in a hunting camp. The Panda is Black and white. Bigfoot is auburn/brown/black.

      • December 8, 2012 at 8:30 AM

        Color has so little to do with this, it’s not really worth considering. I can hardly begin to discuss the differences.

        • daran
          December 8, 2012 at 5:03 PM

          all ralphus was saying is that Pandas, being black and white would be easier to see than a brown or black animal and of course it has nothing to do with DNA.
          People sent leopard DNA to a lab to test the lab and the results came back as feral cat! (big cats in Australia)
          Would we ever get a true result for bigfoot DNA if there really was some

      • Chew
        December 8, 2012 at 9:27 AM

        You of course meant it took westerners 80 years to find a panda after one westerner saw a pelt (but it was actually 47 years, not 80 years). The Chinese, however, have known about the panda for over 2000 years. Why did you ignore the Chinese’s knowledge of the panda?

        • spookyparadigm
          December 8, 2012 at 12:02 PM

          I like to think of cryptozoology as a steampunk pseudoscience. It is playing at an ideal of science (one obtained through media caricature) from the Victorian age, and then extrapolating it in entertaining ways. And unlike the steampunks, the cryptozoology folk don’t openly admit they are ignoring a century of change in favor of a romanticized fantasy.

  2. D.
    December 5, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    Another brilliant piece of research and skeptical journalism.

  3. December 5, 2012 at 6:30 PM

    Very well done Sharon. Your professional constraint is admirable. A tad disappointing, but admirable.

    • December 5, 2012 at 6:36 PM

      I’m well known for not inciting drama. But you don’t actually see the hate comments that come along with these Bigfoot posts.

  4. daran
    December 5, 2012 at 6:35 PM

    while I am in agreement with the article, this:” DNA samples may have come from an isolated Native American tribe ” is really suss.
    where there such a thing?
    They would have to be isolated for many thousands of years and that isn`t likely.
    I have no comment on Bigfoot, very weird phenomenon, thousands upon thousands of reports but no evidence

    • Phil
      December 5, 2012 at 7:28 PM

      If it is an unknown tribe how would they know eh? What is probably meant is indicative of an American Indian tribe.

    • spookyparadigm
      December 8, 2012 at 12:03 PM

      I haven’t listened to the show yet, but the repeated comments on this point, do make me a bit concerned.

    • Martin
      December 13, 2012 at 4:27 PM

      Lots of “evidence”. No proof.

  5. December 5, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    Thanks for the update Sharon. This has really shaken people up. People consider DNA some sort of magic, if the DNA is THERE this MUST be TRUE. I am having to say to people, “please read some more, there is a reason this is not going to be on the cover of TIME magazine this week!” I so enjoyed Dr.Disotell when he was on the first episode. He was very “Bring it on!” about crypto DNA. Still, it’s hard when my Bigfoot hunting neighbor keeps saying “You kept saying you needed DNA, well now you have it!” (well no, we haven’t).

  6. Tyler Kokjohn
    December 5, 2012 at 8:19 PM

    Dr. Disotell provides some illuminating comments on science and insider politics. I find that I am in full agreement with his stance on the strength of the data, but disappointed by his characterization of the peer review process, insider information and what he feels it reveals.

    While anonymous reviewers do not necessarily sign non-disclosure documents, the general standard of ethical conduct demanded is that confidentiality will be maintained. Reviewers do not share, discuss with third parties or disclose information from the manuscript. Anyone violating those expectations runs the risk of censure. It is vital for the journals to do their best to uphold such standards. Who wishes to submit their hard-earned data to a publisher who would permit it to be disseminated by anonymous persons?

    Yes, some research speciality areas are small. Yes, unfortunately, there is insider information. In this specific instance, I interpret that what Dr. Disotell meant by ‘word does get around’ was that a few individuals might know such a manuscript was under review, not that any specific data from it was being discussed. I also hope that the fact he has not heard anything is evidence for nothing more than the fact that involved peer reviewers are acting ethically. Whether or not the particular journal is a reputable one can be dealt with if and when the data are finally published.

    Many papers are rejected strictly on a scientific basis, but as Dr. Disotell noted, this is a blockbuster. Any hints that the highest ethical standards were not adhered to or suggestions of collusion among insiders will fuel howls of protest over a biased process. We have had enough noise over this already.

  7. One Eyed Jack
    December 5, 2012 at 10:27 PM

    “Any hints that the highest ethical standards were not adhered to or suggestions of collusion among insiders will fuel howls of protest over a biased process.”

    I guarantee that when this is released it will be full of more holes than a block of Swiss cheese.

    Science doesn’t operate in a black box, but pseudo-science does.

  8. December 5, 2012 at 10:36 PM

    This MT episode was fantastic. Although the whole hominid, hominin, hominine, and hominy just confused me while listening to it. I have to read that portion sometime later to get the definition down. Nicely done to Blake and crew.

  9. LovleAnjel
    December 6, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    “Primate evolution is a small area of expertise. A peer review process for such a paper would have virtually guaranteed that Dr. Disotell would have either been a reviewer or have known someone who was. Peer review does not have non-disclosure agreements (as it was rumored that this study had). So, word does get around. If a paper was submitted to a major peer review journal (since it’s such a blockbuster finding), it would have been at least inside knowledge.”

    I take issue with this. I also work in a rather small scientific field, and word does not commonly get around. Most of us take the anonymous part of reviewing pretty seriously. At best, I have complained about general poor syntax to my English-major husband, with no details about the authors or their research. There is no non-disclosure form, but it’s heavily emphasized in the reviewer agreement that the paper and its authors not be spoken about until after publication.

    • December 6, 2012 at 1:11 PM

      I think generally what you said is true. But I have a hard time believing this paper is on the up and up for some of the reasons Todd gave. And others. This was kept secret for all these years? The timeline makes little sense. Everyone who is alleged to be involved said nothing? Where are these authors? Why can’t they even admit they saw the data? If real experts weren’t involved in the project, we certainly should be doubtful.

  10. Andy
    December 6, 2012 at 2:28 PM

    I agree with most of the Northern California Native tribes – Bigfoot is some kind of woodland spirit or folk entity; there won’t be any DNA to test, but you might see or hear something. I think it’s best left as a folk belief that doesn’t need to stand up to scientific scrutiny. Bigfoot exists, but can’t be proven; I think these psuedo-scientific expeditions do more harm than good – just enjoy it for what it is. (BTW, I’m from Humboldt County, CA, so we grew up with the legend with a grin and a wink.)

    • One Eyed Jack
      December 7, 2012 at 3:39 PM

      “Bigfoot exists, but can’t be proven;”

      If it exists, it can be proven. If it can’t be proven, then it doesn’t matter if it exists or not.

      • Andy
        December 7, 2012 at 7:20 PM

        I just mean that Bigfoot ‘exists’ like The Mothman or Spring-heeled Jack – as part of our collective folkloric view, stories that children learn and pass around, isolated sightings from sketchy sources, the stuff of legend. I think our lives are a little richer if we have some of those stories to inform us, especially when growing up. That’s why I recommend that everybody just let Bigfoot ‘exist’ without bothering him or trying to hunt him down.

        Bigfoot rose to prominence in the late 50′s via men’s magazines like Saga and Argus, and the legend tapped into some male insecurity which we still see today in the survivalist types. The idea was appealing – an eight-foot furry hominid that lived WAY out in the woods, hollered once in a while, build dens, and avoided contact with everybody… if you have a boring factory job, you could live vicariously through the adventures of Bigfoot hunters out on the trail of the elusive beast. The internet and these shadowy expeditions have only helped the legend grow. Therefore, my point is that Bigfoot exists as a cultural idea, a myth (in the original sense of the word), and perhaps visits some people at different stages in their lives. I’m not going to bother disproving it, or trying to prove the validity of DNA ‘evidence’… I’ll simply let him wander the primeval forests of our fantasies. And if a few people are trying to make a few bucks off of gullible believers, that doesn’t bother me either… churches do the same thing!

  11. Mulder
    December 6, 2012 at 3:58 PM

    Responding to Disotell’s “points” in order”

    1. Ketchum is an experienced DNA sequqncer and tester, as is her lab. It is after all her profession.

    2. Sounds like “sour grapes” on being left out to me…DNA is DNA, and requiring the reviewers to be limited to “primate evolution” experts smacks of turf-guarding.

    3. So a completely undiscovered tribe of N Americans with a nationwide distribution is possible, but BF is not??? Seriously??? Additionally, such a tribe would not explain the non-human nuDNA.

    4) Floresiensis was completely unknown until just a few years ago. Classic Sagan Fallacy fail from a professor who should know better.

    Let us keep in mind that Disotell is a Dismissalist on the topic of BF based on his previous public comments. His implication of sinister financial motives on the part of Ketchum (why else note that she runs a “for profit” DNA lab), his dismissive attitudes towards anyone outside his preferred circle of potential reviewers and paper writers (“real experts”, etc), and his invocation of logical fallacies as in point 4 are typical of the psuedo-skeptic/Dismissalist/Denialist community.

    • December 6, 2012 at 6:32 PM

      1. Knowing how to run a test, interpreting it correctly are one thing. She does this for pedigree verification for animals. That, in no way, is like human genome research. And what lab…? I’m sure you know it had problems. She was not qualified to be a lead author of such as study (if that’s what role she took).

      2. Nope. Since he is one of the worldwide experts and this is a groundbreaking study, he should have seen it, collaborated on it, reviewed it or known about it.

      3. Um… Native American tribes really exist.

      4. In a remote area of an island in southeast Asia. Compared to your Kentucky state park or Oklahoma back yard?

      Please, Mulder… this was too easy.

    • December 6, 2012 at 10:00 PM

      My turn.

      1. Ketchum’s track record does not speak well for her. Lately, her profession has been to milk the gullible.

      2. Sour grapes? Poor interpretation of someone who was simply curious that he and all other reliable DNA experts were not contacted. You have to admit, it is a bit suspicious. Unless you’re gullible, of course.

      3. Was that supposed to make sense? If so, how?

      4. Floresiensis hasn’t allegedly been digging in peoples trash for the last fifty years.

      Your post was a supreme failure, but it was still good for a laugh.

    • spookyparadigm
      December 7, 2012 at 5:31 PM

      This seems somewhat pointless, but it should be noted that both H. floresiensis, and the Denisovan line of Homo sapiens, both have left physical evidence in the form of skeletal evidence. By contrast, the supposed DNA samples here are coming from a living creature, of which no physical evidence can be presented, even though they are seen by thousands of people (vs. H. floresiensis which went extinct thousands of years ago).

  12. December 8, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    So far, this submitted and rejected paper is just another claim; adding to the heaping pile. I’ll remain tentative …I’m waiting for the novel data. Mysterious data to help explain another possibly non-existent mystery is not an explanation.

  13. mickey
    December 28, 2012 at 10:53 PM

    Well… debunked. It was Bear & the guy who shot the Bear (and said it was a Bigfoot) DNA. Melba is sincerely toast… lol

    • December 28, 2012 at 11:05 PM

      Not quite. It’s not that simple. We don’t know enough about Melba’s samples to say it is the same or it was analyzed the same or the conclusions were justified. Not enough details to make heads or tails out of that yet.

  14. kelly
    January 2, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    Excuse an ignorant scientist – was her paper rejected on content or a procedural problem? Why was it rejected – exactly? If it is content, what was wrong; if not content, why can’t it be made public?

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