If you've ever watched even one single TV show about Bigfoot, you have almost certainly heard of Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University in Pocatello. In a field where being taken seriously as a scientist is as rare as an undisputed Sasquatch sighting, Meldrum is considered the real deal.
Elsewhere in this edition of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette -- in the What's Up! arts and entertainment magazine -- you'll find a story about a proposed Northwest Arkansas World Myth Museum "envisioned as the premier institution that explores, collects, and shares cryptozoology, cultural legends, unexplained phenomena, and all things rumored to be a part of our world, but yet to be proven to exist."
It seemed like the perfect time to meet Dr. Meldrum and find out more about his books on the topic of cryptids.
Q. Tell me about where and how you grew up, please? Were you the kid under the covers reading Indiana Jones-style adventure books? Or the kid out in the woods? Or the kid fascinated by pieces of dinosaur skeletons at the museum? And how did that trajectory turn into your under-grad in zoology?
A. My grade school years were spent on the northwest edge of Spokane, Wash. So the sandy hills and towering Ponderosa pine forests were my playground, all the way down to the Spokane River. In addition to our pet dogs and cats, there were praying mantises, baby birds, snakes and lizards and ground squirrels added to the menagerie. Of course I was fascinated by all things natural history, as well as prehistory, so dinosaurs and cavemen and ice-age megafauna were in the mix. As an undergraduate zoology major, I was on a pre-veterinarian track. I had done my 200-plus hours at a vet clinic, but I was distracted by the science of physical anthropology.
Q. What initially made you want to study bipedal locomotion? And was it in the context of pre-history or in the context of current humans or some combination of the two with some great apes thrown in?
A. The discoveries of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") and the footprints at Laetoli fascinated me. A seminal paper on the locomotor anatomy of A. afarensis really focused my attention on the evolution of bipedalism, which also revived somewhat a latent interest in Sasquatch. I ended up at SUNY Stony Brook for my doctorate studies, the very place where that paper had originated. I was studying primate functional morphology broadly, and terrestrial locomotion specifically.
Q. How did you end up at Idaho State?
A. I have been prone to don and doff hats as novel opportunities arose in my path. My preoccupation with primate foot form and function afforded the chance to work on some monkey foot fossils from Patagonia. That in turn opened the door to a post-doc at Duke University and more work with South American primate paleontology. That subsequently motivated a venture doing primate DNA sequencing and phylogentic reconstruction, which in part landed me a position at Northwestern University. It was quality of life and family choices, however, that swayed a return to the InterMountain West. The eastern Idaho region and Idaho State University offered many aspects of a western lifestyle and collegiate career that were not to be found in a university medical center in a big city.
Q. You had already considered things like the Patterson-Gimlin film before you saw the footprint trail you saw? And as a skeptic, what did you think people were seeing and calling a Sasquatch?
A. One of the first public showings of the film was at the Spokane Coliseum, where I saw it as a youngster. It made quite an impression and motivated me to look for more information -- an experience shared by many, I have learned. A lot of water passed under the bridge, the distractions of growing up, etc. By the time I was a professor of anatomy and anthropology, I think I had a mixture of skepticism and agnosticism on the subject. But a first-hand examination of the footprint casts -- and an exceptional and extensive example of fresh footprints -- impressed me and piqued my interest.
Q. How did you happen to be in the woods when you saw the prints? Please tell me about that experience and how it changed your perspective?
A. In 1996, I had paid a surprise visit to an investigator from Walla Walla, Wash. He allowed me to examine his cast collection and then offered to show me some fresh tracks in the ground. I was skeptical of what seemed to be an uncanny coincidence, but was curious to say the least. For a fuller account of that experience, I refer the reader to my book, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science." (www.paracay.com/sasquatch-legend-meets-science)
Q. Being a scientist studying the intersection of science and legend has to have some unique moments. What are some of those crazy experiences?
A. It's the data, the evidence, that I am most concerned about as a scientist. The legendary aspects provide some context to the human experience and societal filtering of the phenomenon, but for me the question boils down to: Is there a biological species of relict hominoid behind the legend of Sasquatch?
Q. You are the go-to scientific expert for every TV adventure host that ever considered Sasquatch, from Josh Gates to Paul Beban. What do you hope comes out of those TV shows?
A. They offer an opportunity, if a rather brief and limited one, to present an objective evidence-based perspective to the question. There is a scientific context that establishes this possibility as a very normal rather than paranormal one. The productions also provide me the opportunity as an investigator to visit locations, examine evidence first-hand, interview witnesses and experts personally.
Q. What are your theories about why we have no bones, no bodies, when we do have hair and scat and vocalizations and sightings by credible people? Is there a Sasquatch graveyard somewhere -- I guess I'm thinking like elephants -- that we just haven't found?
A. The lack of bones and bodies is largely a matter of numbers. I suggest these relict hominoids are very rare. Assuming the natural history of a large-bodied hominoid, they are likely long-lived, reproduce infrequently, have no natural predators. When they are about to die a natural death, they likely secret themselves in some out of the way spot, as do other top predators. They primarily inhabit wet coniferous with acidic soils. What bones that aren't chewed up by gnawers rarely persist under those conditions.
Q. What would you say to skeptics about why you study Bigfoot?
A. It's a worthy scientific question. New Scientist ranked it as one of the top 10 questions of human evolution -- "Are other hominins alive today?" Contrary to Shermer's assertion that "the science starts once you have a body" -- I say, the science starts once you have a question!
Q. And what would you say to believers about how they can help pursue the science?
A. Cultivate the qualities and habits of a "citizen scientist" -- objectivity, critical thinking, parsimony, differentiating and documenting credible evidence.
Books by Dr. Jeff Meldrum, including “Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science,” “Sasquatch Field Guide: Identifying, Tracking and Sighting North America’s Great Ape” and “Sasquatch, Yeti And Other Wild Men of the World,” are available via Amazon and other book vendors.