A showcase of early Futurist architecture from 1907, the State Darwin Museum, set back on Valivola Ulitsa in the Akademicheskaya region, is devoted to our natural history. This it presents as an evolving progression from ferns, to animatronic dinosaurs and then onto ourselves, Homo Sapiens. This museum, in fact, represents the first one to promote Darwin’s theory of evolution.
This venue boasts another distinction: for 55 years the museum has been the only scientific establishment to open its doors to followers of Russia’s own Bigfoot cult. Each month, members of the International Centre for Hominology gather there to discuss their latest publications, the results of their field trips and to chew over their pet theories as to unknown-to-science ape-men.
Global man-ape Rumours
Last November (2015) the publication Newsweek assigned a special 100 page edition to what it called ‘the greatest and most controversial legend on earth’–Bigfoot.
The prominence of North America’s Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, to give it its Native American name) can obscure the fact that stories of something similar–hairy bipedal man-like apes–have long haunted the imaginations of many parts of the world.
Indeed, before that the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas had already made headlines courtesy of climbing expeditions to the area. The big game hunter Peter Byrne was sheltering in a cave in Arun Valley in Nepal on a hunt for the snowman in 1959. A messenger brought him a letter from his financer, the entrepreneur Tom Slick, which told him to drop the hunt and make his way to Willow Creek, USA where there was talk of something similar–Bigfoot no less. Thus the two legends–not so obvious in their similarity–became fused in the eyes of the media (Sykes, p-51).
Australia too has its Yowie, spoken of by the aboriginal people and dubbed by the white immigrants ‘the big Hairy fella’. The mountains of Southern and Central China has, for 2,000 years, been the scene of similar reports of a Wildman which they call the Yeren. This even prompted a study by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences in the 1960s.
Then over in the swampland of Sumatra, the West Indonesian Island there is talk of Orang Pendek. This is another hairy human-like ape, but in this case one of diminutive stature (his name means ‘little man’). The tracks he leaves resemble those of a seven year old child, but wider.
It would not be until 1910 that the first westerner remarked over one, and then in 1923 a Dutch hunter found himself unable to fire at one, so human did it appear.
Since 1994 the British travel journalist Deborah Matyr has become something of an advocate for the creature. Having seen the thing several times herself she is a believer and has organised field trips to the tropical forests to locate it (Doncaster and Holland, p’s–174-176).
Russia, along with former countries of the Soviet Union, is not left out in any of this. Here there is a tradition of wood goblins stretching back centuries, and some more modern accounts which bear a similarity to the Himalayan yeti. The preferred term here is the one used by Mongolians to talk about their wild man–the Almasty.
Testimonies and Traces
Before we chalk all this down to folk-tales though, there remain a perplexing array of cases where such beings put in appearances and make marks before bemused, and credible, spectators.
Two American biologists called Edward Cronin and Jeffrey McNeely took to camping out in the Arun Valley in Nepal in 1972. Their aim was to check out the flora and fauna of the region. What they did not expect to find, however, were the fresh footprints outside their tent when they arose one morning. These looked like those of an unidentified primate, and there were opposable digits–thumbs–on the feet. (Sykes, p-49)
Thirty nine years later, in the altogether different territory of Rutherford county in North Carolina, USA, a Vietnam vet called Thomas Byers, with his girlfriend Caroline Wright felt astonished by a seven foot tall being running across the highway. This growled at them and left a smell behind, but not before Byers had captured a five second video of the occurrence (Bainton, p’s 358-359).
Another video clip, this one posted on-line, originates from nearby a city called Adyagesyk, near the Krasnodar reservoir in south western Russia. This shows something moving through the forest as well as the footprints it supposedly left in its wake. Indeed, if NTV state television can be believed the beast had been the cause of calls made to the local emergency services. A search and rescue team then found tracks of 47cm in length and 27 centimetres wide.
“It would have taken 200 kilos to press down on the snow that hard” commented Andrei Kazaryan, a member of the search and rescue team (Moscow Times, January 16th 2015)
Nevertheless, until a full body or skeleton turns up which answers to the description of such man-like apes as described above, then qualified zoologists will be forever obliged to banish such accounts as nothing but those of folk-demons.
Looking for an I.D
Michael Trachtengerts’s business card introduces him as a ‘free researcher’ interested in ‘human origins’. Now an octogenarian, he still holds fast to a view of the Almasty as a corporeal creature and hence one waiting to be found by scientists anytime soon. For him this is the search for a ‘living fossil’.
“It is no more supernatural than a gorilla or a chimpanzee” he told me with confidence last December. This position is restated in the second part of his book Foundations of Hominology which he has just brought out. It is also the assumption behind his dual language website www.almas.ru.
Holders of the ‘living fossil’ paradigm like to draw parallels with other known creatures. Marine arthropods known as horseshoe crabs have made few evolutionary changes to differ them from their fossilised ancestors from 450 million years ago.
Trachtengerts’s long-time colleague, Igor Burtsev, who heads the International Centre for Hominology, however, feels that he has outgrown the living fossil model. After uncovering stick structures that he believes are left by the Almasty, and which take the form of rune-like glyphs, and having spoken to witnesses who tell of the creature materialising and dematerialising, he has joined a growing number of his American counterparts who suggest that this is an intelligent being in possession of paranormal capabilities. This idea has been aired elsewhere in Russia too: an article in the weekly Anomalny Novosti (No 50, December 2015) carries an article ,the headline of which translates as ‘The snowman is not a man’. Burtsev has even suggested on more than one occasion that the entity could even be of off-world origin. (For more on this vexed debate see my own article: ‘Primates of the Paranormal’ at the www.unexplained.com website).
Nevertheless, though to Trachtengerts the Almasty is of fearsome aspect, and could even eat human flesh and to Burtsev they are benevolent, they are both united in their tenet that it should not be shot, not even to prove its existence.
In North America bigfootology is a lucrative craze which comes complete with its gurus, its TV shows and fictional film tributes, online incestuous debates and even litigation between insiders.
The Russian counterpart can only limp along to try to keep up. Here the scene is kept alive by a coterie of elder statesmen in their seventies and eighties. Beset by attendant health issues, they plough a lonely furrow, self-producing books and pamphlets, providing the odd talking head on a sensational TV documentary, leading some expeditions for Japanese tourists, having the odd morale boosting meet-up with one of their American brethren, going out on the occasional field trip to look for signs, and enjoying a once a month social at the State Darwin Museum. They can be seen as survivors from a Soviet period during which people had more time, when travel within the Soviet Union was affordable, hiking was popular–and Darwinian speculation accepted within certain boundaries.
Last June (2015), it seemed as if help was on hand from a younger man. A 44 year old former geography teacher turned ground based tour operator for ROSCOSMOS, Valery Sushkov, announced the inauguration of a new Yeti Expedition Club. This was backed up with a website, business cards and other such paraphernalia. The objective was to bring together research with an open appeal to the tourist market. One focus was Kemerovo and a slogan for this was produced: “Mount Shoria: Motherland of the Russian Snowman”. Igor Burtsev was invited on board to act as the club President.
It was with a sense of optimistic fanfare that I reported this development for English readers in a piece in Phenomena Magazine in December 2015. The portents, a few months down the line, are not looking quite so good: Burtsev and Sushkov are no longer in touch and I have heard no ore of the venture from any of my contacts, although the website www.yetiexpedtition.ru does seem to still be under development. Such is the way with all too much in the Russian Bigfoot scene.
Doubts. New Leads
In any case this comingling of research with the commercial need to encourage visitors to areas of Russia has already caused some to doubt some evidence for the Russian Almasty.
Doctor Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropology at the State Idaho University in Pocatello, USA is a science insider who is also convinced of the reality of unknown-to-science primates. This prominence lead to Meldrum being among those welcomed to the Kemerovo region where the local government and Almasty investigators were trying to set up a Day of the Yeti.
He later told Huffington Post that some of the findings had been ‘orchestrated’. He was lead to a cave called Azaskaya in Mount Shoria by a deputation which included Burtsev among its numbers. A tuft of ‘yeti hair’ that was ‘found’ seemed to him to have been pressed into the ground by a human agent. Tracks leading into the cave, he noticed, were those of the right foot only, and went in but not out. A supposed ‘nest’ of the Almasty, a bed of moss, had no traces of animal debris in it. Then when he and his camera-man tried to go further into the cave to do their own investigations, he was called back by his guides. All in all, the visit left this believer with an ‘uneasy feeling’ (Fortean Times, March 2013).
To give another twist to the saga, however, another academic, this one with a reputation as a doubter, has done a bit of an about turn on the Russian Almasty question.
Among the many books produced by Bryan Sykes, the professor of human genetics at Oxford University, the newest is called The Nature of the Beast. This turns the acetylene torch glare of cutting edge DNA testing to the Bigfoot and yeti conundrum.
He asked researchers from around the world to send him samples of hair taken from places were anomalous primates had been glimpsed. It is gut-wrenching to note that the vast majority of these transpired to have come from such things as horses and cows. After all, these animals have the kind of long hair that can easily become trapped on bushes and between rocks; Sykes also points out that such animals would be unlikely to have been mistaken for ape-men–so these negative results tell us nothing about the sightings themselves.
Sykes also took a fresh look at a celebrated case known as Zana, the wild-woman. This woman came to be captured in Abkhazia (between Russia and Georgia) in the late nineteenth century. Observed by hundreds of people all agreed on her hairy body and fantastic strength. She lived outdoors by preference and never learnt a human language.
She also begat offspring. Burtsev was the one who managed to unearth the skull of one of her sons, Kwhit, in 1971. Dmitri Perkulov, in more recent times took swabs of the saliva of Zana’s six living descendants in the region.
On scrutinising the skull, Sykes pronounced it to be ‘unusually large’ and ‘outside the range of modern human variation’ (Sykes, p-298). On testing the saliva Sykes describes the outcome as ‘very, very unusual’ (Sykes, p-306). He found it to be of African descent, but it did not match any records.
The conventional explanation has been that Zana was an escaped African slave: Sykes does not believe this however as her description is not that of an ordinary human being. He concludes that she may have belonged to ‘an antique race of humans’ who could still be living in the Caucuses! (Sykes, p-306).
Granted, this is neither the prehistoric throwback that Trachtengert’s holds out for, and still less the paranormal entity that Burtsev conceives of. It is significant, though that Sykes concludes his book by saying: “I think my view has altered more in favour of there being ‘something out there’ than the reverse” (Sykes, p311).
As we enter the Year of the Monkey, we can only hope that Russia’s Bigfoot aficionados survive a little longer to tell us more of the mysterious native that hides out in the world’s biggest country.
Bainton, Roy The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena (London: Constable & Robinson Ltd, 2013)
Doncaster, Lucy/Holland, Andrew Greatest Mysteries of the Unexplained (London: Arcutus Publishing Limited, 2006).
Sykes, Bryan The Nature of the Beast: The first Scientific Evidence of ape-Men Survival into Modern Times (London: Coronet, 2015).