Posted by: Craig Woolheater on September 10th, 2013
The Ketchum story top to bottom is now available online from Skeptical Briefs.Sharon Hill
On November 24, DNA Diagnostics, a veterinary laboratory headed by Dr. Melba S. Ketchum, issued a press release1 that rocked the cryptozoological world:
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 study was said to include sequences of twenty whole mitochondrial genomes. “Next generation sequencing” was used to obtain three whole nuclear genomes from “purported Sasquatch samples.” The mitochondrial DNA was identical to modern Homo sapiens, but the nuclear DNA was described as “a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species.” Thus, the researchers concluded from this DNA data that not only does the North American Sasquatch exist but that it is a hybrid species, “the result of males of an unknown hominin species crossing with female Homo sapiens.”
This announcement enthralled the press but annoyed many cryptozoology and science observers because it came with no published paper and no data, only a long and shady history of partnerships, projects, and promises. Ketchum promised the paper would soon follow. When it finally did appear, nearly three months later, it was less than impressive, made no sense evolutionarily, and sparked new controversies about her personal responsibility, the ethics of publishing, and what was going on behind the scenes with this project.
Science by press release is an unprofessional form and often is a bust upon peer review. (The classic example is cold fusion.) Melba Ketchum asked the public directly to buy into an extraordinary claim: that she has categorized Bigfoot DNA and understands its origin, proposing not one but two unknowns—Sasquatch and an unknown ancestor of Sasquatch. What evidence is there that this is true? We have only her word on the samples and just one paper that, as we will see, has had a difficult history, but there are no corresponding, converging lines of evidence. No other reliable physical evidence, traces, fossil record, historic record, or an undisputed clear picture or video of a Sasquatch exists. Moreover, environmental factors have not been shown to reasonably support the existence of a number of large primates reproducing in the wild often reportedly visiting human-inhabited areas. Even besides these obvious hurdles to acceptance, we have many reasons to be suspicious.
The Ketchum DNA project spans more than five years. Drama, propelled by occasional leaks that fueled speculation and hype, played out on the Internet via social media and blogs. Many inside Bigfootery had been following Dr. Ketchum’s progress closely for more than a year prior to the official announcement. Hints of the findings were long discussed in Internet forums and on websites. It is extremely difficult to parse what is factual and what is unfounded, and sometimes ludicrous, speculation. I have attempted to chronicle the story with the help of those who have been watching it more closely than I and, on occasion, Dr. Ketchum herself has spoken on it. Here I document the chronology and claims as best as I can, but many of the sources are secondhand. You can make up anything on the Internet and obviously some people do. However, rumor and wild speculation are a major part of this story primarily because the public was not given solid information but rather an intriguing tale.
Questions and disputes about the plausibility of Ketchum’s results and the origins of Sasquatch/Bigfoot created a schism in cryptozoological circles. The focus of the dispute is often on Ketchum herself, who has control of the entire project.
Who is Melba Ketchum? She is a veterinarian who graduated from Texas A&M veterinary school. She did not complete a PhD.2 While not an academic, she runs her own genetics lab and has been a coauthor on several published papers but never a lead author.3 With such a complicated and extraordinary claim as the discovery of Bigfoot DNA, her lack of experience in the specialized field of primate genetics hurt her credibility with the members of the scientific community who have actually expressed an interest in this project. She notes that she does have experience in forensics because she worked on DNA evidence from crime scenes, which was vital in assuring these study samples were not contaminated.4 There remains the murky area regarding the origin and history of the purported Sasquatch samples, the validity of her data, and how one can so definitively conclude “Bigfoot” from this one study prior to review by the scientific community. I found that these big ideas about Bigfoot precluded the data. Many other red flags obscure the view as well.
Read the entire report here.