zana

I was watching Season#1, episode#3 of Bigfoot files on Netflix and it was really good(youtube embedded below). They were investigating the myth of the Almasty, an alleged sasquatch or Neanderthal type creature thought to roam the deep wilderness of the former Soviet Union.

The show focused on Zana, a legendary wild “ape woman” discovered in the 1850s in the mountainous forests of Ochamchir. Zana was chased down by some local men, beaten to submission, and dragged down to a local village where she was kept as a sex slave for decades and offered up for sex at drunken parties.  Zana was described as an extremely tall (6’6″) and muscular woman covered in thick auburn hair who slept outdoors, could outrun a horse, and swim across the violent Moskva river at high tide.  It is said that she ran around naked like a wild animal until she died in 1890.

Zana had four children including a terrifying son named Khwit who was said to be so animalistic, he could lift an entire table with just his teeth.

khwit

Zana’s terrifying son Khwit

As part of the show, Khwit’s tooth along with the saliva of several of Zana’s living descendants were submitted to Oxford professor Bryan Sykes for DNA test while several Almasty enthusiasts who had been obsessing about Zana for decades, anxiously awaited the results.  For it was judgement day for their lifelong fascination.

First the bad news: Zana’s son and other descendants had the same amount of Neanderthal DNA as expected for modern humans in that region.  It was time to put the theory that Zana was a surviving Neanderthal to bed.

Then the surprising news: the DNA of Zana’s son and other descendants indicated that she was 100% sub-Saharan African!  It seemed Zana was just an escaped black slave, and because of the racism of the time period, was described as some kind of wild ape woman.

However upon further examining her son’s skull and the DNA of her descendants, Sykes began to think that Zana was not a modern African at all, but from a relict population who left Africa 100,000 years ago and hid in the Caucasus Mountains.

It’s very rare for a scientist as prestigious as Bryan Sykes to be open-minded enough to apply his considerable skills to such a marginalized and ridiculed area of research and we should all be very grateful.

But no good deed goes unpunished because anytime a scientists says anything provocative, people like science blogger PZ Myers are right there to call them incompetent, and even racist.

In a scathing attack, Myers calls Sykes’s idea “not only inane, but distressingly racist” and writes:

Look at what he’s claiming. An African woman was enslaved by 19th century racists, and she left some descendants. Sykes has analyzed DNA from people in that region and found evidence of an infusion of West African DNA into the population: you should be feeling zero surprise. A person lived, had children, died, and her descendants carry traces of her genome. That’s basic biology.

But then it goes off the rails. Sykes unquestioningly accepts the accounts of 19th century racists who regarded this woman as an animal to say that the evidence of West African ancestry somehow supports his contention that she was an ‘ape woman’ who was descended from some relic population of a Homo sub-species that had been hiding in the Caucasus Mountains for millennia, giving rise to legends of yetis and bigfoot and other beast-men in the wilderness.

That makes no sense. His own DNA analysis says she was 100 per cent African. You know “African” is not a synonym for “pre-human”, right? But he has written a whole book titled The Nature of the Beast (horrid title that also manages to suggest that an enslaved African woman was less than human), in which he advances this ludicrous theory, and the Times has obligingly fluffed it for him. At least it’ll appeal to all the UKIP voters.

It’s fine if Myers wants to be skeptical about the science, but playing the race card is irresponsible and will have a chilling effect on other scientists wanting to explore such fascinating topics.  Sykes is not implying that an enslaved African was sub-human; the whole point of his theory is that she may not have been a modern African woman at all, but one from 100,000 years ago.

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