Zana the Ape-Woman: or, Bryan Sykes the Incompetent

Zana's granddaughter

Zana’s granddaughter

Does the London Times routinely publish crackpot pseudoscience with no fact checking at all? I’ve just read their latest piece on the notorious Bryan Sykes, Bigfoot Hunter, and it’s the kind of gullible tosh I’d expect from a Murdoch tabloid. It’s got one paragraph that mentions that other scientists doubt his findings, but otherwise it’s a fluff piece for Sykes’ new book about an ape-woman…which is not only inane, but distressingly racist.

Here’s the whole article.


It’s total crap. Right from the beginning: Now an academic geneticist claims to have found the most promising evidence yet that Homo sapiens may not be entirely alone in its genus. That sentence is a marvel. It’s literally true: Sykes is an academic geneticist, and he does make those claims, but the question we have to ask, that a journalist ought to ask, is whether those claims are valid. Our brave reporter does not. He swallows Sykes’ PR and regurgitates it in a reportedly prestigious medium.

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.

I’m not even going to accept his genetic analysis. Here are a couple of papers by Gutiérrez and Pine and Edwards and Barnett that show that Sykes can’t do molecular genetics at all — his analysis of a purported Himalayan yeti hair that claimed it was a Himalayan polar bear wasn’t competently done, and is almost certainly a hair from a more reasonable species of bear.

But then, what else can you expect from someone who deplores…math? Take a look at the prominent pull quote.

Professor Sykes criticized modern genetics for its lack of ambition and its fixation on mathematics. I’m afraid the golden years are over, he said. It is a field now dominated by the arrogance of bioinformatics and, as such, has lost it’s way.

That is utterly baffling. He doesn’t like that genetics is fixated on mathematics? But genetics has relied heavily on math since Mendel! If he actually analyzed Zana’s descendants and compared them to extant human populations, he was using the principles of bioinformatics! What he seems to be saying is that he wants to ignore the data to give greater credence to the bigoted legends of Zana, the Russian ape-woman.

It is also dismaying that the London Times and their reporter, Oliver Moody, have given this garbage so much space and so little critical analysis — it’s looking a lot like The Daily Mail. Is this the state of science reporting in the south of England nowadays?


  1. says

    By the way, the picture of “Zana” at the top of the Times article? It’s not. It’s an “artist’s recreation”, in which gorilla-like features were rendered on a human face.

  2. iknklast says

    I guess I’m not that surprised, after reading his DNA USA. He did some good stuff in there, but accepted totally baseless claims. Because the family Cohen had very similar DNA, he concluded that they were all indeed descended from Aaron, rather than the obvious (which he had concluded with other families that had such a match) that they were all related to each other. Then he is totally flabbergasted about why a black American football player might have a Scottish name (a quick tour through American history could have told him that, without much work). Oh, and the conclusion that there are different kinds of truth, and that Native American creation myths should be accepted as true because it was true to them. He has slipped on the woo.

  3. Scr... Archivist says

    Maybe this is one of those times that “Sykes” really is a Tenctonese word.

  4. comfychair says

    My local paper has sunk so low lately that they reprint press releases from Mississippi Power (Southern Co) about their gigantic failure of a coal power plant that’s currently $4 billion over budget and not near finished yet. The only indication the press release is a press release and not an article is that where a reporter’s byline would be, it says instead ‘Special to The Star’ (so special, that the same press release, word for word, can be found on the Mississippi Power website).

  5. Daz365365 . says

    it’s the kind of gullible tosh I’d expect from a Murdoch tabloid.

    The times is a Murdoch tabloid.

  6. busterggi says

    Sykes wanted to prove bigfoot exists and has been mercilessly attacked by the believer community for telling the (mostly) truth. A little confirmation bias and a poor choice of friends makes for bad science.

  7. says

    Iknklast @ 2:

    and that Native American creation myths should be accepted as true because it was true to them.

    Well, that ups Sykes’s idiot quotient. There are a whole lot of Indian Nations, and they do not all share one creation myth.

  8. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Daz, #6:

    PZ knows that. That was resigned cynicism, not outraged disbelief.

  9. iknklast says

    Caine @8: Exactly. Just like the other major world religions do not agree, neither do the many groups so many people cluster into Native Americans, assuming they are all alike. Not all creation myths can be correct; they can all be wrong, though.

  10. says

    Then he is totally flabbergasted about why a black American football player might have a Scottish name…

    He must be super perplexed when he hears Dario Frannchetti’s accent.

  11. Die Anyway says

    Despite the (supposed) fact that she “had all the characteristics of a wild animal”, local men were willing to have sex with her such that she bore “at least 4 children”. That probably says more about the men folk in that area than about Zana.

  12. blf says

    Does the London Times routinely publish crackpot pseudoscience with no fact checking at all?

    Yes. They are notorious for it. An example: In the early 1990s, John Madden at Nature was so incensed he wrote a series of articles slamming them hard for promoting the-then quackpot cause de jour, that AIDS is not caused by HIV. (For the pedants, that was actually the Sunday Times, which, despite the name, has not always been related to the Times of London.)

  13. marcus says

    The article on Sykes in NatGeo says nothing about an “ape-woman”.

    According to Sykes, the DNA from these two samples [of hair submitted] matched the genetic signature of a polar bear jawbone that was found in the Norwegian Arctic in 2004. Scientists say the jawbone could be up to 120,000 years old.

  14. w00dview says

    Uh oh, PZ, you have done the unthinkable. You have contaminated Bigfoot and his cryptozoological buddies (which are the most purest True Sceptic subjects you can find) with your icky SJW cooties by noticing the racist influence that surrounds the legends of supposed ape-men and women such as Zana. Now what can the dudebros use as a reason to feel superior to the unwashed masses? But on a more serious note, this would not be the first time that Cryptozoology and racism have mingled. Darren Naish has an article which explains the racist reasoning surrounding the “discovery” of De Loys’ Ape:

    More insidiously, it has been argued in recent years that Montandon endorsed and required the creation of a large, vaguely human-like South American primate because – as a supporter of the then seriously regarded ‘hologenesis’ hypothesis – he needed a primate that could serve as an ancestor of South American humans. Hologenesis – widely regarded as racist today – was the school of thought proposing that the different racial groups of Homo sapiens did not share a single ancestry but descended independently from different branches of the primate tree. Montandon seemingly needed an ancestor for ‘red’ people (native Americans), and Ameranthropoides was used as a ‘missing link’ in their evolution.

  15. Kimpatsu says

    ” It is a field now dominated by the arrogance of bioinformatics and, as such, has lost it’s way.”
    ITS, OK!

  16. Rey Fox says

    The headline is…I’ll let Carlie from the previous thread take it:

    It’s so ridiculous, I can’t help but think it’s been designed to drive people mad in the same way as those memes with a quote from Gandalf attributed to Yoda next to a picture of PIcard.

  17. says

    ” It is a field now dominated by the arrogance of bioinformatics and, as such, has lost it’s way.”

    Say you have an I T
    Followed by apostrophe
    S — now what does that mean?
    You would not use it’s in this case!

    *walks off singing something about word crimes*

  18. says

    I think this is a case of bad reporting rather than bad research, unless Sykes has completely reversed his views very recently. In his press statements back when the documentary was out he basically said “no, there was no ape-woman, it was this poor woman” and “no, there was no Yeti, it was this interesting species of bear”.

  19. says

    What’s “The London Times”? Do you mean “The Times” that happens to be published in London?

    You realize “The Guardian” has been published in London since the early 60s?

    Oh, and don’t science editors watch the telly? This story was debunked on a BBC show about 2 or 3 years ago.

  20. says

    There was a series of documentaries on bigfoot and the yeti that used samples from the believers and had Sykes reveal that all of their samples were from other animals.

    You may not like Sykes’s research here, but if you watch those documentaries, it is worth it all along to see the believers learn that their hair samples are not anything special– mostly bears. One guy says he’s going to stay in bed forever!

    Just to watch the reactions of the bigfoot believers finding out that they don’t have bigfoot DNA is so awesome. It’s better than Maury Povovich.

    The presenter of the series is Mark Evans, the BBC vet.