Such is the importance of the work and legacy of the late Bryan Sykes, I thought I would turn my appreciation for his investigations into a trilogy. On November 1, 2013, the U.K.’’s Channel 4 put out a press release that outlined the facts concerning a new documentary the channel was about to air on Zana, one which, finally, was about to lay the matter to rest. It read, in part: “Bryan Sykes, Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, has carried out DNA tests on saliva samples taken from descendants of Zana – a so-called ‘wild woman’ captured in the late 19th century in southern Russia, who local people believe was an ‘Almasty.’ Professor Sykes’ research (part of a worldwide analysis of alleged Bigfoot samples), has yielded a remarkable result: that Zana’s ancestry was 100% Sub-Saharan African and that she was most probably a slave brought to the region by the ruling Ottomans.”
The story is nowhere over yet: “His findings feature in a new Channel 4 documentary series, Bigfoot Files (November 3rd), presented by Mark Evans, who is on a global quest to unlock the real story of Bigfoot. Zana’s story is extraordinary. She is said to have been captured in the forests of Abkhazia, a remote part of Russia’s Caucasus region, in the 1870s. Imprisoned, it’s said, for two decades by a local landowner, she was described by eyewitnesses as being ‘very big, strong, her whole body covered with hair’. Chillingly, Zana had four children with local men. Russia’s ‘Almasty Hunters’ have been obsessed with her story for over half a century and have always believed that Zana could be a surviving Neanderthal, the human-like species that is thought to have died out tens of thousands of years ago.”
Channel 4 continued, and explained the background to Professor Sykes’ work and conclusions: “To answer the riddle and establish what species she belonged to, Professor Sykes has tested samples from six of Zana’s living descendants. He has also recovered DNA from a tooth taken from the skull of one of her sons, Khwit. Such work is highly specialized and Sykes was the first geneticist ever to extract DNA from ancient bone. The results are complex and fascinating. First, they show that Zana was, in fact, no more Neanderthal than many of the rest of modern humans. When the Neanderthal genome was sequenced in 2010 it became clear that Europeans and Asians contain around 2 to 4% of Neanderthal DNA; almost certainly the result of interbreeding.
“‘But the big surprise in Sykes’ results was that Zana’s DNA is not Caucasian at all, but African. Khwit’s tooth sample confirms her maternal African ancestry and the saliva tests on the six living descendants show that they all contain African DNA in the right proportions for Zana to have been genetically 100% sub-Saharan African. The most obvious solution that springs to mind is that Zana or her ancestors were brought from Africa to Abkhazia as slaves, when it was part of the slave trading Ottoman Empire, to work as servants or laborers,’ says Professor Sykes. ‘While the Russians ended slavery when they took over the region in the late 1850s, some Africans remained behind. Was Zana one of them, who was living wild in the forest when she was captured?’”
It was an entirely valid question. As Channel 4 rightly noted, however: “That theory would not explain her extraordinary features, described by reliable eyewitnesses. The amazing story, and the attendant, astounding discoveries of Professor Sykes were far from over. An even more sensational discovery was made, as Channel 4 highlighted: ‘Having carefully studied the skull of Zana’s son, Khwit, Professor Sykes believes there are some unusual morphological skull features – such as very wide eye sockets, an elevated brow ridge and what appears to be an additional bone at the back of the skull – that could suggest ancient, as opposed to modern, human origins. And Sykes has raised the bold theoretical possibility that Zana could be a remnant of an earlier human migration out of Africa, perhaps tens of thousands, of years ago. If correct, Zana could be evidence of a hitherto unknown human ‘tribe,’ dating from a distant time when the human species was still evolving and whose ancestors were forced into remote regions, like the Caucasus mountains, by later waves of modern humans coming out of Africa.”
Zana may not have been an Almasty or a surviving Neanderthal, but the astonishing conclusion that she may well have originated with “a hitherto unknown human ‘tribe’” most assuredly leaves the door open for the possibility of other, “hitherto unknown” humans inhabiting the wilder parts of the planet – and, maybe, some of them are more ape-like than human.