Image: Ben Ruby
The legend of the Yeti has circulated in parts of the Himalayas for hundreds of years. Popular culture tells us the Yeti—called the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, or Sasquatch in other parts of the world—is a huge hairy ape-man, like what’s depicted in the 1987 movie Harry and the Hendersons. To the Sherpas of Nepal, the Yeti signals danger, said Shiva Dhakal, author of Folk Tales of Sherpa and Yeti. Legends of the Yeti scare kids so they “wouldn’t wander far away,” he told the BBC.
People have long reported seeing signs of the Yeti, like giant footprints or strange remains. Now, in a new DNA analysis in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, evolutionary biologist Charlotte Lindqvist and her team looked at nine specimens thought to come from Yeti, including teeth, skin, hair, bone, and fecal samples. One was from a dog, they found. The others came from Asian black bears, Himalayan brown bears, and Tibetan brown bears.
These researchers aren’t the first to perform genetic analyses on what were believed to be Yeti samples. But, according to their newly published paper, this is the most accurate research yet. Lindqvist notes that previous work was too limited to draw very strong conclusions. “This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures, strongly suggesting the biological basis of the Yeti legend as local brown and black bears,” the paper reads.Various signs and signals suggesting the Yeti’s existence have appeared in Nepal and Tibet over the years. Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was the first to summit Everest in 1953, thought he might have seen Yeti tracks on his way through the mountains, but later dismissed them. Some museums and private collections hold what are purported to be recovered parts of the Yeti, including a centuries-old scalp at a Nepalese monastery.
Lindqvist, a professor at the University at Buffalo, obtained her samples from British production company Icon Films (also listed as a funder in the paper), which produced a TV special called Yeti or Not on Animal Planet in 2016, she told me in an email.“I was suspicious about the speculation that the Yeti legend represented some strange, hybrid bear roaming the Himalaya mountains,” said Lindqvist, who is also a visiting professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “So, I agreed to follow up on this study with more purported Yeti samples and a more rigorous approach.”
Lindqvist didn’t set out to debunk the Yeti legend, she noted in her email: “Science does not (or at least should not) have an agenda.” She was, however, interested in learning more about bears of the region, which are “understudied.” (The Himalayan brown bear is critically endangered, according to her.) “My thinking was that if the Yeti is really a bear, this study could be an interesting avenue to get access to hard-to-get-to samples and a study of Himalayan bears.”Studying Yeti samples might be a new way to fill in the patchy history of these animals, and maybe give a more complete environmental history of the Himalayas, too.Science can help explore mythologies “and their biological roots,” she told me. But despite her findings, the legend of the Yeti, Lindqvist said, is sure to live on.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.