Mysterious “wild men” living at the edge of civilization have populated our folklore for centuries, but few are as legendary—or as evasive—as Bigfoot.
But while the creek-dwelling hominid was lurching into America’s imagination, the Soviets were tracking down another elusive biped. Almost 7,000 miles away, in the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, a team of Soviet investigators were searching for Bigfoot’s icy cousin, the Yeti.
Now, more than half a century later, an uncovered Soviet manuscript has shed light on one of the first expeditions to find the legendary ape creature—including supposed encounters with the beast itself.
In Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, there were reports of mountain-skulking cryptids; “naked man-bears” with piercing midday howls; tall hairy creatures that petulantly kicked over tents; and rhubarb-foraging troupes of camel-haired beasts standing on two legs—even grisly murder scenes where victims’ livers had mysteriously been plucked from their backs. Their prime suspect was the mysterious Yeti—better known in the Caucasus as the “Almasty.”
It was a 20th-century fascination with Mount Everest that exposed European explorers to the Sherpa folklore of the Yeti, originally a type of sacred guardian revered in carvings by the Anandapur king Parthiva Sankara Gavampati. But when Everest’s summit was first conquered in 1953, it wasn’t long before these tales mutated and snowballed into a global phenomena—with one expedition for the newly named “Abominable Snowman” even sponsored by the notorious British tabloid, the Daily Mail.
It wasn’t only newspapers that were interested. In the USSR, Soviet polymath Boris Porshnev was also taking note.
Primarily a historian specializing in popular revolts in pre-revolutionary France, Boris Porshnev was also fascinated by anthropology and linguistics, and suspected that reports of these mysterious creatures in the wilderness could be a form of “relict hominid”—in other words, extinction leftovers that survived against all odds in wild, harsh climates.
A respected academic, Porshnev had dabbled with unorthodox theories before—such as the idea that language was the driving force of evolution that allowed all types of hominids to thrive—and he thought locating some of these “wild men” might provide some clues to fill in the gaps. Winning approval for the search from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Porshnev declared his aims in the official newspaper of the Communist Party, Pravda, where he solicited eyewitness accounts of interactions with the creatures.
The reports flooded in, and in 1958, Porshnev set out to follow up on the promising leads in person, accompanied by folklore experts, geologists, and anthropologists. But his colleagues had other ideas: many simply didn’t care about Yetis, and even the head of the expedition, a botanist, Cyril Staniukovich, was much more interested in studying local plant-life than capturing cryptids.
This ill-fated expedition was one of only two official investigations into Bigfoot-adjacent creatures ever—the other being a search by Communist China. Now, Porshnev’s manuscripts have been located and translated into English for the first time, detailing supposed first-hand accounts of Yeti, wild-men, and ‘Almasty’ across the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
These manuscripts were almost as elusive as the Yeti itself, and were considered practically lost until a small publisher in Devon, England, called the Centre for Fortean Cryptozoology (CFZ) intervened.
“It was something we wanted to track down for a long time,” Richard Freeman, director of zoology at the organization, told Motherboard. “As a purely historic document it's worth reprinting, because it's the work of a very well-respected scientist. But the information within it that we might glean about the ‘relict hominids’ is the most important thing. Because there's stuff in this book that's never been seen by anybody's eyes in the West before, which is utterly remarkable.”
The CFZ stumbled on the manuscripts almost by chance. Although the Moscow Library held a copy, they weren’t prepared to relinquish it. But eventually, the now-deceased Yeti researcher Dmitri Bayanov introduced Freeman to Porshnev’s great grandson, who agreed for them to be translated.
These globe-trotting accounts record tales of shaggy-headed, fur-covered creatures with “long breasts” prowling the Pamir mountains, and wild-men in Kyrgyzstan that long ago walked on two legs like humans but had feet twice the size, like paddles. Strange hominids were thought to inhabit caves, mountains and creeks in the Faizobod district of Tajikistan. Elsewhere, in Urgut, Uzbekistan, the creatures would supposedly sit for hours on earthen mounds, leaving behind deep imprints of their asses.
Others claimed they were two meters tall, covered with red hair, lived in small groups, and didn’t wander far. A researcher from the Pamir Botanical Garden, meanwhile, said the 1917 Russian Revolution may have brought a stop to them: “Before the Revolution there were wild men, and now there are not,” a researcher reportedly told Porshnev.
Porshnev turned up many such reports, but fell short of acquiring physical evidence.
Alexander Porshenko, Head of the Center for Anthropology of Religion at the European University in St Petersburg, told Motherboard that some in the Soviet scientific establishment did not respond kindly. Even initial fellow travelers on the expedition, like folklorist Anna Z Rozenfeld, turned their back on Porshnev when they declared: “tales about ‘snowmen’ living in the Pamirs do not have any foundation in reality.” Other Soviet geographers specializing in Central Asia outright dismissed all reports of wild-men in the region. Later, in 1969, a group of Soviet zoologists and biologists labeled Porshnev’s study “pseudoscientific.”
Despite these hostile rebuffs, the Soviet Union “certainly proved willing to investigate a number of strange phenomena through mainstream institutions,” explained Andy Bruno, Associate Professor in History and Environmental Studies at Northern Illinois University.
Like the Tunguska explosion of 1908, where the blast was believed by some to be the result of a nuclear-powered UFO crash, the Academy of Science was occasionally prepared to team with volunteer researchers to investigate the mystical or esoteric. Although the Soviet Union worked hard to increase scientific literacy, efforts to do so, Bruno said, often wound up encouraging interest in the paranormal rather than squashing them.
That was the case for Porshnev: although he returned only with stories and was otherwise empty-handed, journalistic interest in the Yeti remained, even among science publications. His official Commission was aborted, but he personally amassed a coterie of followers who were dedicated to his mission—and he continued to travel with volunteer researchers throughout Central Asia to collect further evidence from the 1960s to 1980s, even as official backing disintegrated.
Decades after Porshnev’s death, Richard Freeman at the CFZ may just be a spiritual successor to these followers.
“I've hunted for the Almasty and its relatives in Russia, Tajikistan and northern India,” said the roaming cryptozoologist, who is also a former zoo worker and reptile specialist. He has also searched for the “Tasmanian Wolf,” the “Giant Anaconda,” and the “Mongolian Deathworm.”
While Freeman has not yet succeeded in gathering conclusive physical evidence, he says he has survived life-threatening near-misses like tumbling down ravines and snatching vines at the last minute, like a cryptozoological Indiana Jones, and has amassed a long list of such hair-raising accounts.
Freeman told Motherboard that records of the Almasty go back hundreds of years. In his book, In Search Of Real Monsters, he writes that they were thought to be of a Homo genus, “rather than a pongid,” like a great ape.
On a 2008 trip to the Kabardino-Balkaria part of the Caucasus Mountains, he learned of an Almasty run-in from biologist Grigory Panchenko—a home invasion, where an adult hominid bludgeoned the homeowners’ dog before stealing a wheel of cheese and escaping the scene.
Returning to the scene of the crime, Freeman and his colleagues encountered ancient Sarmatian tombs nearby, with bizarrely shaped remnants of skulls scattered about—but these were no wild-men. The remnants were only the results of a ritual binding common to the peoples there in the third to seventh centuries—astonishing stuff, but disappointing for the field of cryptozoology.
Elsewhere, near a town called Neutrino, another investigation involved an abandoned farm, the site of a grisly triple-murder that lay empty ever since. Local shepherds drinking close by claimed they had been confronted by an Almasty, which, startled but with an enviable self-assurance, gently lifted one of them out of the way before leaping from a nearby veranda.
So Freeman and his fellow travelers set up a stakeout at the abandoned farm with motion-sensitive camera traps, laying bread and honey as bait. In the early hours of the morning, the investigators heard a strange noise—a guttural vocalization Freeman describes as a phonetic “bub-a-bub-a-bub” that seemed to emerge from this same veranda.
“A few seconds later, something walked along the veranda, and whatever it was, it was walking on two legs because as it passed the door, which was slightly ajar, it blocked out the moonlight and the starlight to a height of at least seven feet,” said Freeman. “We grabbed our cameras, rushed out, and whatever it was, it vanished into the night. We did a circuit of the farm but we couldn't find anything.”
“That's the nearest I've got to seeing one of them,” Freeman lamented. “The camera trap went off but all we got was moving vegetation.”
In spite of his lack of physical findings, Freeman believes in the existence of these creatures. He notes that Porshnev’s theory about surviving Neanderthals is out of date—they were quite small, unlike the tall Almasty—and the reports he’s heard suggested primitive tool use. After all, Freeman says, there are mysterious remnants of hominids occurring more than you’d think, such as the Red Deer Cave inhabitants of Northern China, whose existence intrigued scientists.
Nevertheless, Yeti expert Daniel C Taylor claims to have proved in his book, Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, that the creature is “emphatically” a bear. He told Motherboard that to better understand the whole Yeti puzzle, it is worth dividing the one Yeti topic into three Yeti-esque sub-categories. These are: the Yeti of Sherpa lore, mistaken animal sightings, and finally, the “Disney”-type conception of the Yeti that Stormy Daniels was referring to when she described Donald Trump as a “guy with Yeti pubes.”
“Distinguishing three Yetis is a framework that I use because in the public's mind they confuse that a folklore Yeti means there is a biological one,” Taylor told Motherboard. “This would be analogous to saying that Santa Claus is real because there is the folklore of such. Children believe, but not anyone who has really studied Santa Claus, then there is the third Santa Claus that appears at Christmas at big shopping centers, where children sit on the lap: that is real, but different, and that is like the Walt Disney Yeti (or Stormy Daniels').”
The evocation of Donald Trump’s pubes was confusing and disgusting in equal measure, so Motherboard asked Dr David L Roberts, an extinct species expert at the University of Kent, what he thought. Roberts said that while it’s tricky to prove a negative regarding extinction, he thinks it’s unlikely there are any surviving mystery hominids roaming the wilds.
“That’s not to say we haven’t had spectacular discoveries over the last century and into this century,” Roberts said. “But we have a tendency to find large species earlier on, because they’re easier to find—it’s been difficult for them to hide. We also tend to find things in northern latitudes earlier than southern latitudes, because that’s where a lot of the scientific taxonomists were based—so there’s certain characteristics that correlate with earlier discovery.
“So finding large hominids wandering around in the US or even in the Caucuses is highly unlikely.”
Likely or not, the stories persist, and Freeman is far from alone in his beliefs: many Yeti enthusiasts insist that Siberia contains strange cryptozoological entities traipsing the tundras, and among them are Vladimir Putin, who claimed to have once sighted a whole family of Yetis.
Undeterred, Freeman plans to continue his hunt, with hopes to return to Tajikistan in the future. As for why, despite the extensive searches, no Almasty, Yeti, or Bigfoot has turned up just yet—Freeman says that these creatures seem to be highly talented at avoiding people, perhaps because their survival depends on it.
One place where their survival is not disputed, though, is in the minds of people. because—whether real or not, alive or extinct, or merely metaphysical—we are fascinated by these creatures stomping the snow and traipsing the mountains, at the edge of civilization.