The Indian Army declared on Monday that it found footprints belonging to the “mythical beast ‘Yeti,’” a humanoid creature with origins in Nepalese folklore.
On Twitter, the branch of the Indian Armed Forces said it discovered the tracks near Makalu Base Camp in the Himalayas, next to the Nepal-China border. According to the army’s tweet, the “elusive snowman” prints were spotted on April 9, and reportedly measured 32 inches by 15 inches.
The Indian Army did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s questions about the sighting, but told NBC News that it sent the photos to “the scientific community” for verification. The army said it withheld the photos for ten days before passing them on—”Rejecting derision over its mountaineering team's claim of having found footprints,” according to the Times of India—and hopes the publicity will “excite scientific temper and rekindle the interest.”
It’s not clear which scientists the Indian Army contacted.
Ross Barnett, a paleogeneticist and author who in 2014 matched alleged Yeti hair samples to a type of Himalayan brown bear, called the claim “very bold.” Barnett told Motherboard that “without good photos it would be foolhardy to discount the footprints as being from a snow leopard or a brown bear, animals that are known to live in the region.”
Barnett suggested they sample the snow for DNA which scientists have done to identify polar bear and arctic fox tracks.
“It reminds me of any military officer who reports ideas or claims about UFOs automatically gets more attention on the basis of some cultural authority,” Sharon Hill, an Pennsylvania-based researcher of cryptids and paranormal subject matter, told Motherboard.
“Any reasonable person can see these are melted prints,” Hill, who recently published the book Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers, said. “To jump to a conclusion of unknown, folkloric beast is irresponsible and suggests some agenda or motive.”
The Yeti has existed in folklore throughout the Himalayas, Siberia, and Central and East Asia for hundreds of years. Indigenous languages have referred to it as Meh-Teh, Michê, and other names that loosely mean “wild man;” it would later be called “the Abominable Snowman” by Westerners when British mountaineers visited Mount Everest in 1921.
Local traditions have seen the Yeti take many forms and motivations. In eastern Nepal, some Sherpa stories have described the Yeti as a dangerous being that attacks humans and looms large in their consciousness, wrote author Shiva Dhakal in Folk Tales of Sherpa and Yeti. These tales often used the creature as an allegory for morality.
Modern Yeti lore as we know it only emerged after Western expeditions to the Himalayas, Dhakal told the BBC.
“I think people should definitely approach Yeti stories with a mix of scepticism and sensitivity,” Barnett said.
“The Yeti is many things to many people and attempts to identify it as an unknown taxon of hominid are perhaps the least interesting thing about it,” Barnett added. “It is a part of Himalayan folklore and tradition that cannot be weaved with analysis through the scientific method.”
Today, the Yeti is a key selling point for “cryptid-tourism.” As climbers flocked to Mount Everest over the past few centuries—“a kind of colonialism,” the Italian alpinist Walter Bonatti told the New Yorker about the Everest rush, which in turn exposed traditions such as the Yeti to the West—foreigners’ obsession with the Yeti also grew. In 1959, the US State Department issued a memo from Kathmandu about Yeti-hunting expeditions, saying that permits could be purchased from the Nepalese government for 5,000 rupees (or $45 in today’s currency), but that it should never be killed—only captured or photographed.
In 2011, a Russian district in Siberia even claimed to have “indisputable proof” of the Yeti’s existence to entice visitors to a ski resort. The Kemorovo region’s Yeti Park was slated for construction at the Sheregesh ski resort, with the region’s governor offering a million rouble bounty to anyone who could capture one. Russian president Vladimir Putin, on a tour of Kemorovo in 2016, claimed to have spotted a male, female, and “smaller child Yeti” from a helicopter.
Some researchers have made rigorous efforts to legitimately study the Yeti, including DNA analysis of bone and hair samples—mostly indicating that the region is home to bears that also deserve our attention.
Daniel Taylor, author of Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery who spent years in Nepal’s Barun Valley, near where the Indian Army says it found the footprints, learning about the culture and ecology integral to the Yeti story, told Reuters that the Makalu tracks probably came from a bear.
“Quite frankly, the news is not ‘Yeti footprints found,’” Hill said, “because that’s a real stretch, but that the Indian Army would publicize this nonsense.”