DNA Analysis Reveals the True Identity of Himalayan Yetis
Researchers evaluated supposed Yeti excrement, hairs, and other remains and concluded that the myth is likely rooted in scary encounters with bears.
Yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman, has vexed scientists for over 200 years.
In 1925, for example, Royal Geographical Society photographer N.A. Tombazi observed a creature — deemed by others as Yeti — about 15,000 feet near the largest glacier in the Eastern Himalayas. Tombazi at the time wrote: "Unquestionably, the figure in outline was exactly like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally to pull at some dwarf rhododendron bushes. It showed up dark against the snow, and as far as I could make out, wore no clothes."
Supposed remains of Yeti were even collected over the centuries, including desiccated fecal material, hair, a scrap of skin, a fragment of bone from a decayed body found in a Tibetan Plateau cave, and other items.
The British production company Icon Films, creator of the documentary Yeti or Not, gathered such remains and presented them to Charlotte Lindqvist and her team for DNA analysis. Lindqvist is an associate professor of biological sciences at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.
The results of the scientific investigation have just been released. Lindqvist and her team report that six of the supposed Yeti remains were from Tibetan brown bears, one was from a Himalayan brown bear, another was from an Asian black bear, and one turned out to be from a dog.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, represent the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical human-like creatures, according to the researchers.
"Our evidence strongly points to a biological basis for the Yeti myth, and the more evidence we have that confirms that, the more unlikely it becomes that there is some other explanation for the myth," Lindqvist told Seeker.
"But," she added, "that will most likely never change the belief in the myth."
The appearance and behavior of the bears identified in the study provide clues as to how the myth might have begun and persisted for so long.
Co-author Muhammad Ali Nawaz from Quaid-i-Azam University and the Snow Leopard Trust Pakistan program explained to Seeker that Himalayan brown bears are smaller than other bear species and can look human-sized when standing, which they do, he said, "while smelling around, perceiving threats, climbing trees" and more. He added that their fur color is quite variable, with some sporting light brown shades.
"They hibernate during winter in areas close to villages," he continued, "and sometimes visit houses to steal food. Attacks on humans are extremely rare, though, based on our monitoring of Himalayan brown bears in Deosai National Park, Pakistan for about 20 years."
Co-author Richard Bischof from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences added, "One attribute of Himalayan brown bears that may further facilitate the myth is the fact that they can range up to very high elevations. Encounters there must leave an impression, especially if the bear rears up to get a better look at the human intruder, before disappearing."
The Yeti myth isn’t the only one to be debunked by scientific analysis. The longstanding Western legend of an "African unicorn" was explained in the early 20th century as being an okapi: a giraffe relative that resembles a mix between not only a giraffe, but also a zebra and a horse.
Creatures from Australia's Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology are now believed to have been drawn from ancient encounters with real megafauna, known today from that country's fossil record.
"Ancient myths could have a basis in long extinct animals, or perhaps even other human species that modern humans encountered when they colonized the area," Lindqvist said. Some myths could therefore have been in existence for tens of thousands of years, passed down orally before the emergence of written accounts.
Not all mysteries associated with Yeti have been solved, however. A few years ago, another research team led by Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford analyzed 30 hair samples attributed to Yeti, Bigfoot, and other anomalous primates.
Sykes and his colleagues told Seeker that two of the studied hairs could not be matched to a known bear species. They said the animal possibly was a hybrid, a bear with an unknown "color variant," or "a previously unrecognized bear."
"Although none of the Bigfoot hairs were from an anomalous primate, this does not prove that Bigfoot does not exist,” Sykes said. “Absence of proof is not proof of absence."
There is further puzzlement about the bears identified in the latest paper. The researchers' analysis of mitochondrial DNA — genetic information passed down through the female line — showed that while Tibetan brown bears share a close common ancestry with North American and Eurasian bears, Himalayan brown bears belong to a distinct evolutionary lineage.
"Our data suggests that Himalayan brown bears may be representative of the most ancient lineage of brown bears, having shared a common ancestor with all other living brown bears more than 600,000 years ago," co-author Stephanie Gill of the University at Buffalo explained to Seeker.
"They appear to have migrated into the area and been isolated ever since," Gill added. "Thus, Himalayan brown bears living today may provide a sort of window into what the ancestor of all brown bears was like."
Lindqvist admitted that she and her team are missing the male side of the story. “It is possible that these bear populations are more connected than we realize,” she said, “but that it is only the male bears that move across the mountains."
Another possibility is that around 650,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation, Himalayan brown bears became separated from other bears. That population could then have undergone a prolonged period of isolation and evolved on an independent path.
In the future, the researchers hope to sequence the nuclear genomes of Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears, permitting a more complete look at these species' history.
In the meantime, the myths associated with Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, and Bigfoot continue.
"Once a myth becomes part of the culture, there seems to be strong selection to keep it there," Gill said. "And all it takes is another near-sighting to reinforce the myth in the minds of those who have already chosen to believe it: a self-fulfilling prophecy, in essence."
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