The Yeti, also known as the Abominable Snowman, is one of cryptozoology’s most fabled creatures. The search for this Asian version of Bigfoot, which is said to roam the snow-capped Himalayas, has generated numerous eyewitness reports, blurry photographs, and alleged tracks – but hard evidence has proven as elusive as the beast itself. One British scientist may have solved the mystery – without even having to mount an expedition to the treacherous mountain range.
Bryan Sykes, a well-known geneticist at Oxford University, put out an international call for Yeti, Bigfoot, and Sasquatch hairs in 2012. He received samples from all over the world – but two, in particular, may shed new light on the mysterious creature.
“One of the most promising samples that Sykes received included hairs attributed to a Yeti mummy in the northern Indian region of Ladakh; the hairs were purportedly collected by a French mountaineer who was shown the corpse 40 years ago,” said National Geographic. “Another sample was a single hair that was found about a decade ago in Bhutan, some 800 miles away from Ladakh.”
After testing the mitochondrial DNA sequences of both samples, Sykes was able to match both of them with the genetic signature of a polar bear jawbone. The jawbone, which was discovered in the Norwegian Arctic in 2004, is estimated to be between 40,000 and 120,000 years old.
“I think this bear, which nobody has seen alive, may still be there and may have quite a lot of polar bear in it,” Sykes told the BBC. “It may be some sort of hybrid, and if its behavior is different from normal bears – which is what eyewitnesses report – then I think that may well be the source of the mystery and the source of the legend.”
Yeti sightings stretch as wide as the Himalayas themselves, which span five countries: Bhutan, India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan. The myth gained international attention after Eric Shipton, a famous British explorer and mountaineer, returned from a 1951 expedition to Mount Everest with photographs of huge footprints in the snow.
Then in 1960, Sir Edmund Hillary – a New Zealander who became the first man to reach Everest’s summit – claimed to be in possession of a Yeti scalp. Scientists debunked Hillary’s specimen, saying that it came from a goat-like animal indigenous to the Himalayas.
Most recently, in 2011, a purported Yeti finger was found in a Nepalese monastery. After researchers at the Edinburgh Zoo ran some tests, however, it was determined to be human.
As can be expected, given the unusual subject matter, many in the scientific community are skeptical of Sykes’ findings.
“The claim is based on a really small sample, and the DNA is likely degraded to some extent,” said biologist Robert Rockwell. “So many critters share so much of their DNA that getting 'matches' can be an artifact of sampling and will certainly depend on precisely what region of DNA is being used.”
Ars Technia added that the hairs could have been deliberately placed in areas where people might be hunting for Yeti – just another hoax in the vein of the infamous Loch Ness monster photographs.
“Writers might be motivated to produce a good story. Locals might like to increase tourism. Rogue scientists might want to take credit for solving a riddle or perhaps even play a joke on colleagues. For a scientific prankster, what better artifact to place in the middle of Asia than polar bear hair?”
According to most eyewitness encounters, the Yeti is muscular and ape-like, weighing an estimated 200 to 400 pounds. At about six feet tall, it is also described as being relatively short compared to the North American Bigfoot. It is covered in either dark gray or reddish hair, and walks upright like a human.