Wildlife

The Yeti: A Story of Scientific Misunderstanding

April 2, 2018

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Alleged yeti footprints at the Himalayas found by Frank Smythe in 1937. Photograph was printed in Popular Science, 1952. The footprints were alleged to be from a yeti but were examined by experts and found indisputably to be bear's. Smythe accepted this conclusion. For his comments on the photograph see his articles: F. S. Smythe. (1937). Abominable Snowmen—Pursuit in the Himalayas—A Mystery Explained. Times (London), November 10. F. S. Smythe. (1937). The Abominable Snowmen. Times (London), November 16. Photo on Wikimedia Commons in the Public Domain

The Yeti is a cryptozoological phenomenon popularized in the early 20th century by British mountain explorers in the Himalayas.

Those who claim to have seen it report a modest-sized, two-legged, hairy mountain creature with disproportionately large feet.

Photograph of an alleged yeti footprint found by Michael Ward. Photograph was taken at Menlung glacier on the Everest expedition by Eric Shipton in 1951. Photo on Wikimedia Commons in the Public Domain

A recent scientific study has shown, once and for all, that physical evidence (fur, bone and skin) purported to be from the Yeti are instead from bears, based on genetic analysis.

Bear species that fall within the “range” of the Yeti include Asiatic black bear and two subspecies of brown bears, the Tibetan and Himalayan.

The reports of Yeti sightings began as soon as Western explorers made headway into the Himalayas. The explorers gathered first-hand accounts from locals and translated these observations into prosaic descriptions of the creature’s shape, fur color and gait.

With this, the Western world began to believe that the Yeti could be real, and Yeti-finding expeditions were dispatched.

Over the decades, Yeti encounters continued to accumulate, though physical evidence has always been elusive.

Himalayan brown bear in Zoo Hluboka. Photo © Zoo Hluboka / Wikimedia Commons through a CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Nonetheless, the existence of the Yeti could never be ruled out. The Himalayan wilderness seemed vast and inaccessible enough for the existence of an undiscovered animal to be plausible.

In his book The Snow Leopard, famed nature writer Peter Matthiessen writes about a 1973 Himalayan expedition to study the blue sheep. Throughout his narrative, the author seems just as primed to spy a Yeti as he is a snow leopard. And we read that his companion, legendary wildlife biologist George Schaller, also refuses to rule out the Yeti’s existence.

Snow leopard in Hemis National Park, India. Photo by Snow Leopard Conservancy/Jammu & Kashmir Wildlife Protection Department on Wikimedia Commons in the Public Domain

Of all mythical beasts, the Yeti has received the most attention in actual peer-reviewed scientific journals. It has been the subject of articles in such top-tier science and conservation publications as Oryx, Proceedings of the Royal Society B and Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

Yeti at Disney Animal Kingdom. Photo © Joe Smith

The Oryx article, published in 1973, summarized the state of knowledge regarding the Yeti’s existence and proposed that it could be an undiscovered human-like hominid that occupied dense unexplored forest on the lower slopes of the mountains.

All subsequent articles have focused on genetic analysis of purported physical Yeti specimens of hair, bone and skin.

Two recent studies, both published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, may finally mark an end to this attention from the scientific community. A 2014 paper concluded that all genetic evidence analyzed from purported Yeti specimens actually came from a wide range of known animals.

The 2017 paper examined a refined set of specimens and found that all but one came from bears (the outlier came from a dog).

The authors conclude with finality that “the biological basis of the Yeti legend is local brown and black bears.”

Lost in Translation

Himalayan black bear. Photo © flowcomm / Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

But to conclude that the Yeti isn’t “real” may perpetuate a misunderstanding that began when western and eastern cultures met on the slopes of the Himalayas.

We may think of the Yeti as something of a cryptozoological hoax on par with the Loch Ness Monster.

But something about the Yeti, long present in the lore of local cultures, may have been lost in translation.

It may be that these Western strangers far from home may have simply suffered a failure of imagination and did not fully grasp the cultural context of the Yeti myth.

The major religions of the Himalayan region are polytheistic and inclusive, absorbing older folk beliefs and deities as time goes on. This yields a complex spiritual world full of magical beings and places that are in constant interaction with the landscape and affairs of people.

This perspective encompasses old gods and new gods, mountain spirits and river demons.

The purview of a deity may range from being, say, a goddess of destruction, to such minor responsibilities as guarding over a river crossing or one’s home.

Tröma Nagmo, Tibetan-Buddhist Kali. Closeup from a painting of Machig Labdron, 19th century. Image on Wikimedia Commons in the Public Domain

Indeed, according to the traditions of Lepcha people who are indigenous to the Himalayan region, the Yeti is an ape-like glacier spirit that holds influence over the success of hunting trips.

Often, tales of the Yeti hint at something that is beyond reality. It isn’t easy to parse the first-hand reports of the Yeti – it is reported as being seen in the flesh, yet it is also given mythical powers.

For example, according to an account by Ang Tsering Sherpa who recalled a time when his father saw a Yeti, “If the Yeti had seen my father first, my father wouldn’t have been able to walk. The Yeti can make people so they can’t walk. Then he eats them.”

The real and unreal intermingle in a world full of helpful and vengeful spirits.

Among these, the Yeti was plucked from obscurity and cultural context to be scrutinized as a creature that literally walks the earth.

In retrospect, perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the Yeti legend is that Western science took on its potential existence as a hypothesis to test.

Is the Yeti real?

I imagine that with a certain world view, one could easily accept both answers to this question.

New Findings and Insights

Fortunately, the latest peer-reviewed study of Yetis did not merely debunk the beast. It left us with fascinating new findings about the genetics of bears and an important conservation message.

This is that the Himalayan brown bear isn’t just another bear. It is a unique creature of an ancient lineage that is in critical need of scientific and conservation attention.

Himalayan brown bear screen capture from PBS Nature, The Himalyas.

Let’s hope the Himalayan brown bear gains much from its association with the Yeti.

In the end, the Yeti may be now what it has always been: a part of the mythology and folklore of its home.

Yeti at Disney Animal Kingdom. Photo © Joe Smith

When thinking of the Yeti, I am reminded of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, in which deities from all the world’s religions vie for bandwidth in the human consciousness. The triumphant ones are those who hold the attention of humanity.

The Yeti is an example of a minor deity from a place remote to the Western world that has indeed captured our attention.

This “glacier spirit, god of hunting and lord of all forest beasts” is now renowned across the globe.

The Himalayas are a captivating place, thanks to both its culture and ecology. So, let’s hold on to both myth and reality: long live the Yeti, and long live the Himalayan brown bear.

Joe Smith

Joe Smith, PhD, explores the lives of the birds around us by sharing insights from scientific research. As an ecologist for a New Jersey-based conservation services company, he helps to restore coastal ecosystems and the migratory birds that depend on them. Joe lives in the birding hotspot of Cape May, NJ and has done field research with birds throughout the U.S. and Latin America. He writes about nature in his backyard at www.smithjam.com. More from Joe

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3 comments

  1. What an interesting article, with terrific photos to match. Thanks very much!

  2. Great piece Joe! Reminded me of a favorite paper:
    Lozier, J.D., Aniello, P. and Hickerson, M.J., 2009. Predicting the distribution of Sasquatch in western North America: anything goes with ecological niche modelling. Journal of Biogeography, 36(9), pp.1623-1627. https://goo.gl/Md5efF

    Thanks!