Yeti bear: Yetis are real – but not magical, says British geneticist

Yeti bear: If a British geneticist is right, the beasts called yetis are in fact a peculiar bear species in the Himalayas. 

Desmond Boylan/Reuters
Just what are the tall, hairy, and aggressive beasts said to roam the unchartered Himalayas? Well, they're bears, says one British geneticist.

If a British geneticist is right, yetis are real – except, the word “yeti” would refer not to the half-man, half-bear beast of yore, but a bear.

Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at the University of Oxford, has announced that two pelts said to belong to the yeti match DNA from an ancient polar bear. He proposes not that ancient polar bears are hiding in the rugged Himalayas, but that so-called “yetis” are in fact a bear species as of yet unknown to science, an animal with a peculiar blend of ancient polar bear and brown bear DNA.

Dr. Sykes’ findings have not yet been published but will be broadcast Sunday in a television special on the UK’s Channel 4.

The findings are part of a project out of Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology called The Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project, an effort to dredge up the origins of so-called yeti samples with genetic analysis. The project’s team, including Dr. Sykes, put out a call last summer for yeti samples – pelts, tufts of hairs, anything that could be tested for DNA.

The two samples used in the research, both hair tufts, came from Ladakh, an Indian region of the western Himalayas, and from Bhutan, some 800 miles to the east. The first sample was about 40 years old; the other was about a decade old.

Culling through the GenBank database, Sykes found that the two samples were a 100 percent match with the DNA of an ancient polar bear from Svalbard, Norway. That polar bear lived some 120,000 to 40,000 years ago, just when the brown bear and the polar bear were diverging as separate species.

The results do not mean that “ancient polar bears are wandering around the Himalayas,” Sykes told BBC News. Instead, he proposes that the yeti is in fact a hybrid of a polar bear and a brown bear – in other words, the yeti, if not a magical being, is at least a new species of animal. The research is consistent with previous reports identifying the mysterious yeti as a kind of bear.

Still, research done in 2008 had identified some yeti pelts as goat pelts, and theories abound that yeti sightings could be pegged on human hermits or on other elusive animals.

That means that if the latest research explains the possible identity of some of the animals that have been called yetis, it does not yet explain where the very idea of a yeti, a near global concept, originated: why do humans around the world believe that there are big, hairy, and often unfriendly beasts in their woods?

The idea of the yeti, the bear-like – some say ape-like – man in the woods, is an almost cultural universal, starring in the American woods as “bigfoot,” in the Russian caucuses as “Almasty,” in Sumatra as “orang pendek,” and in the Himalayas as the “yeti.” The concept existed long before Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury returned in 1921 from an expedition to Mount Everest to report that he had seen the tracks of what a journalist would later call “the abominable snowman”: various incarnations of the beast had long stippled local Tibetan legends, and its North American parallel – the Sasquatch – had existed for centuries in Native American tales and myths.

So, just how, why, and when the world’s cultures came to share a common fear of, and enthrallment with, a beast in the un-domesticated forests remains un-explained, an enduring mystery of human culture.

What is easier to explain is why no amount of scientific work will quell yeti-enthusiasts’ belief in the mythical being, notes Bryan Farha, a professor at Oklahoma City University and a scientific and technical consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

“Existing evidence for a bipedal prehistoric, apelike creature is largely based on testimonials—which does not pass the test of scientific scrutiny,” said Farha, in an email, noting that such testimonials are notoriously impervious to scientific work.

“Legends perpetuate because of the difficulty in putting the claim to rest,” he says. “A study can rarely disprove a claim such as this, so the legend lives on.”

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