The Abominable Snowman

How likely is it that the Yeti of the Himalayas is a real creature?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Ancient Mysteries, Cryptozoology, Natural History, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #269
August 2, 2011
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Also available in Russian
 

Gigantopithecus
Jawbone of Gigantopithecus blacki
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Of all the world's famous monsters and wild men, the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas is among the most elusive. If it does exist in the world's highest elevations, it has the advantage of geographic isolation from human spotters, and is more likely to be able to survive in numbers without having been seen than would a Bigfoot or a Loch Ness Monster, said to live near populated areas. Many local Himalayan people are proven to have a matter-of-fact belief in its existence, as seen by the artifacts and temples of Nepalese Buddhists. Both the Russian and Chinese militaries have expended state resources to investigate it. The fossil record has proven the prehistoric existence of Gigantopithecus in Asia, an ape which appears to be a ominously close match for the reports. And of those adventurers who brave the icy altitudes over 6,000 meters, some have brought back high quality photography of footprints that look simian enough. So what is the truth about the Abominable Snowman? Is it proven one way or the other, or must science consider this to be an unanswered question mark?

There are two kinds of eyewitnesses to Yeti reports, just like to any other event: the honest and the dishonest. Some people lie about or exaggerate a car accident they saw; some may make up or exaggerate a Yeti sighting. They may even create hoax footprints or stage a photograph to fool someone else. Why would someone climb to six or eight thousand meters just to pull off such a dumb stunt? Probably no one would; but people who are there to climb a mountain like to have just as much fun with their friends as people down in the cities. Just as you might dig a fake giant footprint at the beach, so you might carve a perfect Yeti footprint and photograph it next to your ice axe. The most famous such photo, taken in 1951 and which you've probably seen, was taken by Eric Shipton, a notorious practical jokester, who's always avoided direct questions about the print. It's suspiciously perfect, with crisp edges and no indication it was made by a moving foot; and improbably shallow in the soft snow. Shipton and his companion claimed it was one of a long track of prints they came across which they also photographed, but which clearly bear no resemblance to the crisp footprint and which experienced mountaineers identify as a goat track. So hoaxes are a part of the game, but they're not the part that helps us learn whether or not the Yeti actually exists.

Honest reports are better, but often they leave the investigator little to go on; since many of them are honest misidentifications. A distant sighting could be a true Yeti, but it could also have been another climber, a rock, or a known animal. There are at least three species of bear that live in regions where the Yeti has been reported, all of which can stand on their hind legs. The Tibetan blue bear, the Gobi bear, and particularly the Himalayan brown bear all leave strange tracks in the snow and all will forage campsites. In fact, one Japanese researcher, Dr. Matako Nabuka, concluded that the Yeti never existed at all; that its local name meh-teh was just a mispronunciation of meti, one word for the Himalayan brown bear. His view is not widely accepted, but it does illustrate just one more vertex of the puzzle.

And so, honest reports of a sighting, even photographs, need to be testable if we're to use them to build a case. Sightings leave the investigator nothing to test. It's important to maintain an open mind, but the truly open mind is also open to the possibility that the witness was simply mistaken. What the open minded investigator needs is evidence he can test, and the willingness to accept what the test reveals even if it conflicts with his preconceived notions.

That means physical evidence. There are, or have been, two decent pieces of physical evidence purporting to be remains of a Yeti: a scalp and a hand. Physical evidence is always best, since it can be directly tested; and when the evidence consists of actual animal remains, we generally have a pretty good chance at doing a genetic analysis. The scalp and the hand came from Pangboche monastery in Nepal. Legend says the founding monk lived in a cave, and friendly Yetis kept him supplied with food and water. When one of them died, the monk preserved and kept its scalp, and built the monastery to display the scalp and honor the Yetis' service. The hand was added to the collection later, but there is no record of when.

In the 1950s, these objects came to the public attention mainly through the efforts of some of the most famous (or infamous) names in Bigfoot hunting. A team led by cryptozoologist Peter Byrne, financed by oilman Tom Slick, visited the monastery a number of times. They were allowed to take samples of hair from the scalp, but were only allowed to look at and photograph the hand. At one opportunity, Peter Byrne secretly took two finger bones from the hand, replacing them with human finger bones. The hair and the bones were sent back to the United States. Although one might hope that having this physical evidence would have produced answers, it seems to have instead fallen victim to the personal rivalries and mistrust that seem to have always characterized the Bigfoot hunting community. A whole team of Slick's scientists examined the items, but they expressed apathy, disinterest, and frustration with the process. Only one primatologist, William Osman-Hill, reported that the finger bones may have been anything other than human, but it was not a convincing verdict. He felt they were human, but did note some of what he described as Neanderthal characteristics. Little could be told from two small finger bones, other than that there was nothing ape-like about them.

Slick's teams also sent back a number of other hair samples and stool samples, but none of them ever passed scrutiny either.

Many of Slick's team and other Yeti hunters have been driven by the conviction that the creature has an excellent potential match in the zoological kingdom, in Gigantopithecus. Gigantopithecus was a genus of three extinct species of great apes that lived throughout what is now China and southeast Asia. By far the largest, and most recent, of these was Gigantopithecus blacki, which when standing erect, probably reached 3 meters (10 feet) and 540 kilograms (1200 pounds). These measurements are extrapolated from the only known fossils, which are a few thousand teeth and a handful of jawbones. These have been excavated from a few cave sites, but mainly found among Chinese traditional medicine shops where they've been collected and traded for centuries.

The teeth are clearly those of an herbivore, and its principal diet was probably bamboo. Microscopic examination of teeth has shown scratches consistent with the consumption of fruits and seeds as well. Gigantopithecus blacki's nearest living relative, the orangutan, is nearly completely herbivorous also; but it sometimes eats a small amount of insects, honey, and bird eggs. The last of the Gigantopithecus is believed to have gone extinct some 100,000 years ago, which is fairly recent so we would not expect much significant evolution to have taken place. Therefore, if we were to discover a surviving population, we'd expect to find them in the lush bamboo forests of lowland Asia which provide the food source they're adapted for, not thousands of meters above the treeline on Himalayan glaciers where the only herbivorous food source is tough lichen glazed on the surfaces of exposed rock.

What about its posture? We don't know for sure, because we've never recovered any pelvic bones; but we do have two decent clues. The first clue is its immense body weight. Gigantopithecus was far heavier than a gorilla or an orangutan, but both those species distribute their weight on all fours (though both are capable of standing erect when they want to). Gigantopithecus was even more likely to need to do the same thing. A minority of primatologists, however, have pointed to the shape of its jawbone as being broader at the rear, like a human's, to accommodate a vertical trachea. When we stand up, our trachea goes straight down; unlike an ape's which is more at an angle as it stands on all fours. But most agree that Gigantopithecus probably walked on all fours to support its immense weight, and likely stood intermittently to its full height to reach pieces of fruit or tender bamboo shoots.

The Yeti is said to always walk bipedally, and most reports of its tracks have it doing so for great distances across steep sloping snowfields. This discrepancy in locomotive capability, combined with the complete absence of a satisfactory food source, makes Gigantopithecus an unacceptable candidate for the Yeti, not a good one, as some cryptozoologists assert. Yes, they are both large furry animals, but that's where the resemblances end. It's been famously said of comparisons of Gigantopithecus to the Abominable Snowman that it isn't abominable, it doesn't live in the snow, and it's not a man.

A few years after Tom Slick's cryptozoologists harried the beast, a better pedigreed team gave it a shot. Mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and zoologist and TV personality Marlin Perkins traveled to Nepal to examine the artifacts at the Pangboche monastery. Financed by the World Book Encyclopedia, they brought a team of scientists along with them to directly examine the scalp and hand. Unfortunately the hand was immediately determined to be human, and attention turned to the Yeti scalp. This time the monks permitted it to be taken back to the United States, where it was found to be merely the skin from the shoulder of a Himalayan sheep. Hillary summed up his experiences searching for the beast thus: "I am inclined to think that the realm of mythology is where the Yeti rightly belongs."

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

And so how should we answer our original question: must science consider this to be an unanswered question mark? The answer to that is easy. Science, by its very definition, must consider virtually everything to be an unanswered question mark, the Yeti included. Science never gives absolute answers; science gives us our best answer so far. Right now, our best answer so far is that the Yeti remains unproven. We have no good hypothesis that would explain its existence, and no evidence that is both testable and that has passed testing. Skeptoid's conclusion to the existence of the Yeti is: Probably not, but it sure would be cool.

Brian Dunning

© 2011 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Buckley, M. Tibet. Guilford: Pequot Press, 2006. 213.

Craighead, L. Bears of the World. Stillwater: Voyageur Press, 2000. 79, 94.

Hall, A. Monsters and Mythic Beasts. London: Aldus Books, 1975. 100-115.

Kennedy, K. God-Apes and Fossil Men: Paleoanthropology of South Asia. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000. 99-110.

Meldrum, J. Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. New York: Forge, 2006. 39.

Regal, B. Searching for Sasquatch: Crackpots, Eggheads, and Cryptozoology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 42-52.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The Abominable Snowman." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 2 Aug 2011. Web. 22 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4269>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 30 comments

Henk

I always focus on "tend not to eat" which is much different than "do not eat." (((shudder)))

On the other hand bears do not bother me and I'm prepaired to deal with any that might. So I guess its the danger you know vs the one you don't.

Dan Hillman, Seattle Washington
August 31, 2011 1:23pm

I took it to heart that the best mate standing up on the beach and looking at the same big splash meant "ate something but not me".

It was about the only time I have ever seen tuna school around beaches. As far as i was concerned tuna never do that either.

I do know that for an animal that can comfortably grow to 1500lbs it is attributed the most amasing variation in predation strategies given it is supposed to have a one ounce brain.

No, If I had not have seen it it would have been business as usual on a day of perfect little 2 foot waves all to myself at Tomakin.

I am a little gun shy now. All those decades of saying "Silly boy its a seal..or its a dolphin" changed to "quietly go to shore..".

As far as I know, you are more likely to get run over by a zen master, chiropractor or a homeopath than get taste tested by a shark. Its of no consolation to Australians as the odd person does get bitten or killed evry now and then.

Makes you want to be very careful crossing the road.

Is animal life impressive? You bet!

Henk V, Sydney Australia
August 31, 2011 7:26pm

The Yeti is real, I've seen actual video footage of it. It's name is pronounced YETAAAAY

Here is the disturbing footage captured of it on video recorded tape footage:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRwuyrS8FqI

A Halo, South Pole
June 6, 2012 8:34am

Theres a first... someone who has asked a cryptid how its name is pronounced..

If the footage is disturbing, should one actually be promoting it on a family site?

I'd go straight to the marketing manager to get a better cut.

Mud, back in Sanity, NSW
August 5, 2012 1:57am

This just in from Slate: a 1959 advisory from the U.S. Foreign Service on the rules for those who wish to hunt for Yeti in Nepal. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2013/02/26/search_for_yeti_the_foreign_service_memo_advising_yeti_hunters.html

Tiffany, Indiana
February 26, 2013 1:10pm

As wonderfully romantic as the idea of the yeti is, one problem with the scenario that I can see is that the vast majority of the documented sightings seem to date from ninteen-fifities or earlier. Unless my reading of the cryptozoology literature is mistaken, there has not been a steady increase it yeti sightings over recent decades, as we might have reasonably expected given the steady increase in mountaineers and tourists visiting the Himalayas over the same period. Since the remote nature of the Himalayan Wilderness seems to confer a degree a plausibility to the Yeti mystery, it is somewhat ironic to note that, if one goes purely by the body and calibre of eyewitness testimony alone, there is actually vastly more evidence in favour of the north American sasquatch, or even its Australian counterpart the yowie, than there is for the Yeti, arguably the "granddaddy" of all hominid cryptids!

Hemlock, Australia
May 14, 2013 7:10am

OK, this is a relatively minor point, but the "three species" of bears Brian mentions (Tibetan blue bear, Gobi bear, and Himalayan brown bear) are actually three subspecies of the brown bear, according to the sources I checked from googling (and is consistent with what I've heard about bear species). Other subspecies of the brown bear include the North American Grizzly and Kodiak bears.

Al, Nelson NH
July 2, 2013 10:11am

http://news.yahoo.com/mythical-yeti-could-descended-ancient-polar-bear-115124618.html

It seems the Abominable Snowman is not quite so abominable after all.

British geneticist Bryan Sykes “made a global appeal last year for samples from suspected Yeti sightings and received about 70, of which 27 gave good DNA results. These were then compared with other animals’ genomes stored on a database.”

Himalayan samples showed the DNA was a match with “a polar bear jawbone found in Svalbard in Norway, dating back between 40,000 and 120,000 years.”

Sykes figures polar bear X brown bear (their territories overlapped anciently) = hybrids to be the culprit, stating that the DNA results “could mean there is a sub-species of brown bear in the High Himalayas descended from the bear that was the ancestor of the polar bear. Or it could mean there has been more recent hybridization between the brown bear and the descendent of the ancient polar bear.”

DNA saves the day here. The Yeti is a bear. Or a hoax when not a bear. Or a guy in a shag rug suit in a B movie. But not a massive simian, hominoid, gorilla-esque, Gigantopithecine, apeman-thingy.

Darn it, ’cos that would’ve been nifty.

The fact that ALL current members of the hominidae family (great apes) occupy exclusively tropical habitats probably should've made people a little more skeptical of the popular depiction of the snow-dwelling Yeti anyway.

It was fun while it lasted, though.

Now, regarding Bigfoot . . .

Windigo, The Rocky Mountains, America
October 18, 2013 3:46am

its a type of polar bear they have the dna evedence

andy, glasgow
February 28, 2014 7:18pm

Dang! Missed another moment in Yeti history again!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRwuyrS8FqI

"The Yeti J..." This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by WWE.

Henry, Minnesota USA
February 28, 2014 7:55pm

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