The Abominable Snowman
How likely is it that the Yeti of the Himalayas is a real creature?
by Brian Dunning
August 2, 2011
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Also available in Russian
|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."
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.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Abominable Snowman." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
2 Aug 2011. Web.
30 Aug 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4269>
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.
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