Can science answer the question as to whether the mythical Yeti exists? A new DNA analysis of dozens of hair specimens allegedly belonging to the cryptozoological critter has found that the physical evidence at this stage does not provide evidence confirming the creature’s existence, with almost all the samples providing DNA associated with common hairy animals such as cows, dogs and bears.
This was no common debunking exercise however. The researchers, led by Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes, were keen to apply their knowledge to a topic that has long been ignored by orthodox science:
Despite several decades of research, mystery still surrounds the species identity of so-called anomalous primates such as the yeti in the Himalaya, almasty in central Asia and sasquatch/bigfoot in North America. On the one hand, numerous reports including eye-witness and footprint evidence, point to the existence of large unidentified primates in many regions of the world. On the other hand,
no bodies or recent fossils of such creatures have ever been authenticated. There is no shortage of theories about what these animals may be, ranging from surviving populations of collateral hominids such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis, or Denisovans, extinct apes such as Gigantopithecus or even unlikely hybrids between Homo sapiens and other mammals. Modern science has largely avoided this field and advocates frequently complain that they have been ‘rejected by science’. This conflicts with the basic tenet that science neither rejects nor accepts anything without examining the evidence. To apply this philosophy to the study of anomalous primates and to introduce some clarity into this often murky field, we have carried out a systematic genetic survey of hair samples attributed to these creatures.
The resulting scientific paper, “Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates” has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The hair samples were collected from museum and individual collections after a call for submissions was made in 2012. In the end, 37 samples were selected for genetic analysis. 35 of those samples were a bust – they were found to be from a range of already known mammals. Two of the samples, however, both from the Himalayas, did provide some data of interest: the researchers found that the closest genetic affinity the samples had was with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus, which lived some 40,000 years ago.
Sequences derived from hair sample nos. 25025 and 25191 had a 100% match with DNA recovered from a Pleistocene fossil more than 40 000 BP of U. maritimus (polar bear) but not to modern examples of the species. Hair sample no. 25025 came from an animal shot by an experienced hunter in Ladakh, India ca.40 years ago who reported that its behaviour was very different from a brown bear Ursus arctos with which he was very familiar. Hair sample no. 25191 was recovered from a high altitude (ca. 3500 m) bamboo forest in Bhutan and was identified as a nest of a migyhur, the Bhutanese equivalent of the yeti. The Ladakh hairs (no. 25025) were golden-brown, whereas the hair from Bhutan (no. 25191) was reddish-brown in appearance…[it seems likely that the two hairs reported here are from either a previously unrecognized bear species, colour variants of U. maritimus, or U. arctos/U. maritimus hybrids.
The researchers concluded that if these bears are widely distributed in the Himalayas, “they may well contribute to the biological foundation of the yeti legend”.
Nevertheless, the results do provide some food for thought for the field of cryptozoology. “Rather than persisting in the view that they have been ‘rejected by science’,” the paper notes, “advocates in the cryptozoology community have more work to do in order to produce convincing evidence for anomalous primates and now have the means to do so. The techniques described here put an end to decades of ambiguity about species identification of anomalous primate samples and set a rigorous standard against which to judge any future claims”.
Alan Boyle has an excellent article on the paper over at NBC’s Cosmic Log, in which he talks to both Sykes and well-known cryptozoologist Loren Coleman. Their words suggest that the open-minded research has already contributed to a healthier dialogue between orthodox science and cryptozoology. Loren Coleman, far from being disappointed in the result, noted that Sykes’ method was “the correct way to do cryptozoology science.” Sykes, for his part, thought that though much of the research done on the topic so far “just wasn’t science”,nevertheless cryptozoologists had been, “I think, quite badly treated by scientists over the past 50 years”.
There are plenty of headlines all over the web today about how the study has debunked Yeti/Bigfoot, but Sykes certainly doesn’t feel that way. “I don’t think this finishes the Bigfoot myth at all,” he told NBC. “What it does do is show that there is a way for Bigfoot enthusiasts to go back out into the forest and get the real thing.”