The legend of the yeti, or "abominable snowman," has been one of our more durable cryptozoological mysteries. The image of an primeval, solitary humanoid glimpsed through the swirling snows of the Himalayas has made its way into many a tale, and even into a Saul Bass movie or two.
In Monsters, Inc (PIXAR)
What are believed to be yeti remains have been found from time to time by mountain villagers, adding to mystique of the elusive creature, or creatures. Now, after collecting as many yeti bits as could be found and doing a thorough DNA analysis, the riddle has been solved: what people have likely witnessed in the snows are actually several species of bears, and mostly Himalayan brown bears.
A Himalayan brown bear outstanding in his field, far away from snow (U.S. EMBASSY PAKISTAN)
A few months back, a different study by Brian Sykes came to a slightly different conclusion, using what the new study’s lead researcher, Charlotte Lindqvist, says was faulty science that somehow still managed to get pretty close — she has issues with taking the insight gleaned from one mitochondrial gene a bit too far. Sykes had identified the yeti as being an ancient polar bear living between 40,000 and 120,000 years ago. Lindqvist says nope: They're Himalayan brown bears, and they’re still around, if endangered.
Tracking down the origins of the yeti legends has never been an obsession of Lidqvist’s, or even much of an area of interest. Her speciality is studying the evolution of polar bears. What did excite the biologist, though, was an offer from Animal Planet to fund a trip to the Himalayas to collect samples of fur and bone. They sought the Abominable Snowman; she sought biological samples.
Eric Shipton’s much-seen “yeti” footprint snap from 1952 (WIKIPEDIA COMMONS)
Lindqvist was able to sequence a number of “yeti samples”:
- a thigh bone found in a cave by a spiritual healer that turned out to be from a Tibetan brown bear
- the hair from a mummified “yeti” belonging to a monastery, which was really a Himalayan brown bear
- a tooth from a stuffed creature the Nazis had found in the 1930s that was actually a dog
- four other samples that were Himalayan brown bears
- one sample that was an Asian black bear
Research colleagues also supplied her with suspected yeti bone, hair, and scat for sequencing. It was all bears except the dog.
A family of yetis enjoying the lack of abominable snow? (SHIN YOSHINO/MINDEN PICTURES)
Lindqvist suspects some of the samples she sequenced using the entire mitochondrial genome were the same ones Sykes looked at — she says they’re really Himalayan brown bears.
The Himalayan brown bear branched off from other bears some 650,000 years ago when cut off from the rest of the world by glacial ice. Some have apparently never come in from the cold.