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Science Weighs In on Yeti Debate Again, Says Creatures are Likely Just Bears

The enduring myth of the Yeti, the famous Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, was dealt a blow recently after a new study suggested that all physical evidence of the creatures points to bears.

The study was featured in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B, and argues that three known species, the Asian black bear, the Tibetan brown bear, and the Himalayan brown bear, are the likely culprits behind the Yeti mythos. 

Charlotte Lindqvist, associate professor at the University of Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences and lead researcher with the Yeti study, told The Guardian, “Our findings strongly suggest that the biological underpinnings of the Yeti legend can be found in local bears.”

In particular, populations of brown bears that reside in parts of the Himalayas and surrounding regions were identified as two separate populations, who became separated during the Pleistocene ice age.

“Brown bears roaming the high altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau,” Lindqvist said, “and brown bears in the western Himalayan mountains, appear to belong to two separate populations… the split occurred about 650,000 years ago, during a period of glaciation.”

The study drew samples from artifacts purported to belong to the Yeti, kept in private collections, museums, and even monasteries around the world. Altogether, mitochondrial genomes were reconstructed from each available specimen, resulting in the identification of remains belonging to 23 distinct bears found in the region.

In a similar study from 2014, Professor Bryan Sykes and his colleagues made a similar argument in relation to the Yeti more likely being a species of bear. According to the paper’s abstract, “we have used rigorous decontamination followed by mitochondrial 12S RNA sequencing to identify the species origin of 30 hair samples attributed to anomalous primates. Two Himalayan samples, one from Ladakh, India, the other from Bhutan, had their closest genetic affinity with a Palaeolithic polar bear, Ursus maritimus. Otherwise the hairs were from a range of known extant mammals.”

The alleged identification of a “Palaeolithic polar bear” was widely refuted by independent analysis in the scientific community, and Sykes, both due to the extraordinary claim, and his apparent fascination with the Yeti was criticized for the claim.

Regardless, each of the studies proved that the existing evidence for the creature, long purported to have belonged to the Yeti creatures was, in fact, biological material from different varieties of bears. Indeed, this complicates the case for the creature’s existence, in that any physical proof supporting the animal’s existence has thus far been identified, and refuted.

There is, however, the other side of the debate, which deals exclusively with anecdotal, eyewitness testimony. The argument can, and will, be made that humans are notoriously bad observers and that an entire range of misperceptions and delusions can account for so-called Yeti sightings. However, there are a few reports that have surfaced over the years that may be more promising.

The recent Guardian article mentioned, to their credit, a handful of the “famous” reports from over the years; however, this in itself is problematic, in that only the famous reports are worthy of mention in popular periodicals. In other words, those unfamiliar with detailed studies into alleged “mystery hominids” tend to go only for the lowest hanging fruit (ironically, this is something which the advocates for the existence of the creatures are often accused of).

A far more unconventional Yeti report–and one with far more promise than many of the “famous” cases–occurred in September 1991, during a joint Soviet-Chinese Glaciological expedition in Tibet.

Professor Arkady Tishkov, a Russian scientist with the expedition, explored much of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas during the study, including portions of Mount Everest, as well as the peaks of Xixiabangrna, Choja, and other mountainous areas.

“It was on one of these routes,” Tishkov later wrote in a detailed account, that he encountered an unidentified, bipedal creature. His account is as follows:

“In September 1991, the Expedition worked on the northern, southern, and southeastern slopes of Mt. Xixiabangma. On the day of the encounter, our small group had worked in a spot some 25 miles (40 kin) from the settlement of Nyalam, on the Nepal-China border… On September 22, 1991, I was en route to a glacier on the southeastern slope of Mt. Xixiabangma. About midday, on the top of a moraine ridge at a distance of about 400 feet (120 m), I noticed a human-like animal sitting by a boulder on the sunlit side. My position was lower on the slope, and at first I did not see the full silhouette. A little later, however, I observed the animal in full. It had the following characteristics: erect, bipedal posture; dark brown color; cone-shaped head; no visible neck; long forelimbs; and short and slightly flexed hind limbs. When first observed, the creature was squatting in what seemed an unnatural position for an animal, with its back touching the sun-warmed surface of the boulder.”

“I could not identify what I saw,” Tishkov wrote. “My very first impression was of a creature resembling a monkey, a dog, or a bear. But its anatomy, its subsequent behavior, the great absolute elevation of the place, the distance from forests and settlements made me conclude that I faced a different kind of animal.”

Curious, Tishkov proceeded to get closer:

“Tempted by the natural interest of a biologist, I bent down and started stalking the creature, skirting the boulder on the left-hand side. However, the attempt proved unsuccessful: the noises I made apparently startled it, as it appeared from behind the boulder on two feet and, slightly bending and helping itself along with a fore-limb, moved behind another (and bigger) boulder. I do not think it saw me, and presumably only reacted to the noises I had made.”

At one point during the encounter, Tishkov retrieved his camera and attempted to photograph the creature from a distance. However, at this point, the object of his pursuit finally made it known that it was aware of his presence:

I tried unsuccessfully to take the first photo from a distance of 330 feet (100 m)–maybe more–at a moment when the sun appeared from behind a cloud. To see the whole of the animal, I straightened up, but the effect of photographing from “below” (see Fig. 3) was bound to distort the image. When its full silhouette appeared in the viewfinder, the animal turned its head toward me and began watching me. I then became frightened, and dared not even move at first. Finally, I turned and ran down the slope.

The entire account, including figures and drawings which detail various elements of the encounter, is archived on the Bigfoot Encounters website, an exhaustive resource for articles from journals and periodicals over the years, detailing various aspects of mystery hominid reports. The site was run by the late Bobbie Short, and has been maintained somewhat since her passing.

Unfortunately, no physical evidence was recovered during the Tishkov encounter (despite the discovery of feces by the professor, which he believed the creature left behind). Thus, the final verdict on the report comes to rest as so many others have without supporting physical proof, and falls squarely within the “interesting, if true” category.

Proof of the existence of the Yeti will indeed require more than colorful reports… even those made by inquisitive scientists. At the end of the day, if the Abominable Snowman seems to have been unfairly dismissed, it is because the evidence for its existence all points toward other, known varieties of fauna.

Perhaps one day there will be physical proof for the Yeti that manages to arouse the interest of the scientific community, but until that time, we are left only with the anecdotal data; and at very least, there are a few good reports that might suggest something could still be lurking around out there.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.

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