What Does Science Have To Say About The Fearsome Yeti?

Is there a chance that there is such a creature like the Yeti in real life?

There are two kinds of mythical creatures, as I see it: those we love but we acknowledge just as part of our collective imagination, like mermaids, unicorns, or fairies, and those who make us wonder whether they're real, since there have been lots of sightings and science hasn't been able to debunk their existence. This last category includes the Yeti, the creature we're going to talk about today, as well as its variations all over the world: Bigfoot, Sasquatch, the Russian Almasti, and the Sumatran Orang Pendek. What's the real difference between these creatures and those we know for sure that don't exist?

These creatures live in the limbo between fiction and reality because of the nature of their stories and the way people have approached them throughout history. Like myths, these monsters first appeared in legends, folktales, and local beliefs. However, unlike other mythical creatures, the Yeti and its variations are not unrealistic beings. On the contrary, their realistic traits are so believable that there are people who devote their lives to their study. These mysterious creatures are known in cryptozoology as "cryptids," and many claim that, although there's no "proper" scientific evidence to prove their existence, they're the missing link between humans and apes. But enough of pseudoscience and beliefs. Who’s the Yeti and what does science has to say about it?

The Yeti, also known in popular culture as the “Abominable Snowman,” is a creature belonging to the folk tales of the Sherpa people in the Himalayan region. According to some legends that date from the pre-Buddhist era, there was a time when humans and yetis coexisted in peace, until one day humans decided to annihilate them. In some versions, one yeti abducts a young girl and abuses her, causing her death days later. In other versions of the story, yetis are starting to take over human lands, and thus they have to be destroyed. The point is that humans plan a huge massacre but they fail to exterminate all the yeti population. The survivors decide to go into exile to the most remote parts of the Himalayas to plot their revenge. Since then, every time a human dares to go near their territory they’ll face a terrible doom. 

Some sociologists believe that these are just morality stories to prevent children and daredevils to go away from their community. But how did the legend trespassed the fictional borders and became something people actually believe in? It all started during the early twentieth century, when European expeditions were sent to the most remote regions of the world. In 1921, British explorer Charles Howard-Bury led a group of men to Mount Everest in the Himalayas. One of his biggest discoveries was a set of enormous footprints that, according to his records, no known animal could have left. Intrigued, he decided to investigate which creature could leave such a huge print on the snow. The locals told him that it was a creature called Metoh-kangmi, which in Nepali meant “man-bear snow-man.” When he returned and was interviewed about his findings, there was a mistranslation issue in which “metoh” was translated as “filthy.” The journalist decided that filthy didn’t sound catchy and fearsome, so he changed it in his article for “abominable.”

Since then, people in the west got obsessed with the fearsome creature, and many decided to explore the Himalayas to find this Yeti. There are literally tons of people claiming they actually saw it and even found some body parts belonging to the creature. Enter science. When biologists and zoologists heard this creature explained the missing evolutionary link between humans and apes, they joined the efforts to find it, only to realize that such a creature doesn’t really exist and turned their attention to other studies they found more relevant. However, many formal scientists still believe that they need to give proper evidence of its existence or its mythical nature. 

So, let’s jump many decades ahead to 2014, when Bryan Sykes, an expert in human genetics at the University of Oxford, gathered a group of geneticists and zoologist to test out nine samples of so-called Yeti remains. The results gave some sort of explanation to the whole Yeti mystery. According to his study, some of the samples did belong to species of brown bears endemic to the Himalayan region. However, one of them showed something they didn’t expect. This piece of evidence could be traced back to an ancient or primitive species of polar bear that had lived about 40,000 years ago. This not only gave a plausible and logical explanation to why the Yeti story can found centuries back in folklore, but also to the many footprints that have been found to prove its existence.

People were definitely happy, but as it happens in a competitive field as science, there will always be someone willing to debunk your findings, and these people were Eliécer Gutiérrez from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and Ronald Pine from the University of Kansas. Since Sykes’ study was available to the public, they decided to study it thoroughly, and they discovered a flaw in the genetic analysis. They concluded that, although hair can be an excellent sample, since keratin helps encapsulate DNA, it’s also a degradable material. As these hairs weren't well preserved, the results were easily altered. Later, they found out that they do belong to a type of bear, but not to this primitive polar bear, but to the Himalayan and Tibetan brown bear that can still be found in the region.

Once again, there’s no evidence to support the existence of the Yeti, but at the same time, there’s nothing to debunk it as well, so the search continues. Although Sykes’ study was completely shattered, this sparked some theories among other scientists. For instance, there's a theory claiming that it’s possible for other types of hominids to live in regions like the Himalayas. Still, there are many questions to this particular theory and to the existence of creatures such as the Yeti. So, I guess we’re still on the same page as many decades before.


For more stories like this, take a look at these articles:

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Images from the movie The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)