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Credit: DreamWorks Animation

Science Behind the Fiction: The truth about Yetis — could they be real?

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Oct 2, 2019

There are few legends as persistent as that of near-human beasts. Stories of erect, bipedal, humanoid animals cross cultural and geographic boundaries. Though the details, size, and coloration differ, most every culture the world over, separated by time and distance, have stories of "wild men" hiding at the fringes of civilization.

In North America, they speak of Bigfoot; in Australia, they tell of the Yowie; in the Himalayas, there is the Yeti. For believers, the existence of these myths, arising apparently independently from one another, is convincing enough evidence that these creatures actually exist. Others believe these stories are evidence not of distant evolutionary cousins existing in the wild just outside our view, but of a persistent desire for and fascination with the "other."

Even in our distant historical past we'd become separated from our natural existence — these creatures provided a window into a world we had lost.

Whatever the reason for the tales, they seem to be stuck in our collective psyche and show no signs of going away any time soon. In fact, in modern times they are the inspiration for movies ranging from low-budget horror to family-friendly blockbusters.

The latest in a long line of cinematic ape-man adventures is Abominable from DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio.

 

At its core, it's a familiar tale: An objectively un-abominable creature finds itself away from its natural habitat and thrust into the modern world. Nefarious agents want to capture the creature for their own ends and it's up to some well-meaning people to return it home.

It's the classic cryptozoological story, one that's at the heart of such films as Harry and the Hendersons, Splash, and The Water Horse. What sets Abominable apart is gorgeous animation and some magical elements.

WHY WE LOVE HAIRY MEN

This narrative persists because it gets to the heart of our warring desires toward the natural, our need to know it — to define and categorize it — and our need to protect it. It's those same desires that drive most of us to support the creation of wildlife preserves while simultaneously wishing we had a pet monkey to pal around with.

Those feelings get turned to 11 when the animal in question is a mythical creature, and there are no creatures more ingrained in our collective consciousness than sasquatch or the yeti.

By all accounts, the legend of the yeti goes back thousands of years. The people of the Himalayas have told stories of the creature since before European explorers ever set foot there. Even Alexander the Great wanted to see one. So far as we can tell, he didn't have much luck.

In the early 20th century, a group of British explorers returned from Mount Everest and spoke of large footprints they had encountered. Their guides, they said, attributed the prints to "metoh-kangmi." The journalist Henry Newman, upon hearing their story, mistranslated the name to mean "filthy snowman." He changed "filthy" to "abominable" because it made a better headline. The name stuck.

It was a time of fevered discovery. Explorers were treading into areas that had not previously been well-documented and the intrinsic desire to believe there was something incredible just over the horizon was high. But in the decades since, little evidence has arisen to lend weight to the claims of hairy humanoids. Still, belief is common.

 

According to an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll, of more than 1,000 people surveyed, 29 percent believe Bigfoot or some variation is either definitely real or probably real.

Belief in these creatures extends even into official channels, with the Indian military reporting via Twitter supposed evidence of the yeti earlier this year. And, lest you think it was all a joke, when faced with skepticism on social media, they replied that the evidence was photographed and handed over to subject matter experts, adding they thought it prudent to go public in order to excite scientific temper and rekindle interest.

In fairness, there is nothing inherently wrong with legitimate, rigorous inquiry toward the question of potentially undiscovered animals. If and when evidence presents itself, it should be examined by experts to determine its origin and validity. Over the years, that's exactly what's happened. So, what does that evidence tell us?

ELUSIVE OR IMAGINARY?

If yetis, sasquatches, or yowies are real, they're incredibly good at ghosting us. Of course, it isn't uncommon for animal species to hide outside the boundaries of ordinary human traffic. It is more uncommon, however, for a large species to elude our grasp for centuries, especially when so many people are looking. All of which demands an answer to the question: What's going on?

The existence of these stories over centuries is surely evidence of something, the question is whether the answer lies in the real world or inside our heads and hearts.

While the evidence for the yeti is overwhelmingly anecdotal, passed from person to person by way of stories, that's not to say there hasn't been some tangible data. Tracks have been found, molded, and photographed, and hair samples have been collected.

Perhaps the most exciting bit of potential evidence comes in the form of a purported mummified yeti finger purloined from a monastery in Nepal in the 1950s.

The story of the finger's origins and subsequent travels is the sort of thing movies are made of. It was taken from the monastery by an American explorer and replaced by a human finger — like Indiana Jones dropping a bag of sand in place of a golden idol — they happened to have on their person, given to them by a scientist. The mythical digit was smuggled out of India with the help of actor James (Jimmy) Stewart, star of such films as Vertigo and The Philadelphia Story. Once out of the country, Stewart hid the finger in his wife's lingerie case. It eventually made its way to the Royal College of Surgeons in London where it sat for decades.

During a recent cataloging, however, it was rediscovered and analyzed as was, surely, the original intention. Alas, the results indicated it was a human finger. Which, in retrospect, makes the original swap equitable. A finger for a finger, just as Moses would have wanted it.

 

Yet, the footprints and hair samples remain, nagging at our collective subconscious, begging to be accounted for. And so they shall.

Recent analysis of both footprints and hair samples have reached a singular conclusion: Bears.

Review of the recent footprints reported by the Indian Army is consistent with the overlapping footprints of a mother bear and a following cub. Likewise, when reviewing multiple hair samples collected over several decades, genetics professor Bryan Skyes found they matched the genome of bears.

According to Sykes, there may be a real-life animal behind the yeti legend. Namely an ancient bear, the predecessor to both brown bears and polar bears. At least, that's what the DNA evidence suggests.

The tested hairs came back with a 100-percent match to an ancient bear dating back 40,000-120,000 years ago. It's possible, though, that the bear still exists, or that recent hybridization between polar bears and brown bears has resulted in a similar animal.

If such an animal exists, it might exhibit behaviors we've not seen before and could account for sightings, footprints, and hair samples that have fed, and continue to feed, the yeti legend.

If this conclusion bears out (no pun intended) it amounts to a sort of soft win for yeti enthusiasts.

There might be an actual animal responsible for the phenomenon, but it isn't what we expected or hoped for. And maybe that's the ultimate truth of our time, the realization that the fantasies of our species' infancy must be replaced with cold, hard facts while our legends are relegated to immaculately rendered children's entertainment.

In the meantime, you can drown this existential crisis in the technicolor imaginings of DreamWorks' Abominable, in theaters now.


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