Is the Himalayan Yeti a real animal? #Beekhaybee #Bbcnews

You can probably picture a Yeti, even if you’ve
never visited the Himalayas. From Scooby Doo to Doctor Who, Tintin and Monsters, Inc., the “Abominable Snowman” has popped up regularly
in films, video games and television for decades. In popular culture, a Yeti is an enormous, shaggy
ape-man with huge feet and aggressive sabre-like
teeth. Its fur is either grey or white. It is often
depicted roaming the snowy mountains alone, a
feral throwback to our violent evolutionary past. Is there anything to this mythical figure, beyond
tall tales and vivid imaginations? In the last few
years, modern genetics has been brought to bear
on the Himalayan Yeti. As a result, we may finally
be able to put the mystery to bed. The Yeti is one of several supposed “ape-men”.
Elsewhere in the world, people tell tales of Bigfoot
or the Sasquatch, which are beyond the scope of
this article. The Yeti figure has its origins in folklore. The
character is an ancient and important part of the
legends and history of the Sherpa, the
communities that live at an average altitude of
12,000 feet in eastern Nepal. Shiva Dhakal collected 12 traditional stories in his
book Folk Tales of Sherpa and Yeti. In the stories, the animal is always a figure of danger. For example, “The Annihilation of the Yeti” is
about Sherpas seeking revenge on a tormenting
group of Yetis. They make a show of drinking
alcohol and fighting to encourage the Yetis to
follow suit and destroy each other. Instead, the
surviving Yetis declare revenge and move up high into the mountains to continue their depredations. In another story, a local girl is raped by a Yeti and
loses her health soon after. In a third, the Yeti
grows taller and bigger as the sun rises and the
human that sees him loses consciousness and
energy. These tales fulfil one of the key purposes of
folklore: to provide motivational or morality
lessons. Specifically, they warn the Sherpa
community about approaching dangerous wild
animals. “Perhaps, folktales of Yeti were used as a warning
or, likely, for morality, so that kids wouldn’t
wander far away and they would be always close
and safe within their community,” says Dhakal. “Some say that Yeti is just a fear that has been built
inside the head of mountainous people to make
them stronger and more fearless in the harsh
weather.” But when Western mountaineers started travelling
to the Himalayas, the myth evolved into something
even more monstrous and sensational. In 1921 the explorer and politician Charles
Howard-Bury led a British expedition to Mount
Everest. He spotted some large footprints and was
told that they belonged to “metoh-kangmi”. This
means something like “man-bear snow-man”. When the expedition returned, a journalist
interviewed some of the members. Unfortunately,
Henry Newman was not the most accurate
reporter. He first mistranslated “metoh” as “filthy”,
then decided that “abominable” was even better. In that moment, a legend was born. Accounts of
sightings by locals continued to be translated by
Western visitors and the story of a mysterious
ape-like snow-man took off. By the 1950s, interest ran high. Various
mountaineers launched expeditions to find the
creature. Even the Hollywood film star James Stewart
supposedly got in on the act, by storing a Yeti
finger in his luggage. In 2011, DNA testing revealed that the finger was human. Ever since, there have been footprints in snow, DIY-style films, grainy photographs and eyewitness accounts from mountaineers. Putative Yeti skulls have been found, as well as
bone fragments and hair samples. But on
inspection, they’ve usually been attributed to
other wildlife, such as bears, antelopes and
monkeys. Despite any concrete proof, people still go looking
for Yetis in the Himalayas. Yetis are an example of
cryptozoology: the search for creatures that
cannot be said to exist because of a lack of
evidence. The mountaineer Reinhold Messner is perhaps the
most famous Yeti-hunter of all. He claims to have
seen one in the Himalayas in the 1980s, and
returned dozens of times to get to the bottom of
the mystery. Messner has a simple theory to explain all the
sightings: the Yeti is a bear. Messner argues that the Yeti legend is a
combination of a real bear species and Sherpa
tales about the dangers of wild animals. “All the Yeti footprints are all the same bear,” says
Messner. “The Yeti isn’t a fantastic figure. The Yeti
is reality.” He is contemptuous of the idea that the Yeti is
some sort of ape-man, as promoted by Howard-
Bury and Newman. “People don’t like reality, they like crazy stories,”
he says. “They like the Yeti as a Neanderthal, the
Yeti as a mix between a human and an ape.” In 2014, Messner’s point of view received some
unlikely support: from genetics. Bryan Sykes , formerly a professor of genetics at the University of Oxford in the UK, decided to test
some supposed Yetis. He and his team analysed hair samples from
anomalous primates said to be Yetis, some of them
supplied by Messner. They then compared the “Yeti” DNA with the genomes of other animals. The team found that two Himalayan samples – one
from Ladakh, India and the other from Bhutan –
were most genetically similar to a polar bear that lived 40,000 years ago. This suggested that the Himalayas is home to an
as-yet-unknown bear, a hybrid of an ancient
polar bear and a brown bear. “If these bears are widely distributed in the Himalayas, they may well
contribute to the biological foundation of the Yeti
legend,” the team wrote. However, this claim quickly ran into trouble. “Polar bears in the Himalayas sounded like a really
cool thing,” says Ross Barnett of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Working with Ceiridwen Edwards, then at the University of Oxford, he decided to double-check. Sykes and his colleagues had put all their DNA
data onto a public database called GenBank. “It was really easy to download it,” says Barnett. They found a big mistake. “There wasn’t an exact
match to the Pleistocene polar bears like they
said,” says Barnett. “The match was to modern
polar bears, and the actual matches were really
slight.” This suggested a less exciting interpretation.
Instead of a secret population of polar bears living
in the Himalayas, Barnett and Edwards concluded that the DNA from the hairs had been damaged. This does happen. Hair is a good source of ancient
DNA, because the keratin keeps harmful water
away from the DNA, but it can degrade. “I think I was disappointed,” says Barnett. “These
out-of-the-blue discoveries are the things that
everyone likes to hear about. The fact we were
shooting that down was slightly sad, but at the
end of the day it’s important to get to the bottom
of these sorts of things.” The study has since been replicated again, by Eliécer Gutiérrez of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and Ronald Pine of the University of Kansas in Lawrence. After comparing
the DNA sequences, they found “no reason to believe” that the two “Yeti” samples came from anything other than brown bears. Sykes and his team released a statement
acknowledging their error. However they also
pointed out that “the conclusion that these Himalayan ‘Yeti’ samples were certainly not from a hitherto unknown primate is unaffected.” In other words, the samples don’t look anything like an ape-man. Still, the idea of ape-like creatures living in the
mountains is more believable now than it was a
few decades ago. We now know that hominid
populations can go unnoticed for a long time. Take the Denisovans, an extinct species of human
known from a few fragmentary remains from a
cave in Siberia. The remains were only discovered in 2008, yet genetic analysis suggests they survived for hundreds of thousands of years,
only dying out around 40,000 years ago. Another lost species endured until even more
recently. The diminutive “hobbits” Homo floresiensis may have survived in Indonesia until just 12,000 years ago. That suggests there might
be other populations to learn about. Writing in the journal Nature in 2004, in the wake
of the hobbit discovery, Henry Gee wrote that:
“The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as Yetis are founded on grains of truth.” There is clearly logic to that. But the trouble is,
there is still no hard evidence, and if a population
of unknown ape-men did exist, there are certain
things we ought to see. If you can get into their habitat, primates and
other big animals are hard to miss, even if they’re
uncommon. “When you look at primate species
that are really rare, like bonobos and orang-
utans, the evidence is all around and easy to
spot,” says Barnett. “There are places in the Himalayas where a
population of large apes could theoretically
survive,” says Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who has worked in the
Himalayas. “But all these places have lots of people living off
the land, so all local species of mammals larger
than a rat are regularly hunted by various means,”
he says. The animals would need to roam widely to find
enough food, which means they would struggle
to stay hidden. The climate is also an issue. Primates would
struggle in the harsh Himalayan weather. “Even if they were as hardy as Japanese macaques, the most cold-tolerant primates known, they would have to descend into
subtropical forests in winter,” says Dinets. Again, that would surely mean discovery. “These
forests exist as small patches,” says Dinets. “Most
of them have been cleared for agriculture a long
time ago.” Yet the Yetis stubbornly refuse to show up. In 2011, a Russian-led expedition and conference
claimed to have “irrefutable evidence” of the Yeti’s existence, including a bed. However, Russian-born Dinets says it was a
publicity stunt with no substantial evidence
whatsoever found. Instead, it’s part of a long
tradition of hoodwinking outsiders. “For about twenty years, summer trips to the
mountains to look for Yetis were a popular
pastime among city intelligentsia,” says Dinets. “The only result was that every village in the
mountains of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan got a
designated ‘Yeti witness’, whose job was to tell
visitors tall tales, guide them to remote valleys
where sightings were supposedly taking place,
and charge them a lot of money for the service.” In summary, there is no hard evidence of the
existence of an unknown primate in the
Himalayas, and plenty of reason to suspect that it
can’t possibly exist. It also seems that the evidence for polar bears in
the Himalayas doesn’t hold up. Bears might well
be involved in the legend, but they are probably
brown bears, which are common in Asia anyway. Barnett believes the most likely explanation of the
Yeti legend is misinterpretations of animals like
brown bears, combined with the human tendency
to tell tall tales about unknown animals. That probably won’t mean the end of the search,
though. “The fact there has never been any
evidence hasn’t stopped people from searching,”
says Barnett. As long as we enjoy legends and
fairy tales, we won’t forget the Yeti.