The legend of the Yeti, a mysterious, ape-like, bipedal creature rumored to live in the Himalayas, has persisted for centuries.
Tales of the mythical beast first made their way to the Western world in the 19th century, though the Abominable Snowman, as the Yeti also came to be referred to, really laid a firm claim on Westerners’ imaginations in the mid-20th century, around the same time that mountaineers like Eric Shipton, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay were attempting to scale Mt Everest and other mountains in the area. But the Yeti has been part of local folklore for much longer, even being worshipped as a god of the hunt by some pre-Buddhist peoples of the region.
Bits of hair and old bones purported to belong to a Yeti have been collected throughout the years, and an untold number of people have claimed to have seen one of the them, or at least its footprints, firsthand. Yet documented proof of the Yeti and its species identity has remained elusive, of course.
New research might finally answer the question of what the Yeti really is, however. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B yesterday seeks to shed light on the identity of the elusive Yeti by examining the evolutionary history of local bear species.
An international team of scientists led by Tianying Lan of the University at Buffalo in New York analyzed 24 samples of bone, feces, hair, and skin from the Tibetan Plateau-Himalaya region that either belonged to a bear or, allegedly, a Yeti.
They are not the first to examine DNA evidence to try and determine who or what the Yeti might be. A 2014 genetic analysis of 30 hair samples that had been attributed to “anomalous primates” like the yeti, bigfoot, and others, examined three hair samples supposedly belonging to the mythical Himalayan creature and found that they were either a match for an ancient polar bear species or a goat-like animal called the serow.
The researchers behind that 2014 study speculated that perhaps there was an undiscovered bear species, possibly a hybrid of a polar bear and another bear, roaming the Himalayas, which had given rise to the Yeti legend. Lan and team were able to find a sample similar to the one examined for the previous study and found a much simpler explanation. They write that “we unambiguously show that this sample is from a bear that groups with extant Himalayan brown bear.”
Lan and colleagues were also able to determine that all of the other Yeti samples they collected for their study came from the bear species that call the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding Himalayan mountains home, except for one specimen collected from a stuffed exhibit in a museum that they determined had come from a dog. “This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures, strongly suggesting the biological basis of the yeti legend as local brown and black bears,” they write.
In the process, the researchers helped shed light on the evolutionary history of Himalayan and Tibetan brown bears and the Himalayan black bear. They say their results support a previous finding that Himalayan brown bears, together with Gobi bears and Deosai bears, form a “sister lineage” to all other extant brown bear clades. “This result strongly supports Himalayan brown bears as a relict population that diverged early from other brown bear populations,” they note.
Their results also “strongly support” the conclusion that Tibetan brown bears are descendants of ancestral Eurasian brown bears that migrated to the Tibetan Plateau and have since remained geographically isolated from their source population.
Meanwhile, the Himalayan black bear, they write, represents a sister lineage to all other Asian black bears: “Although sampling is limited, this result indicates that the Himalayan black bear originated from an ancient lineage and experienced long isolation in the Himalayan Mountains, a similar scenario to the divergence of the Himalayan brown bear lineage.”
Study co-author Charlotte Lindqvist, a scientist with the University at Buffalo who is currently a visiting associate professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told CNN that, while this may not be the outcome Yeti fans were hoping for, the study still yielded some compelling results.
“We didn’t set out to debunk the myth. We were open-minded, and we did learn something,” Lindqvist said. “I’m not an expert in the Yeti legend, I’m not an anthropologist, but as someone who works with genetics, I thought this is the kind of the work that could tell an interesting story.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.