urban legends

New research has found clues to the identity of the mysterious Yeti – and it’s probably a bear

The legend of the Yeti, a mysterious, ape-like, bipedal creature rumored to live in the Himalayas, has persisted for centuries.

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.

Photograph of an alleged yeti footprint found by Michael Ward. Photograph was taken at Menlung glacier on the Everest expedition by Eric Shipton in 1951. Photo credit: Gardner Soule/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under creative Commons]
Photograph of an alleged yeti footprint found by Michael Ward. Photograph was taken at Menlung glacier on the Everest expedition by Eric Shipton in 1951. Photo credit: Gardner Soule/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under creative Commons]

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.

Purported Yeti scalp at Khumjung monastery. Photo credit: Nuno Nogueira/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.5]
Purported Yeti scalp at Khumjung monastery. Photo credit: Nuno Nogueira/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 2.5]

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.”

Illustration of a Yeti by Philippe Semeria. Photo credit: Philippe Semeria/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0]
Illustration of a Yeti by Philippe Semeria. Photo credit: Philippe Semeria/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 3.0]

This article first appeared on Mongabay.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

Play

During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.