The Indian Army’s claim on Tuesday that the 32x15-inch footprints photographed by one of its mountaineering expedition teams in Nepal belong to the Yeti sparked much comedy online. Behind the chortling lies the fact that the existence of the Yeti, quite like that of the Loch Ness Monster, has long been disproved by scientists.
Studies over the years have traced the DNA collected from claimed samples of the Yeti to the Asiatic Black Bear, Tibetian Blue Bear and the Himalayan Brown Bear.
These studies have done little to dent the fascinating with the creature, especially in popular culture.
In 1991, for instance, Indian horror film pioneers, the Ramsay brothers, got the Yeti to befriend a little girl and fight bad guys in the Ajooba Kudrat Ka. The film featured a song titled Yeti, I Love You, with the giant creature and the kid rolling in the snow.
Western pop culture films has churned up even more Yeti lore. There was The Abominable Snowman
in 1957 and the creature popped up in the 1964 animated television film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The main antagonist there is the wild snowman, Bumble, who is always angry because his tooth aches.
The Yeti returned as benign beings in the animated films Monsters, Inc. (2001) and The Lego Movie (2014), and as fierce brutes in the 2013 film, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The giant snowman was a constant invisible presence in the 2017 Bengali film, Yeti Obhijaan. The video game Grand Theft Auto V features a Sasquatch-like character, as well as a fictional clothing line called Yeti.
The most sympathetic portrayal of the creature appeared in Herge’s comic, Tintin in Tibet. The creature is initially suspected to the villain responsible for the disappearance of Tintin’s friend, Chang Chong-Chen. In the end, it turns out that after a plane crash, the friendly Yeti rescued Chang and kept him safe in a cave.
The Yeti became a topic of worldwide fascination thanks to a photo of a footprint clicked by English mountaineer Eric Shipton in 1951 on the Menlung Glacier in the Nepal-Tibet border, during an expedition to Mount Everest. The image drew mountaineers, researchers and Yeti enthusiasts to Nepal to attempt to spot the fabled humanoid.
Between 1954 and 1960, the British newspaper, The Daily Mail, American oilman Tom Slick, and mountaineer Edmund Hillary, conducted high-profile Yeti-finding missions which were futile.
The abominable snowman
In Western cultures, a translating error caused the Yeti to be known as “the abominable snowman”.
In 1921, British explorer Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury found giant footprints in the Himalayas during an expedition to find the best route to Mount Everest. Locals said they belonged to a “metoh kangmi”, which loosely means a bear-like snowman, Howard-Bury wrote in his memoir, Mount Everest The Reconnaissance, 1921.
Writer Henry Newman interviewed porters from that mission during their return to Darjeeling, and mistranslated “metoh kangmi” as the “abominable snowman” in an article for the Kolkata newspaper The Statesman.
He later wrote, according to the 2013 book Abominable Science!: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids: “‘Kangmi’ means ‘snow-men’ and the word ‘metoh’ I translated as ‘abominable’. The whole story seemed a joyous creation, so I sent it to one or two newspapers. It was seized upon... Later, I was told by a Tibetan expert that I had not quite got the force of the word ‘metoh’. It did not mean ‘abominable’ quite so much as ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’.”
Yeti mania hit a recent peak in 2013, when British scientist Bryan Sykes tested DNA collected from two unidentified specimens from Ladakh and Bhutan, and concluded that the animal considered to be the Yeti shared genetic material with a polar bear that lived 40,000 to 120,000 years ago in Svalbard, Norway.
“I think this bear, which nobody has seen alive... may still be there and may have quite a lot of polar bear in it,” he told the BBC.
But year later, a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences, looked at 30 claimed Yeti samples and found that in addition to having come from bears, many belonged to cows, sheep and dogs. In 2015, a study debunked Sykes’s theory about the Yeti being a cross between an ancient polar bear and a brown bear, and stated that Sykes’s samples could have only come from bears.
Conclusion: the creature believed to be the Yeti was actually some kind of a bear, according to scientists.
For 73-year-old American scholar Daniel C Taylor, seeing Shipton’s photo as a child triggered a lifelong fascination for the Yeti. Taylor conducted dozen of expeditions to India, Nepal, China and Tibet in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the footprint. “If footprints exist, then the maker of these footprints must also exist,” Taylor wrote in his 2017 book Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, which tracked his decades-long attempt to answer the Yeti question.
“What was captivating about the prints was that they’re really sharp,” Taylor told National Geographic about Shipton’s photos. “The snow was hard so the photo looks like a sort of plaster of Paris cast. The second feature was that the prints looked like a human footprint, but with a thumb. So, you get this primate-like feeling but hominoid at the same time. Its enormous size – 13 inches – also suggests a magnificent hominoid, a King Kong type of image. And the media grabbed it.”
Taking the advice of Nepalese King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah (“If you want to go to the wildest place, where the Yeti might be, it is the Barun”), Taylor went into Nepal’s Barun Valley in 1983 and found footprints that could belong to a Yeti-like creature. Interviews with local residents led Taylor to suggest that the footprints could have been of a tree-climbing bear.
“Suddenly we had an explanation for where the thumb came from,” Taylor told National Geographic. “A bear that lives in a tree forces an inner digit down so it can make an opposable grip. Normal bears cannot make an opposable grip. But if you’re spending a lot of time in the tree, you train that one thumb to grab a branch or break bamboo.” The skulls collected by Taylor during his trips to Nepal were ultimately proven to belong to the Asiatic Black Bear.
The legend persists
According to an essay by H Siiger in the 2011 book Himalayan Anthropology: The Indo-Tibetan Interface, the legend of the Himalayan snowman grew because Western visitors sought the help of locals to navigate the terrain. The mountaineers would find unexplained footprints along the way, which could belong to any animal. But the horrified locals would immediately attribute them to the Yeti.
The Himalayan snowman existed in the folklore of both the Sherpas of Nepal and the Lepchas of Sikkim.
According to the legend, the Yeti is an ape-like hairy creature bigger than the average human being, who “carries a large stone as a weapon” and makes a “characteristic whistling sound”. While the Sherpas consider catching a sight of him ominous, the Lepchas worship the creature as a god for hunting, Siiger wrote.
The gap between Tibetan folklore and the Western man’s scientific mind, Siiger wrote, led to the search for the Yeti.