In Nepal and Tibet, where the Himalayas loom large, so too does the legend of the yeti, a legend so pervasive not even science has been able to make a dent in it.
While shadowy creatures have long stalked the fringes of popular imagination — from North America’s Sasquatch or Bigfoot to the scientific-sounding vagueness of UFO, or Unidentifiable Furry Organisms — the Himalayan version ranks as the man-ape’s oldest manifestation, pre-dating even the Buddhist faith.
And yet, in all this time, the towering figure has left scant evidence that he actually exists. Just fragments in folklore, along with a recurring role in stories aimed at scaring the bejesus out of children.
Of course, there’s the occasional supersized footprint pressed into the snow, proclaiming to be the very shoe size of the so-called Abominable Snowman. In fact, the idea of the yeti only really ignited in the Western fancy in 1951, when British explorer Eric Shipton snapped photographs of several gaping footprints in the snow around Mount Everest.
Once rumors of a mysterious, hairy hominoid washed ashore in the West, there seemed no stopping them — the absence of any recorded encounters with yeti be damned.
But among Himalayan cultures, there’s a commonly held belief that though the creature may be elusive, he does shed. And take potty breaks.
Like, enough of the stuff for locals to gather up and enshrine as evidence of the yeti’s existence.
But scientists, generally known for casting doubt on magical forest legends, insisted on a poo-ternity test. There had long been suspicions that if the yeti really exists, it would likely be a kind of ape — maybe a species that we thought was extinct. Or even a Neanderthal that had strayed from evolution’s purge.
Primordial guardian of the forest with supernatural powers? Not so much. So in 2014, scientists took a DNA sample from a tuft of "yeti" fur and the results came back … raccoon.
Hang in there, true believers
Earlier this year, Charlotte Lindqvist, the same evolutionary biologist at the University at Buffalo from the raccoon study, led a second study — this time spanning a much broader sample size.
The team gathered bits of bone, tooth, skin, hair and and fecal samples (don’t act like mythical man-apes don’t do that) — all of it touted by locals as certified yeti.
This week, the results of exhaustive DNA tests were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B — and for Abominable Snowman enthusiasts, they results are not good.
Among the nine sample tested, eight matched up tidily with brown bears. And the ninth? A dog.
What the ... Himalaya were bears doing in the forests that ringed the mountains? And a dog? Who left their dog there?!
Well, let’s face it — and with apologies to shambling, man-ape enthusiasts worldwide — they were probably just being regular old animals. The kind you might to expect to find leaving fur, among other things, in the wild.
Besides, for some of us at least, there's something to get excited about: the latest research suggests Himalayan brown bears are a kind of shambling, hairy wonder in their own right. Scientists determined that these bears occupied their own unique genetic strain, apart from the nearby Tibetan brown bears. According to researchers, the Himalayan bears that roam these high altitudes belong to a lineage that split from other bears around 650,000 years ago.
So there’s that.
"It was exciting to find that the purported yeti samples, without doubt, are not strange hybrid bear creatures, but simply related to local brown and black bears," Lindqvist told LiveScience. "Modern science, and genetic data in particular, can help answer and resolve old mysteries."
Exciting indeed. Thanks for clearing that up, science. At least, until someone steps in the next Abominable Snowman dropping in the woods.