It’s the time of year when many fantastical creatures come to mind: red-nosed reindeers, singing and dancing snowmen, elves, green furry Grinches, and jolly old men with long white beards who squeeze through millions of chimneys in a single night. Another famous figure that comes to mind is the Abominable Snowman, or “Yeti.” The Yeti became popularized over the last half-century, probably most classically in the 1960s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” stop-motion television series that starred the Yeti as an antagonist (referred to as “The Bumble Monster”) of Rudolph and his friends. But the Yeti dates back much further than its relationship with Rudolph. It has long been captivating imaginations and driving countless individuals to try and capture the real thing (or at least find some of its footprints).
What these people were most likely chasing after were other, known animals in the Himalayans. Or very embellished stories.
We’ve always been fascinated by things that look human but aren’t quite human. The idea of creatures that are part human and part animal dates back thousands of years, as shown by Egyptian sphinxes, Greek sirens, legends of giants, and many other mythologies. The idea is hardly a new one, yet people continue to be drawn to it. In the 1800s, P. T. Barnum, a famous American showman, understood this well and unashamedly exploited it for profit. He ran a show series called “What is it?” where an actor in a fur-covered outfit would take the stage while the audience would speculate whether it was an ape-human cross or an advanced chimpanzee. Few immediately realized they were only looking at a costume.
History of the Yeti: In the late 1800s, Europeans explored the Himalayan Mountains and when they returned home they brought back stories of a “wildman,” usually called a Yeti, who lived in the snow-covered heights. The locals had told stories of these creatures for centuries; Tibetan natural history books dating to the 1700s included “wildmen,” but no other fantastical animals; to locals the wildmen were as real as any other animal. Locals also have stories of a long ago time when the wildmen terrorized villages, but villagers tricked the wildmen into killing themselves. There are many variations of these stories in the eastern Himalayas (specifically in Nepal and Bhutan, the Indian state of Sikkim, and surrounding areas), which is where modern-day sightings have been reported.
As more Europeans visited the Himalayas, more interest was raised by the stories they brought back. Some of the first Europeans to hear these stories dismissed them simply as encounters with an orangutan or bear. The most famous early “encounter” happened in 1921, when British explorer and soldier Lieutenant-Colonel C. K. Howard-Bury led Britain’s first reconnaissance mission to find a path to Everest. Over 20,000 feet up in the mountains, they found large footprints in the snow that appeared humanlike. While the sherpas accompanying Howard-Bury thought the footprints belonged to a Yeti, he dismissed this and thought they were simply footprints made by “a large ‘loping’ grey wolf.”
Despite Howard-Bury’s lack of belief in the Yeti, columnist Henry Newman (of the Calcutta Statesman) reported this “story.” However, Newman made a linguistic mistake that has been stuck with the Yeti ever since; in the Tibetan language the Yeti’s name (“metoh-kangmi”) means “man-like wild creature” or “man-bear snowman” (there is much heated debate over the exact translation), and while Newman got the “snowman” part, he misinterpreted the first part as being the Tibetan word for filthy or dirty. Taking some poetic license, Newman turned this into the English name “Abominable Snowman.” Perhaps it was because of this colorful name that the somewhat uneventful story caught like wildfire, while previous similar reports had gone virtually unnoticed.
Since Howard-Bury’s expedition, many others have traveled to the Himalayas in search of the Abominable Snowman, though usually the “evidence” brought back has been nothing more than descriptions of large footprints in the snow. Some claimed to have up-close encounters with furry creatures that walked upright in the snow, but had no pictures to back up their claims. By the late 1930s, skeptics and others began to admit that the footprints were mostly made by bears, and the stories by superstitions.
Interest in the Abominable Snowman died down, but was renewed in 1951 by a British reconnaissance mission led by Eric Shipton to find another path to Everest, this time through Nepal (since China had taken over Tibet, blocking paths previously used). Shipton and his group found multiple large, oval-shaped, human-like tracks in the snow, and while the tracks were admittedly melting and distorted, there appeared to be toes and a large “thumb.” Though they followed the tracks for about a mile in the thick snow, they never saw the animal that made them. Nevertheless, the photos and prints that were taken of the large footprints became quite famous.
The Nature of the Beast: So what exactly were people claiming to have seen? Large, human-like footprints in the snow are the most common evidence. But the term “large” here varies by a great deal. Alleged Yeti footprints have ranged from six inches long (relatively small for humans) to 12 or 13 inches, or as long as 24 inches. Often the width of the footprints was at least half their length, making them rather oval in shape. Based off of the larger footprints, this would make for a bipedal creature that stands much taller than a normal person (some say as tall as eight feet), assuming the footprints were not misleadingly enlarged due to melting snow around them (as some have suspected).
Footprints: The most widely-accepted explanation for Yeti footprints is that they were made by bears, and some alleged Yeti footprints have even been indisputably shown to simply be bear tracks. The most highly suspected Yeti-impersonator is the endangered Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), which is a Tibetan species similar to the European brown bear. These bears can be four-and-a-half to over seven feet long when mature, easily leaving long, man-like footprints over a foot long, and can even sometimes walk on their hind legs.
Close Encounters: What about the face-to-face encounters with Yetis; what do these creatures look like up close? Local legends describe the creatures as being huge, half man and half beast, with white skin exposed on their faces and a body covered in dark, thick hair, and arms that dangle down to their knees. But several “encounters” have not reported the Yetis to be as large as we might imagine. Described Yetis are often only five or five and a half feet tall, though sometimes taller, walking on two legs. Some reports have said the Yetis can drop down to four legs to move faster. Like the legends, reports also describe the Yetis to have a hairless face, and yellowish or reddish brown hair (not white, as is commonly portrayed in the media).
Bears, again, are a likely suspect in these “Yeti encounters,” especially since they can be temporarily bipedal, though another common suspect are langurs, long-tailed monkeys that live in parts of Asia. Two types of Himalayan langurs have been found to be responsible for some “Yeti” sightings: the endangered Golden Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana) and the Nepal Gray or Himalayan langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). The Golden Snub-nosed Monkey has thick, reddish fur, a heavy build, and a pale, hairless face with a snubbed nose, making it look very human. Both species of langur are very rare now, and were even less known when the first Yeti sightings were reported by Europeans. However, skeptics of the langur theory have argued that the langurs don’t inhabit all the altitudes or areas where the Yeti sightings have been made, and also don’t get big enough to fit the description (the heaviest on record is about 60 pounds).
Scalps: Supposed Yeti scalps have also been found (often kept by locals as relics for centuries) and investigated. Such “scalps” have usually turned out to belong to either a local species of bear or serow (goat- or antelope-like animals that live in Asia), specifically the rare Himalayan serow (Capricornis sumatraensis thar).
Extinct Apes: Because there are no great apes known to inhabit the Himalayas today, some dedicated to explaining how giant, apparently bipedal, human-like tracks could be found high in the Himalayans have turned to an extinct ape called Gigantopithecus. As its name implies, Gigantopithecus is thought to be the largest ape that ever lived, with some individuals possibly standing over an amazing ten feet tall, and weighing 1,200 pounds. But it’s well supported that they went extinct long ago; Gigantopithecus thrived about six million years ago in mainland southern Asia, but vanished around half a million years ago. More generous estimates say they could have been around 100,000 years ago. It’s thought that competition with a relative of ours, Homo erectus, drove Gigantopithecus to extinction long before Homo sapiens even arrived in Asia (some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago). In addition, due to its large mass, many posit that Gigantopithecus would not even be primarily bipedal, but would drag its knuckles or walk on its fists, like its closest living relative, the orangutan. (Though still others have argued it could have become bipedal to walk through snow.) Despite all this, some believers of the Gigantopithecus-Yeti theory still think that these large apes may not have completely vanished, but may have escaped our ancestors by retreating to the snowy Himalayas.
Sasquatch and Bigfoot: Some Yeti-believers have posited that Yetis, as modern relatives of Gigantopithecus, crossed the land bridge from Asia (around 15,000 years ago) and arrived in North America. After somehow escaping the massive megafauna extinction event that killed over half of the large mammals in North America (including giant sloths, woolly mammoths, and bear-sized beavers), the theory postulates that these giant apes gave rise to Sasquatch (made famous by British Columbian teacher John Burns in the 1920s, through a collection of Native American stories he published), and the Californian legend of Bigfoot (which had its debut in the 1950s and 1960s). The legend of Bigfoot has been based on people’s hearing or seeing something, finding large footprints, or producing photographs or film, most famously Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin’s 1967 film. But none of this “evidence” has ever been shown to be true, and, in fact, much of it has been shown to be fabricated, with people related to the “evidence” even admitting to the fabrications.
Recent Times: In 2004, interest in the Yeti was renewed with the amazing discovery of a race of “Hobbits” (Homo floresiensis) who, possibly as recently as 12,000 years ago, used stone tools and hunted pygmy elephants on the island of Flores in Indonesia. (In comparison, Neanderthals, which actually interbred with ancient Homo sapiens, are thought to have gone extinct around 30,000 years ago.) This astounding find has led many, such as Henry Gee, an editor of the well-respected journal Nature, to propose that animals previously thought to be mythical, such as the Yeti, deserve further investigation.
While science is constantly revealing new things about the world that has been around us for thousands, or millions, of years, and such endeavors should certainly be supported, conservation efforts to protect fragile things we’re already aware of, such as the rare and endangered Himalayan wildlife that acted as Yeti “imposters,” should also not be neglected.
For more on the Yeti see Joshua Blu Buhs’ book Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, Michael McLeod’s book Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot, Bernard Heuvelmans’ book On the Track of Unknown Animals, the amazing book The Humans Who Went Extinct by Clive Finlayson, the book The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans by G. J. Sawyer and Viktor Deak, a previous Biology Bytes article on the early evolution of Homo sapiens, or Wikipedia’s articles on the “Yeti”.
Biology Bytes author Teisha Rowland is a science writer, blogger at All Things Stem Cell, and graduate student in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at UCSB, where she studies stem cells. Send any ideas for future columns to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.