The Yeti (Abominable Snowman) has deep roots in Nepalese folklore. It entered Western popular culture in the 19th century. The Abominable Snowman moniker was coined in 1921, as a translation of the Tibetan phrase “man-bear snowman,” which makes South Park’s spoof on manbearpig smarter than I’d ever realized.
It’s half man, half bearpig! Or is that half manbear and half pig? Or is it half man, half bear, and half pig? EXCELSIOR!
But there’s always been a more prosaic explanation for the so-called Abominable Snowman — the Himalayan Brown Bear. Himalayan brown bears are up to seven feet tall, and they’re the largest animal in the Himalayas. But how do we know that the Himalayan brown bear is the actual animal Yeti enthusiasts have been searching for all these years? Genetic testing — that’s how.
As Popular Sciencedetails, biologist Charlotte Lindqvist worked in concert with Icon Film to obtain and genetically test samples of supposed Yetis. While a 2014 study claimed to identify supposed Yeti genetic sample as an ancient polar bear, the area of mitochondrial DNA they analyzed is common to virtually all polar bear populations. As Popular Science writes: “It makes no sense to claim that a sample matched an ancient polar bear based on this stretch of DNA, because that sequence would match almost any bear.”
This is supposed to be a yeti femur. It’s a Tibetan brown bear femur. Image credit: Icon Films, Ltd
Icon Films secured nine samples of artifacts purported to be from yetis, while the research team gathered 15 additional genetic samples from native bear populations on the Tibetan plateau and in the Himalayas. The result? Eight of the nine samples corresponded exactly to known bear populations in the area, while the ninth was actually from a dog.
If you’re wondering why reputable scientists would spend time chasing what amounts to a mythical creature, there’s a simple explanation. While both the Tibetan and Himalayan brown bear are related to the European brown bear, the Himalayan species had never been genetically analyzed. One of the goals of this study was to gather data from as many bears as possible, to better date when the Himalayan, Tibetan, and Gobi brown bears split off from the Eurasian brown bear. Black bear genetic analysis was also conducted, again with the goal of placing these bears in a proper family tree with their western counterparts.
The paper, which you can read in full here, states:
Our results, providing more data and better resolution, demonstrate that the Himalayan brown bears, including the previously reported Gobi bear and Deosai bears, form a well-supported, sister lineage to all other extant brown bear clades included here. This result strongly supports Himalayan brown bears as a relict population that diverged early from other brown bear populations… It was proposed that the Tibetan brown bears migrated to the Tibetan Plateau from its source population—ancestral Eurasian brown bears—approximately 343 ka BP, and that they remained geographically isolated from this source population thereafter. Our phylogenetic analyses strongly support this migration scenario.
Sadly, no trace of a yeti was ever found. Obviously this won’t be the end of things; devotees of cryptids aren’t going to stop believing just because some scientists who study bears for a living say the myth isn’t true. But if you’ve ever shivered at night, hoping that some ancient snow monster is going to tear into your house and/or raid the fridge, you can finally stop worrying.