Tech + Health

07.03.14

Sorry Bigfoot Truthers: Yetis Aren’t Real

A new Oxford study shows most ‘yeti’ evidence is human, bear, or raccoon, among other mammals. But this probably won’t stop Bigfoot hunters.

We can all rest easy tonight. Scientists from one the world’s preeminent centers of learning have demonstrated conclusively that a creature most of us think is possibly-but-probably-not real is in fact possibly-but-probably-not real.

Bryan Sykes, Professor of Genetics at Oxford, and his co-authors have put the university’s prestigious imprimatur on a study published July 2 in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The study concludes that the scientists may have found a new bear species, but failed to find evidence of the yeti’s existence.

Some know the yeti as Bigfoot. Other names include Almas or Almasty and Sasquatch. No matter the name, the purported “anomalous primate” has long been the subject of a cycle of stories and skepticism. Mountaineers, hunters, and others wandering the less-explored areas of the planet have claimed to see the hairy humanoid (or possibly ursine) creature. Footprints have been photographed, and hairs and other traces have been collected.

Scientists look askance at the pseudoscientific field of cryptozoology, the purpose of which is to prove the existence of legendary creatures such as the yeti. The field has produced only anecdotal or other evidence that does not pass muster in the scientific community. Cryptozoologists have long complained about the fact that scientists do not take them seriously. (Cryptozoologists, however, might want to be careful what they wish for. If scientists did start taking them seriously, there would no longer be a field of cryptozoology. The creatures once thought cryptic would be studied by run-of-the-mill non-cryptic zoologists.)

Can we eagerly look forward to academic investigation of vampires or probative studies of alien abductions? Sadly, probably not.

But let’s set that aside. The study’s authors are willing to give cryptozoologists their day in the sun. “Modern science has largely avoided this field and advocates frequently complain that they have been ‘rejected by science,’” Sykes and his co-authors write in justification of their study. “This conflicts with the basic tenet that science neither rejects nor accepts anything without examining the evidence.

At first pass, this justification seems to open up a world of fascinating research. Should scientists investigate all previously rejected phenomena that have passionate advocates? Can we eagerly look forward to academic investigation of vampires or probative studies of alien abductions? Sadly, probably not. Sykes approached the study believing that the Yeti legend may not be made up out of whole cloth. He gives the eye-witness reports and footprint photographs some credence, and believed “there was about a 5 percent chance of finding a sample from a Neanderthal or (a Yeti).”

For the study, Sykes appealed to cryptozoologists the world over to send him hair samples that might belong to a yeti. He rejected some less likely candidates, such as a bit of plant material and a glass fiber.

Ultimately, thirty samples—more than half of which came from the United States—yielded enough information for genetic analysis. Twenty-eight of the samples turned out to be hairs from well-documented species, including a human, a racoon, and a porcupine. Eight of the samples were from brown or black bears.

However, two of the samples—one from Ladakh, India and one from Bhutan—yielded a more interesting result. They matched the DNA collected from a 40,000-year-old Pleistocene fossil of a polar bear that is unlike the DNA of modern polar bears. Sykes suspects that the hairs come from either an unrecognized bear species, or an unknown hybrid of polar bear and brown bear.

The Ladakh sample was preserved by a hunter who reported that it came from a bear he had never seen and who behaved unlike any familiar bear species. “If these bears are widely distributed in the Himalayas, they may well contribute to the biological foundation of the yeti legend, especially if, as reported by the hunter who shot the Ladakh specimen, they behave more aggressively towards humans than known indigenous bear species,” the study notes.

In the end, the study offers no proof of the existence of a yeti. The authors are careful to point out, however, that the study didn’t prove that the Yeti doesn’t exist. It simply established that we still have no hard evidence for the yeti.

Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology at New York University, said he would “want visual or physical proof, like a body part, on top of the DNA evidence.” Sykes, who in September will release a book detailing his search for a yeti, agrees. Next step: Sykes will trek in the Himalayas to discover a live yeti.

Cryptozoologists, then, still have their work cut out for them. And they are going to need more than a few hairs with yeti-like DNA to convince scientists to take them seriously.