It’s a time of year when many fantastical creatures comes to mind: flying reindeer, 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 idea of the Yeti dates back much further than his relationship with Rudolph – it’s been long captivating imaginations and driving countless individuals to try and capture the real thing (or at least some of his footprints).
What these people were most likely chasing after were other, known animals (though often themselves elusive) in the Himalayan mountains. Or very embellished stories. In the late 1800s, Europeans explored the Himalayas 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.) The stories raised more interest. 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. More than 20,000 feet up in the mountains, they found large footprints in the snow that appeared humanlike.
While Howard-Bury thought the footprints were simply made by “a large ‘loping’ grey wolf,” columnist Henry Newman reported this “story” as a Yeti encounter, but in the process made a linguistic mistake that has 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” and while Newman got the “snowman” part, he misinterpreted the first part as being the Tibetan word for “filthy” or “dirty.” Thus, the mythical creature became the “Abominable Snowman.”
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. By the late 1930s, skeptics and others began to admit that the footprints were mostly made by bears, and any close-encounter stories by superstitions. In 1951, a British reconnaissance mission led by Eric Shipton resulted in some famous photos and prints of large footprints in the snow – there were multiple large, somewhat melted, oval-shaped, human-like tracks – but that was it.
So what exactly were people claiming to have seen? 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). They can reach four-and-a-half to more than seven feet long, easily leaving long, man-like footprints over a foot long, and can even sometimes walk on their hind legs. Bears, again, are a likely suspect in any Yeti “close-encounters,” especially since they can be temporarily bipedal, although another common suspect are langurs, long-tailed monkeys that live in parts of Asia. Two types of Himilayan langurs have been found to be responsible for some “Yeti” sightings: the endangered Golden Snub-nosed Monkey (Rhinopithecus roxellana) and the Nepal Gray or Himilayan langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). Supposed Yeti scalps have also been found (often kept by locals as relics for centuries) and, upon investigation, have usually turned out to belong to either a local species of bear or serow (goat- or antelope-like animals), specifically the rare Himalayan serow (Capricornis sumatraensis thar).
Some have tried to turn to an extinct ape called Gigantopithecus blacki as a different explanation for Yeti sightings, but it’s well supported that these large primates went extinct long ago; G. blacki thrived about six million years ago, but vanished around 100,000 to half a million years ago (probably driven to extinction by competition with a relative of ours, Homo erectus).
While science is constantly revealing new things about the world and solving “unsolved mysteries” in the process – 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 further reading:
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Animals Both Commonplace and Bizarre