Indian Army jumps the gun on ‘Yeti’ footprints

Yeti 2-Optimized

The Indian Army tweeted photos of giant footprints claiming that it “sighted mythical beast ‘Yeti’”. The claim has no scientific basis and is at odd with scientific evidence. In contrast discovery of hominins — Homo luzonensis in April 2019, Denisovans in 2008 and Hobbits (Homo floresiensis) in 2004 — were based on scientific studies carried out on fossil remains.

Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidences. The Indian Army tweeted a few photos of giant footprints measuring 32×15 inches it found near the Makalu Base Camp and claimed: “For the first time the Indian Army Mountaineering Expedition Team sited [sic] mysterious footprints of mythical beast ‘Yeti’”. According to Nepali folklore, Yeti is a “furry ape-like creature taller than an average human”.

The tweet also mentioned that “this elusive snowman has only been sighted at Makalu-Barun National Park [an isolated mountainous area between Nepal and Tibet] in the past”. No details or evidence of the sighting at the park was provided.

Till date, Yeti’s existence has never been proven. With no bones, teeth, hair, nail or other body parts recovered so far to allow for detailed scientific studies, existence of Yeti in the Himalayas is not borne out of hard evidence but just belief. That being the case, how did the Indian Army conclude that the giant footprints were indeed of Yeti’s? And as many on Twitter had commented, how does the Indian Army explain the presence of just one set of footprints?

In contrast, the discovery of Homo luzonensis, a small-bodied hominin on April 10 this year from the island of Luzon in the Philippines was based on studies carried out on seven teeth and six small bones that were recovered. The hominin lived at least 50,000-67,000 years ago in the island.

The discovery of Denisovans, an extinct species of human,  from a cave in Siberia in 2008 was based on fragmentary remains. Genetic studies carried on the fossil finger suggested that they survived for thousands of years and died out just 40,000 years ago.

Similarly, in the case of ‘hobbits’ (Homo floresiensis), which was discovered in 2004 in Flores, Indonesia and found to have survived till as recently as 12,000 years ago, the confirmation of its hominin nature came from studying a variety of bones. Fairly complete cranium and mandible, right leg, less complete bones of the left leg, hands and feet, and fragments of vertebral column, ribs, sacrum (triangular bone at the base of the spine) among others were recovered and studied.

The claim made by the Indian Army is in conflict with scientific evidence. While so far there are only claims of sightings of Yeti and giant footprints on snow, results from two studies based on samples collected from the Himalayas do not provide any evidence in support of Yeti. Both studies have indicated that samples belonged to bears.

For instance, an August 2014 paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B studied two hair samples — one from Ladakh and the other from Bhutan. These had close genetic affinity to polar bears. The finding hinted that it could be of a previously unrecognised bear species or possibly a hybrid between polar bears and brown bears in the Himalayas. Though the DNA match was not perfect, the study did not provide even an iota of evidence in support of Yeti.

“While it is important to bear in mind that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and this survey cannot refute the existence of anomalous primates neither has it found any evidence in support,” Bryan C. Sykes from the University of Oxford, UK notes in the paper.

A November 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B analysed 24 mitochondrial DNA samples of hair, tissue, bone, and faeces of Himalayan brown bears and purported Yeti collected from the Tibetan Plateau-Himalaya region. Of the 24 samples, nine were purported Yeti samples.

Charlotte Lindqvist from the University of Buffalo, New York and her team discovered that eight of the nine purported Yeti samples matched regional bear populations, including the Himalayan brown bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus); the ninth sample was that of a domestic dog. DNA was isolated and complete mitochondrial genome from a hair sample collected in Ladakh, India was assembled. Based on this sample the researchers write: “We unambiguously show that this sample is from a bear that groups with extant Himalayan brown bear.”

The Himalayan brown bear form a separate lineage from other brown bear clades and this “strongly supports Himalayan brown bear as a relict population that diverged early from other brown bear populations.”

The 2017 study is thus far the most rigorous analysis of samples to verify the claims of Yeti. The results “strongly suggest that the biological basis of the Yeti legend is local brown and black bears”.

Published in The Hindu on April 30, 2019