Exciting headlines are announcing that Oxford University geneticist Bryan Sykes may have “solved” the long-open case of the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas. According to reports, DNA analysis of alleged Yeti hair samples indicate that the region may be home to previously undocumented species or sub-species of bear.
Bears do live throughout the region: Asiatic black bears, sloth bears, and Himalayan brown bears (Ursus arctos isabellinus, a subspecies of the brown bear, Ursus arctos—grizzlies are another). Of these, the Himalayan brown bear has long been strongly implicated as the real animal behind the legend of the Yeti. I’ve argued this myself in the pages of Junior Skeptic, and Don Prothero and I explore this likelihood in chapter-length detail in our new book Abominable Science!
Sykes’ research is only emerging now, and only time will tell whether anything comes of it. But the scenario he suggests seems so enchanting that I can’t resist the temptation to let my imagination run away with me for a moment. According his comments to the National Post, Yeti hair samples he tested yielded a 100% match to a type of Norwegian polar bear which “hasn’t been recorded for 40,000 years.” This leads him to speculate that some Yeti reports may record a previously unknown population of a novel variety of bear (perhaps hybrids*) and, he said, “makes me wonder if this species of bear might behave differently. Maybe it is more aggressive, more dangerous or is more bipedal than other bears.” There have long been tantalizing (sometimes head-scratching) suggestions that the bears described by Yeti witnesses may sometimes exhibit unusual traits or behaviors. Sykes’ proposal, if correct, could perhaps help to explain such reports.
Could Sykes be right? What do his findings mean, really? Gosh—who knows. It’s way too soon to know. His findings have apparently been submitted for peer-review, but that’s barely step one. The headlines work in support of an upcoming book and television project built upon his research. The known brown bears in the region are not well understood. Skepticism is completely appropriate.
Still, let’s just imagine for a second.
If it were to turn out that some Yeti reports really have recorded an otherwise unknown variety of bear, that would be an enormous discovery—and an utterly astonishing moment in the history of monster studies. It would be a moment of triumph for cryptozoology skeptics, who have said all along that Yetis are really bears; and, simultaneously, it could be a moment of triumph for cryptozoologists, who have said for decades that Yetis are an unrecognized new type of large hairy mammal. Sure, skeptics would be more right, and the folks committed to the dream of a relict Gigantopithecus would be disappointed (all but inevitable in any case) but it would nonetheless be a non-zero-sum victory for all those who have ever found themselves entranced by the mystery. Cake for everyone!
As a skeptic and critic of cryptozoology who still feels a deep connection to my hopeful cryptozoological roots, this would be an outcome delightful to me beyond the furthest dreams of avarice.
And for exactly that reason—because I want it to be true—I will wait patiently, without answers or expectations, and see what the science has to say.
* If you’re wondering how a sample can both come from a modern hybrid animal and also be a perfect genetic match to another non-hybrid animal, well, I don’t understand that bit either. It’s early days at this point, though. I assume Sykes’ findings and interpretations will be become clearer when his paper is published; likely the news coverage is a bit distorted, as these things tend to be. Then I suppose we’ll see where things stand.
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