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Yeti mystery solved? Geneticist links Abominable Snowman hairs to bears  

Image: Sykes
British geneticist Bryan Sykes says he has linked purported samples of Yeti hair to an ancient polar bear jawbone.

After a yearlong quest, a British geneticist says he has matched the DNA from hairs attributed to Himalayan Yetis, also known as "Abominable Snowmen," to a breed of Arctic bear that lived tens of thousands of years ago. Other researchers say that might be as good an explanation as any.

The claim is being made by Oxford University's Bryan Sykes, already well-known for his research on human ancestry. Sykes says his findings suggest that sightings of the legendary Yeti may actually represent observations of a previously unknown creature in the Himalayas — perhaps a hybrid of polar bears and brown bears.

Sykes told NBC News that his aim is to bring the Yeti out of the realm of myth and fantasy. "All my colleagues think I'm taking a risk in doing this, but I'm curious, and I am in a position to actually do something to answer the questions," he said.

Outside experts didn't reject Sykes' conclusion out of hand. Tom Gilbert, professor of paleogenomics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, told The Associated Press that Sykes' research provided a "reasonable explanation" for past Yeti sightings. 

Every remote area seems to have its tales of mysterious, seldom-seen, apelike beasts, ranging from the Yeti to the Bigfoot and Sasquatch of America's wildernesses. Last year, Sykes put out a call for samples of hairs or tissue linked to such creatures, with the aim of putting them through DNA tests. 

Among those samples were hairs attributed to a Yeti mummy in the northern Indian region of Ladakh, purportedly taken by a French mountaineer who was shown the corpse 40 years ago; and a single hair that was found a decade ago in Bhutan, 800 miles (1,285 kilometers) to the east.

Sykes said the DNA from those two samples matched the genetic signature of a polar bear jawbone that was found in the Norwegian Arctic and is thought to be at least 40,000 years old. His findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but they will be the focus of "Bigfoot Files," a documentary series premiering Sunday on Britain's Channel 4.

Although the geneticist received other samples, he hasn't yet revealed any other DNA testing results. Sykes discussed the "Bigfoot Files" part of the project on Thursday during an interview with NBC News in London:

NBC News: How did you get these hairs?

Bryan Sykes: "I put out a call for Yeti, Bigfoot, and Sasquatch hairs in 2012, and I received a good response from all over the world. Of the two samples in this study, one came from a Yeti mummy in Ladakh. It was from the mummified body that was shot 40 years ago by a local hunter. He kept it because he did not think it was a bear from its behavior. To him it was a Yeti. The other sample was a single hair from the other end of the Himalayas, from the Kingdom of Bhutan. It was found by the king’s own personal Yeti guards."

So people there think Yetis exist?

"Everyone in the Himalayas has no doubt that they exist."

Why have there not been more sightings, especially with the increase in technology?

"It’s a very frequent question. The answer is that they are very rare. The distances over which they roam are enormous and often heavily wooded, so they cannot be seen by satellite. And certainly in the Pacific Northwest, in the case of Sasquatch, they are thought to be shy."

Have the findings been published in any papers or peer-reviewed?

"One of the reasons I started this project is that Bigfoot, Yetis and Sasquatches have fallen out of the scope of science, and all of the work that’s been done has been in the realm of fantasy and very eccentric, and not worked on very vigorously. Nothing has ever been published in a reviewed scientific journal. The project is still going on, and the idea is to publish this results in a scientific journal to bring it back into the realm of science. All my colleagues think I’m taking a risk in doing this, but I’m curious, and I am in a position to actually do something to answer the questions."

What are the chances that these findings are wrong? Aren’t you just going on the word of the people who claim to have found the hairs?

"One of the reasons I felt confident enough to go into this madcap area is I do not have to form an opinion. I have got the hairs and I have tested the hairs. I cannot vouch for their authenticity, but there were witnesses, and the DNA cannot be made up or rigged. Those results are absolutely firm."

More from the Bigfoot files:

NBC News' Alexander Smith contributed to this report from London.

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding +Alan Boyle to your Google+ circles. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.