The great Himalayan Yeti debate
Posted on Saturday, 15 February, 2014 | 17 comments
Columnist: Edward Crabtree
The creature which almost dragged the Sherpa girl, Lakhpa Domini, into a stream was ape-like. An ape with large eyes and black and brown hair. She had been at watch over her yaks near a stream near Machherma village when the thing seized her. Only after she gave a scream did the beast let go. Then it set about her yaks. The police were alerted. They found footprints to corroborate the tale.
Such episodes are quite common to the people who inhabit the Nepalese mountains, the Sherpas. This case is only known to the West because it was recounted by a Peace Corps volunteer called William Weber in the early Eighties (Welfare and Fairley, p-19-20).
The Abominable Snowman is a sensational legend – made all the more exotic as it issues from an out-of-the-way territory. What could be more romantic than the Himalayas: the land of the Dalai Lama, Shangri La, Tibetan monks and heroic endurance? What follows, though, is my attempt to show that there is more to the yeti than an escapist fable.
The Bear hypothesis.
Last November the internet, TV and newspapers thrummed with `final exposes` of the yeti enigma. A geneticist called Professor Bryan Sykes, who is attached to Oxford University, had unmasked the culprit. After having scanned two bits of hard evidence –hair samples from Bhutan and western Himalayas – he concluded that the yeti is...a bear.
`So that’s that one put in a box`, says Joe Public with a clap of the hand. `Pass me a pot noodle while I play a Scooby Doo video game`. As much as we `all-like-a-good-mystery`, we all like a good mystery wrapped up even more.
Read the small print, however, and you will see that Professor Sykes’s claim is neither simple nor unproblematic. He has just substituted one unknown animal for another – a new species of prehistoric bear. This may be a subspecies of brown bear that descended from a polar bear, or a cross-breed between a polar bear and a brown bear. Either way, its behaviour differs from that of a standard bear, thus accounting for yeti tales.
The broadsheet columnist Anunja Ahuga could therefore announce `a dazzling discovery` of a `beast unknown to science` that even exists outside of `the fevered imagination of the locals` (Telegraph Online, November 21st, 2013). So, the Yeti is Dead...Long Live the Yeti...sort of!
The West and the Yeti.
Towering with dizzying height over verdant pastures like vast crystals, the Himalayan Mountain range encompasses Tibet, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan and Sikkim. From time immemorial, the locals have spoken of a man-like beast that belongs to these heights.
The West first came to hear of this from the hill-walker B.H.Hodgson who related some tales from Northern Nepal in 1825. Then the military Major Lawrence Waddell recorded the first footprints in 1899. By 1921 journalists were already dashing out copy about the `Abominable Snowman`.
Then followed the craze of attempts to scale Mount Everest. The mountaineers brought with them the oxygen of publicity, and back with them stories of yeti encounters. The Second World War put a stop to the party for a while until 1951. This was when Eric Shipton reignited speculation with his dramatic snapshots of enormous foot tracks in the snow.
Witness transcriptions reveal some agreement. Our snowman averages six feet in height and is thick set with a weight between 200 and 400 pounds. The hair is shaggy grey or red brown and the face pale and hairless. The yeti stoops, sometimes on four legs, sometimes two, and its toes point backwards. The beast lives in mountain forests and caves and prefers to come out at night. There are times when the yeti attacks humans, hence the fear with which it is sometimes spoken of.
An early western conjecture was that what is being described is nothing more than an orang utan. This monkey, however, is too small to fit the profile. Besides how and why would this monkey stray so far from its native Borneo and Sumatra?
Bears though are known to inhabit the locality. They do match the yeti’s size. Furthermore, they can sometimes assume an upright posture.
John Napier, the eminent British primatologist, considered a glorified bear to be behind the legend. Likewise, the Italian alpinist, Reinhold Messner,who had his own glimpse of the yeti, decided in the end that the elusive Tibetan blue bear might be the smoking gun.
So if we look at Professor Sykes’s findings and arm ourselves with Occam’s razor then the bear hypothesis looks quite solid. Take a bear seen at a distance, add a dash of superstition, sauté on a low heat of tourism – and serve with journalistic hyperbole. Voila! A monster myth sprouts legs!
Back to the source.
Yeti witness statements, however, describe something far more ape-like than anything ursine. If these are not given the right kind of weight then this might owe to the fact that the vast majority of them come from natives of the region. (In 1972 Napier managed to whittle the count down to one reliable European sighting. There have been more since, but this overall trend holds true,)
It would not be too Politically Correct to imagine that the Sherpas have been the victims of a little bit of residual colonialist thinking. They have been characterised as credulous and untrustworthy Orientals.
One often reads of how the yeti is a player in their Buddhist folklore and who is granted supernatural prowess. The disparaging tone of this claim fails to realise that the yeti predates Buddhist religion. Also, as the Russian yeti hunter Dmitri Bayanov put it:
`When an obnoxious tyrant is pictured with horns and fangs and claws, nobody thinks the tyrant does not exist because such a monster is impossible. ` (Bayanov, p-67.)
Does not Western culture also mythologise the yeti? Take a look at certain Hammer films, Carry On comedies and Doctor Who!
Far from being unreliable, so familiar are the Sherpas with the local terrain that their very name has become almost synonymous with mountain guides. One of the first men to reach the top of Mount Everest was the Sherpa Lakpa Ten Tsing, who accompanied Edmund Hillary. Ten Tsing also had a close quarter yeti sighting to tell of.
When another Everest hero Don Whillans had a brush with a `black ape-like shape` in 1970 he knew that it was not a bear. The reason he knew this is because, as he said of his worried Sherpa companions: `If it had been a bear...that would have been the end of it. ` (Welfare and Fairley, p-25). The Sherpas should know!
Few Westerners are fluent in the south-East Asian tongues of the region. Many of their words do not translate in a direct way into English so finer points get lost in translation.
So, for example;
- In Nepalese the word `yeti` is a compound word: `ye the`. This means something like `bear in a rocky place` but is often used to refer to any mountain dweller. (Matthews.p-127).
- There are at least three types of `yeti`: the `Dzuh Teh` (`cattle bear`) is a large shaggy creature; the `teh me` (`little man`) is a small creature, which might be modelled on the gibbon. Then we come to the `meh teh` which is the bipedal ape which most people think of when the word `yeti` is used. (Napier, 47-48)
- Even the moniker `Abominable Snowman` is just a sensationalised translation from `metoh-kangmi` which means something like `man-bear-snowman` (see Ahuga).
To peer through this linguistic fog is to see that the Sherpas refer to different phenomena at different times: sometimes they do indeed tell of bears, but at other times want to tell us of a hominid.
Tracks, sounds and historical records.
While he was checking out Everest for the benefit of future climbers, Eric Shipton and a colleague came across some footprints in the ice of the Menlung glacier, far away from any nearby habitations. So on November 8th 1951 he photographed what proved to become the most iconic image of yeti footprints.
The Soviet Academy of Sciences was prompted by this to set up a commission to investigate further (after all, the Pamirs – then Soviet territory –conjoins with the Himalayas). The British Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, felt a need to put on a special exhibit featuring the picture – together with the explanation that it was the work of a lemur.
The sceptical Napier found that idea as risible as he did the photograph puzzling. He suggested that the prints might be those of more than one creature superimposed. This idea is developed further by the Russian cryptozoologist Michael Trachtegnerts who proposes that the tracks – which seem unfeasible because of their size – were caused by two hominids with one walking behind the other (Trachtegnerts, p-75-78).
The point is that these are not the clawed tracks of bears. The British naturalist David Attenborough found more recent examples of this type of evidence for the yeti sufficient: he thrilled television audiences by describing these as `very convincing`. `Nobody` he added. `Goes up 19,000 feet to make a joke.’ (Friday Night Live with Jonathan Ross, BBC television, February, 2009)
Encounters with the sounds a yeti make are as important evidence as anything visual too. Again these are not the growls of a bear. The yeti whistles and shrieks. Among other these noises were heard by the celebrated mountaineer Lord Hunt (Welfare and Fairley, p-61).
Historical chronicles of man-like apes in the region are also quite convincing. These long predate any publicity which surrounds the matter. They are often written by disinterested parties.
Thus Hans Schiltberger, a German nobleman was captured by Mongols. From these central Asians he learnt of a type of `Wildman` that lives in the mountains. These were not human beings. This was in 1430. (Matthews, p-160-161)
In 1959 a Russian zoologist called G. Dementev and Czech anthropologist E. Vcleck chanced upon an archaic Anatomical Dictionary devoted to Buddhist medicine. Alongside descriptions and pictures of known animals there is the casual inclusion of a wild man. The illustration tallies with the identikit description of a yeti given earlier.(Bayanov, p-67-70)
The Abominable Snowman lives!
Desmond Doig, along with Edmund Hillary, failed to find evidence of the yeti in a special expedition in 1961.This fact is sometimes trotted out as another thumbs down for any exotic hominid living there. Twenty years later, however, Doig would point out that they did not see the snow leopard either on the same mission. Doig, who knew something of the local languages, told the TV show Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World:
`In 1961 we discussed the meh-teh as pure myth. I now think we were wrong`. (cited by Welfare and Fairley, p-280).
If Professor Sykes’s prehistoric bear stalks the snowline of the Himalayas then is that the sum of the issue? The region is still unexplored enough to have room for more than one new finding.
Just because a giant squid was discovered off the coast of Spain in recent times, this does not mean that henceforth all unknown sea animals should be categorised as squids.
The Sherpas have a nuanced lexicon and are mountain-worthy. They are as much practical as superstitious. I believe they should be trusted when they mention something in their region that has an ape-like aspect, as well as bears.
Indeed, I find myself moved to ask the same question that Rupert Matthews posed:
`How could farmers and herdsmen living in remote valleys come up with descriptions of an ape if the nearest apes lived thousands of miles away...? ` (Matthews, p-202).
All of this dovetails with the tracks and noises that no bear would make. It also parallels with rumours of similar man-like apes in parts of China, the Russian Federation, North America and Central Asia.
Bayanov, Dmitri In the footsteps of the Russian Snowman (Moscow: Crypto-Logos Publishers, 1986)
Matthews, Rupert Bigfoot: True Life Encounters with Legendary Ape-Men (London: Arctucus, 2008)
Napier, John Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in myth and Reality (London: Abacus, 1976)
Welfare, Simon & Fairley, John Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World (London: Book club Associates, 1984)
Ahuja, Anja `The yeti comes in from the Cold`, The Telegraph, November 21st 2013
Green, Stewart `The yeti Legend, lore and climbing mystery` About.com/Climbing 2014
Trachtengerts, Michael `The Himalayan Snapshots by Shipton and Ward- new analysis of the footprints` ( p-75-78 Natural and Technical Sciences, Issue 6, 2003)Article Copyright© Edward Crabtree - reproduced with permission.