“Yeti or Not”—the Bear Facts

June 3, 2016

Tipped by a Huffington Post journalist, I watched Animal Planet’s Yeti or Not world premier, Sunday, May 29, 2016—part of a “Monster Week” lineup.

But this is not another show merely hyping fabled man-beasts—like the network’s embarrassingly popular series Finding Bigfoot. As far as one can tell that pseudoscience-peddling show is as unlikely as ever to find its imagined quarry—despite being in its fifth year.

Instead, Yeti or Not uses a scientific approach, making a real search for the identity of the fabled man-beast. Protagonist of a legend of over three centuries, the supposed wild man or apelike creature has many names among residents of the Himalaya Mountains, but it is best known as the Yeti by Sherpa tribespeople. Because of its reputed foul smell, it eventually became known to westerners—through explorers and mountaineers—as the Abominable Snowman.

Evidence for the creature’s existence was forthcoming—including photographs (one proved to depict a rock) and tracks (as of ordinary animals but enlarged by melting snow) (Nickell 1995, 223–231; 2011, 55–62). DNA sequencing made possible the testing of “Yeti” hairs, but alas these were from known creatures (such as the Himalayan Goral, a species of goat). In 2012 Bryan Sykes led a project to test hair specimens attributed to Bigfoot or Yeti, but most proved to be from some species of bear (Nickell 2014). Sykes even theorized from two samples the possibility of a hitherto unknown bear, possibly a hybrid, although other scientists pointed out a paucity of evidence for this.

Enter Yeti or Not with veterinarian and explorer Dr. Mark Evans. Evans examines the Yeti myth from varying perspectives, including interviewing world-famous Alpine mountaineer Reinhold Messner—who himself once saw a Yeti, but since concluded it had been an upright-standing bear. “The Yeti legend,” insists Messner, “is based on a bear.” Evans also travels to Nepal to collect alleged Yeti samples for DNA testing by Dr. Charlotte Lindqvist of the University at Buffalo (across the street from where I’m writing).

In addition to bears, Evans also theorizes that the Yeti could have been some ancestor to humans. As it happens, all the samples tested—a tuft of hair, fragment of bone, and the like proved to be from either the Himalayan Brown Bear, the Tibetan Brown Bear, or (in only one instance) a Black Bear (which must have come from outside the region).

This brief sketch does not do justice to the documentary. It takes us on a virtual expedition into the Himalayas, bringing together legend and science in a revealing and entertaining manner. Yeti or Not? So far, Not is winning.

References

Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

———. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

———. 2014. Hair samples: From Bigfoot or the Bigfoot Bear? Online at https://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/hair_samples_from_bigfoot_or_the_bigfoot_bear; accessed May 31, 2016.

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