Chasing Bigfoot with science

IN Russia, they call it almasty. In Sumatra the orang-pendek, in Bhutan the migoi and North America the sasquatch. But it’s the Himalayan name we know best – the yeti, or perhaps more popular still, the Abominable Snowman… Bigfoot.

But does it exist? That’s the question Oxford University’s professor of genetics Bryan Sykes sought to answer. For proof, he would use the science of DNA. Footprints, film footage and eyewitness accounts would not be enough.

The account of his entertaining and intriguing investigation is detailed in his book, The Nature Of The Beast.

‘There are many good reasons for doubting the claims of the yeti-hunters,’ he writes. ‘No body has been found and fully examined… And yet eyewitness reports still come streaming in. Are these all the invention of vivid imagination, phantasms of the mind of the harmlessly deluded or just plain fraud?’

Current thinking among believers is the yeti is an unknown giant ape or some form of surviving Neanderthal.

If the latter were to be true, Sykes would prove it by matching a sample against the DNA extracted from Neanderthal remains. If the former, no exact match would be made with an existing animal, meaning it must be something as yet unknown.

So, all he needed were reliable samples. But where would he get them?

The fashion for yeti-hunting exploded in 1951 after Himalayan explorer Eric Shipton brought back a photo of a large footprint in the snow.

The Daily Mail was first to sponsor a huge expedition in 1954. Texan oil baron Tom Slick followed suit but Bigfoot remained elusive.

But Sykes found his samples nonetheless.

Some came from adventurers such as Christophe Hagenmuller, a French explorer who came across a dead yeti climbing the Himalaya in Kashmir in the late 1990s. It had been killed by a local hunter and shown to Hagenmuller on condition he never revealed its whereabouts.

He took photographs and, luckily for Sykes, some hair samples.

Others came from the Italian Reinhold Messner, the first man to scale Everest solo and without oxygen in 1980. Messner had the head and pelt of a yeti taken from Tibet by a Nazi-inspired expedition sponsored by Himmler in 1938.

Hitler’s henchman was convinced the Aryan race had been forged in fire and ice somewhere in Tibet and thought the yeti some proof of his thinking.

The Hollywood star James Stewart played an unlikely part in the source of a further sample.

In 1959, Professor William Osman Hill, director of London Zoo, commissioned Peter Byrne, an Irish adventurer and veteran of previous yeti hunts, to steal part of a mummified yeti hand from a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.

In a case that came to be known as the Pangboche Finger, named after the monastery, Byrne broke off a digit from the hand and swapped it with a human replacement.

Fearing discovery exiting Calcutta, he chanced into Stewart, himself a keen anthropologist, who agreed to smuggle it through customs. It was hidden in his wife Gloria’s lingerie case.

Sykes’s quest for samples took him to North America, where he met a hunter convinced he had shot and killed an infant sasquatch and buried it in panic but was unable to subsequently find the grave and to Russia, where one surviving member of the official Snowman Commission set up in 1958 was convinced of the beast’s paranormal abilities.

Sykes whittled down his samples to 37 in number, the majority taken from trees in sighting hotspots, and despatched them to the lab.

The results came back: American black bear, modern man, a dog, raccoon, horse, sheep, cow, deer, porcupine… Beasts, yes, Bigfoot, no.

But two were unexpected.

The Hagenmuller sample and one more from a jungle in Bhutan across the Himalayas proved to match a polar bear. But aside from the question of how a polar bear came to be roaming the Himalaya, further investigation revealed another surprise.

The match came from the fossilised bones found in Svalbard of an ancient polar bear, dating back around 40,000 years – a distant ancestor to our modern species also related to the modern brown bear.

Not Bigfoot, then, but at least an animal no one had seen alive.

Or was it? Subsequent to Sykes publishing his conclusions in a scientific journal, other experts have called his findings into question. They say the samples are in fact a match for the Himalayan brown bear, rare but hardly mysterious.

The trail has gone cold. The legend, no doubt, will continue.

The Nature Of The Beast by Bryan Sykes (Hodder & Stoughton) published April 9

Bigfoot in pop culture

Yeti robots appeared in the 1967 episode of Doctor Who. Despite looking like an overfed Zippy from Rainbow in bad need of a shave, they were terrifying.

A yeti played a central role in Tintin In Tibet (1960). Despite having to scare him off with the flashbulb from his camera, Tintin’s view was that the yeti is, at heart, a kindly soul.

Looney Tunes character Hugo The Abominable Snowman had a fondness for rabbits he liked to call George. Some say he’s based on Lennie from Of Mice And Men.

The 2012 film Bigfoot has a sasquatch attack a rock concert because the noise woke him up. That the movie starred shock-rocker Alice Cooper is just one more reason to applaud it.

Harry And The Hendersons saw John Lithgow’s family unwittingly bring a live sasquatch home from a camping trip. The 1987 film won an Oscar for Best Makeup and spawned a TV sitcom.

This first appeared in Metro, April 10, 2015.

Metro, April 10, 2015. p28

Metro, April 10, 2015. p29

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Chasing Bigfoot with science

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