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The Yeti: Asia's Abominable Snowman

mount everest
Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

The Yeti, once better known as the Abominable Snowman, is a mysterious bipedal creature said to live in the mountains of Asia. It sometimes leaves tracks in snow, but is also said to dwell below the Himalayan snow line. Despite dozens of expeditions into the remote mountain regions of Russia, China, and Nepal, the existence of the Yeti remains unproven.

The Yeti is said to be muscular, covered with dark grayish or reddish-brown hair, and weigh between 200 and 400 pounds. It is relatively short compared to North America's Bigfoot, averaging about 6 feet in height. Though this is the most common form, reported Yetis have come in a variety of shapes.

In 2010, hunters in China caught a strange animal that they claimed was a Yeti. This mysterious, hairless, four-legged animal was initially described as having features resembling a bear, but was finally identified as a civet, a small cat-like animal that had lost its hair from disease.

History of the Yeti

In her book "Still Living? Yeti, Sasquatch, and the Neanderthal Enigma," (1983, Thames and Hudson), researcher Myra Shackley offers the following description, reported by two hikers in 1942 who saw "two black specks moving across the snow about a quarter mile below them." Despite this significant distance, they offered the following very detailed description: "The height was not much less than eight feet ... the heads were described as 'squarish and the ears must lie close to the skull because there was no projection from the silhouette against the snow. The shoulders sloped sharply down to a powerful chest ... covered by reddish brown hair which formed a close body fur mixed with long straight hairs hanging downward." Another person saw a creature "about the size and build of a small man, the head covered with long hair but the face and chest not very hairy at all. Reddish-brown in color and bipedal, it was busy grubbing up roots and occasionally emitted a loud high-pitched cry."

It's not clear if these sightings were real, hoaxes, or misidentifications, though legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who spent months in Nepal and Tibet, concluded that large bears and their tracks had often been mistaken for Yeti. In March 1986, Anthony Wooldridge, a hiker in the Himalayas, saw what he thought was a Yeti standing in the snow near a ridge about 500 feet away. It didn't move or make noise, but Wooldridge saw odd tracks in the snow that seemed to lead toward the figure. He took two photographs of the creature, which were later analyzed and proven genuine.

Many in the Bigfoot community seized upon the photos as clear evidence of a Yeti, including John Napier, an anatomist and anthropologist who had served as the Smithsonian Institution's director of primate biology. Many considered it unlikely Wooldridge could have made a mistake because of his extensive hiking experience in the region. The following year, researchers returned to where Wooldridge had taken the photos and discovered that he had simply seen a dark rock outcropping that looked vertical from his position. It was all a mistake — much to the embarrassment of some Yeti believers.

Yeti evidence?

Most of the evidence for the Yeti comes from sightings and reports. Like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, there is a distinct lack of hard proof for the Yeti's existence, though a few pieces of evidence have emerged over the years.

In 1960, Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to scale Mt. Everest, searched for evidence of the Yeti. He found what was claimed to be a scalp from the beast, though scientists later determined that the helmet-shaped hide was in fact made from a serow, a Himalayan animal similar to a goat.

In 2007, American TV show host Josh Gates claimed he found three mysterious footprints in snow near a stream in the Himalayas. Locals were skeptical, suggesting that Gates — who had only been in the area for about a week — simply misinterpreted a bear track. Nothing more was learned about what made the print, and the track can now be found not in a natural history museum but instead in a small display at Disney World.

A finger long believed to be from a Yeti found in a monastery in Nepal was examined by researchers at the Edinburgh Zoo in 2011. The finger generated controversy among Bigfoot and Yeti believers for decades, until DNA analysis proved that the finger was human, perhaps from a monk's corpse. [See also: Bigfoot & Yeti DNA Study Gets Serious]

Russian search for Yeti

The Russian government has recently taken an interest in the Yeti, going so far as to organize a conference of Bigfoot experts and bringing them to western Siberia in October 2011. Bigfoot researcher and biologist John Bindernagel claimed that he saw evidence that the Yeti not only exist but build nests and shelters out of twisted tree branches. That group made headlines around the world when they issued a statement that they had "indisputable proof" of the Yeti, and were 95 percent sure it existed based on some grey hairs found in a clump moss in a cave.

Bindernagel may have been impressed, but another scientist who participated in the same expedition concluded that the "indisputable" evidence was hoaxed. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropologist at Idaho State Universitywho endorses the existence of Bigfoot, said that he suspected the twisted tree branches had been faked. Not only was there obvious evidence of tool-made cuts in the supposedly "Yeti-twisted" branches, but the trees were conveniently located just off a well-traveled trail and hardly in a remote area. Meldrum concluded that the whole Russian expedition was more of a publicity stunt than a serious scientific endeavor, likely designed to increase tourism in the impoverished coal-mining region. Despite quasi-official claims of "indisputable proof" of the Yeti, nothing more has come of the story.

The lack of hard evidence despite decades of searches doesn't deter true believers; the fact that these mysterious creatures haven't been found is not taken as evidence that they don't exist, but instead how rare, reclusive, and elusive they are. Like Bigfoot, a single body would prove that the Yeti exist, though no amount of evidence can prove they don't exist. For that reason alone, these animals — real or not — will likely always be with us.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Tracking the Chupacabra" and "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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Ever seen Bigfoot's eyeshine in your headlights at night? Heard a splash and sworn you saw Nessie's tail disappearing below the lake surface? Cryptic creatures of myth and legend are known the world over.
Test your knowledge of the weird and wonderful creatures of cryptozoology.
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An artist's interpretation of Bigfoot.
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