On Thursday, two stories dominated news on social media: 1. The end of the government shutdown. And 2. The discovery of Yeti DNA. Or at least that’s what the Internet would have us believe:
Of course, the “top two stories” are my unscientific estimate. But as much as I hate to throw cold water on it, there’s a lot that smells unscientific about the Yeti story, too—at least as reported by the media.
Bryan Sykes is a prominent University of Oxford genetics professor, known for his work on Ötzi, the Iceman, the roughly 5,000-year-old mummy that popped out of a glacier and captivated the world in 1991. Recently, he’s been working on something called the Oxford-Lausanne Collateral Hominid Project in order to better understand the relationship between humans and other hominids, namely cryptids—creatures believed by some to exist but without any real scientific backing. (The Loch Ness Monster, chupacabra, and Mongolian death worm are all cryptids, but Sykes’ concerns are obviously with those that resemble humans like the Yeti and Sasquatch.) As part of this project, Sykes has been asking people to send him hair samples of purported mythical beasts, which is how he came upon the two specimens used in the Yeti findings.
Now, about those samples … The Associated Press reports that one is from a single hair “found a decade ago in Bhutan,” while the other was plucked off an alleged “Yeti mummy” 40 years ago in the Indian region of Ladakh. (FYI: When you put “Yeti mummy” into Google, this is one of the first results you get.)
Sykes did not collect these samples, mind you. They were sent to him by locals who vouched for their veracity as Yetis. Not that one necessarily has anything to do with the other, but crowd-sourced “Russian Bigfoot” samples Sykes tested earlier this year came back as matches for three separate species—an American black bear, a raccoon, and a horse. There’s plenty else to dissect here, so I’m just going to let the mail-me-your-Yeti-fur aspect of this go for the moment.
Sykes analyzed the DNA of each sample and checked it against a database of known animal genomes. According to the AP, “He found they shared a genetic fingerprint with a polar bear jawbone found in the Norwegian Arctic that is at least 40,000 years old.” OK, so you can stop the story right here and call bullspit on all the headlines announcing the existence of Yetis. There are no Yetis. At best, people have mistaken some new species or subspecies of bear for Yetis.
And I want to be clear here that Sykes isn’t crying Yeti, either. He told the AP he was merely trying "to inject some science into a rather murky field.” He does, however, think the findings point to the possibility of a bear-bear hybrid or new species directly descended from an ancient polar bear and unrelated to modern Himalayan bears. And perhaps it’s this new creature that’s been mistaken for a Yeti by countless adventurers and locals. (It’s worth noting that Sykes’ research has not yet been published, but he has submitted it for peer review.)
Yeti headlines aside, this in and of itself would be an exciting find. Discovering new species of carnivorous mammals is really rare, as the recent discovery of the olinguito pointed out. But even with a 100 percent match to an ancient polar bear jawbone, there are still far more questions than answers when it comes to the significance of Sykes’ bear hairs.
But wait, you say, where’s the gray area when we’re talking about “100 percent”? Well, context is everything.