Researchers conducted a genetic analysis of 30 hair samples said to have come from so-called anomalous primates. And I’m very sorry to report: None of them have cryptozoological origins. They all come from known species, mostly bears, dogs, and everyday farm animals. The study, appearing this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first ever systematic DNA survey of anomalous primates to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
These unidentified primates have many names: yeti or the abominable snowman in the Himalayas, almasty in central Asia, and sasquatch or bigfoot in North America. Based on footprints and eye-witness reports, theories range from surviving Neanderthals and extinct apes to hybrids between humans and other mammals. Scientists have historically stayed away from this field, while cryptozoologists insist they’ve been “rejected by science.” But this conflicts with the basic tenet that science neither rejects nor accepts anything without examining the evidence.
So, a team led by Bryan Sykes from the University of Oxford applied this philosophy to studying anomalous primates. In 2012, they put out a call to museums and individuals for cryptid hair samples. What usually happens is a person hears one howling, and “then they see a clump of hair caught in a bush, and say ‘Aha, that’s come from the Bigfoot,’” Sykes tells National Geographic. They received 57 samples.
After weeding out plant matter and glass fibers, they selected 36 for genetic analysis. Over half came from the US; the rest are from Russian and South Asia. The team methodically cleaned 2-4 centimeter shaft samples, and then amplified the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment -- a snippet commonly used for species identification. Some failed to yield DNA sequences, and the team ended up with 30 recovered sequences, which they compared with GenBank data. They got a 100 percent match for each one.
Most samples attributed to hairy beast-men were identified as known species living in their normal geographical range: 10 were brown or black bears, four came from some canine, and the rest were raccoons, horses, cows, sheep, deer, a goat-like serow, and a porcupine. One Texan sample came back as human (very unlikely Neanderthal). The sample that supposedly came from the Sumatran orang pendek (Indonesian for “short person”) turned out to be Malaysian tapir.
But there’s more! Two Himalayan yeti samples -- one from Ladakh, India, and the other from Bhutan -- came from a mystery bear whose closest genetic affinity is to an ancient polar bear, based on DNA from the jawbone of a Paleolithic Ursus maritimus who lived 40,000 years ago. The golden-brown Ladakh sample was collected by a hunter four decades ago when he thought he shot an abnormally aggressive brown bear. The reddish-brown Bhutan sample came from what was known to be a migyhur (or yeti) nest in a bamboo forest 3,500 meters in the air. The researchers suspect these hairs came from unrecognized bear species, color variants of polar bears, or maybe a polar bear x brown bear hybrid (pizzlies!), though they can’t know for sure without genomic sequence data.
“I’ve had very good cooperation with the Bigfoot community, who are generally pleased that there is now a method of identifying their quarry in a way that would be universally accepted,” Sykes tells Science. “They are returning to the forests with renewed enthusiasm in search of the ‘golden hair’ which proves their beliefs."