National Geographic News
Photo of a mountain climber in the Himalayas wearing a Yeti mask.

Trying to bring good humor, an expedition member wears a Yeti mask during a Himalaya climb in Nanga Parbat, Kashmir, Pakistan.

Photograph by Tommy Heinrich, National Geographic

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published October 21, 2013

A British scientist has linked supposed hair samples from the legendary Yeti, or "Abominable Snowman," to a breed of ancient Arctic bears that he says could have survived to the modern day—but other experts say the results need to be published before any conclusions can be drawn.

Bryan Sykes, a respected geneticist at Oxford University in the U.K., this week reported the findings of a yearlong project that aimed to rigorously test hair and tissue samples that were claimed to have belonged to the elusive creature.

"I put out a call for Yeti, Bigfoot, and Sasquatch hairs in 2012, and I received a good response from all over the world," Sykes told NBC News.

One of the most promising samples that Sykes received included hairs attributed to a Yeti mummy in the northern Indian region of Ladakh; the hairs were purportedly collected by a French mountaineer who was shown the corpse 40 years ago. Another sample was a single hair that was found about a decade ago in Bhutan, some 800 miles (1,290 kilometers) away from Ladakh.

According to Sykes, the DNA from these two samples matched the genetic signature of a polar bear jawbone that was found in the Norwegian Arctic in 2004. Scientists say the jawbone could be up to 120,000 years old.

Sykes's findings will be the focus of Bigfoot Files, a documentary series premiering on Britain's Channel 4 this Sunday. (A two-hour special will air in the U.S. on Sunday, November 17, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.)

Still Alive?

Sykes said the fact that the hair samples were found so far apart, and relatively recently, suggests the species that the hairs came from may still be alive.

"I can't imagine we managed to get samples from the only two 'snow bears' in the Himalayas," he told the Associated Press.

Sykes speculated that the creature could be a new bear species, or perhaps a hybrid of polar bears and brown bears.

"The next thing is [to] go there and find one," Sykes told the Associated Press.

Loren Coleman, director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, said Sykes's finding could be the "number one story in cryptozoology"—the study of hidden, or unverified, animals—"for the decade."

Coleman, who also appears in the upcoming documentary, said he thinks Sykes's findings likely explain only one of the Yeti varieties that have been reported.

"That's one of the problems with the word 'Yeti,'" Coleman said. "It's an umbrella term for three different varieties. There's the small kind, there's a man-sized type, and then a larger one that is known as Dzu-Teh. I must assume what he's looking at are samples from the larger-sized one that many of us in the field have speculated was a form of bear."

If, as Sykes's findings suggest, the Dzu-Teh is indeed the same species of early polar bear that once roamed the Arctic, it is unlikely to have a white fur coat, as often shown in popular depictions of the Yeti, since it was one of the first polar bears to branch off from brown bears.

That, Coleman said, actually strengthens Sykes's case that the larger Yeti is an ancient polar bear species.

"It's one of the myths of the Abominable Snowman and Yeti that they're white," Coleman said.

"The native people actually describe them as brown and reddish-brown."


Brian Regal, a science historian at Kean University in New Jersey, called the possibility of an unidentified bear species living in the Himalayas "exciting," but said it will be difficult to definitively connect the hairs to the Yeti of legend.

"This is another disappointment for the cryptozoology community," Regal said. "Just because [Sykes] showed that this particular DNA sample is from a bear doesn't necessarily mean that's what people have been seeing. They may have been seeing bears; they may have been seeing something else."

Biologist Robert Rockwell, who has studied polar bears, said he thinks it's conceivable that a bear species has managed to survive in the Himalayas unnoticed.

"It is possible, as Asiatic black bears, brown bears, and even sun bears—or some odd combination—conceivably could or could have historically been in that general region. Since they are [bears], they too would share a lot of the DNA sequences found in the fossil cited," said Rockwell, who is at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"Could something like that be in that area and not be seen clearly or captured or collected? It is a huge area, much of which is not densely populated, and except for increasingly habituated individuals, most [bears] are pretty shy. And if there are not many of them, it is even more conceivable."

Need for Peer Review

But Rockwell said he will need to see Sykes's results published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal before he is convinced the hair samples indeed came from bears.

"The claim is based on a really small sample, and the DNA is likely degraded to some extent. Until the sequence data have been published, I am going to be rather skeptical," Rockwell said.

"So many critters share so much of their DNA that getting 'matches' can be an artifact of sampling and will certainly depend on precisely what region of DNA is being used."

Molecular biologist Charlotte Lindqvist expressed a similar sentiment. "I'd like to see the data published and scrutinized," said Lindqvist, who is with the State University of New York's University at Buffalo. She was part of the team that extracted DNA from the ancient polar bear jawbone that Sykes used in his genetic comparisons.

"Before that happens, it makes little sense to me to suggest any links between the 120,000-year-old polar bear and a bear (or Yeti) in the Himalayas," Lindqvist said in an email.

Sykes says he intends to publish his findings. "The project is still going on," he told NBC News, "and the idea is to publish these results in a scientific journal to bring it back into the realm of science."

Follow Ker Than on Twitter.

Denniz Jong
Denniz Jong

I actually still believe it ain't a bear species, but a kind of Gigantopithecus. The largest primate ever lived, and I think these animals (Bigfoot, Yeti) are one of the last species alive

Dalin A
Dalin A

Great story...

But that would blow to many redneck stories out completely...

Kills me that there have been no signs of them on any of the ranger cam's at every wildlife park in the states(cameras go off every other minute,see wolves,coyotes,but nothing of the yeti tribe)

The whole Bigfoot-yeti connection got so big after this bad film

Every one that owned a video camera was on the search,and we went from

a few reporting in Canada, to one in every town in the 70-80's

I am so happy that science has stepped in to clear up this issue.

Stephen Rae
Stephen Rae

My friend is a Tibetan monk. His family have seen a Yeti, and he regularly recounts stories of the interaction between Yeti and humans. Indeed it appears that the Yeti is particularly fond of humans... to eat! 

There is a famous story of a monk from Sera Monastery who was kidnapped by two female Yeti and imprisoned in a cave for many months. He eventually escaped, but was often offered a piece of human to eat. On one occasion the head of a woman still wearing her jewellery! 

The Yeti is described as a cross between an orangutan and a human, able to walk upright but having the hair of an orangutan. They were widespread in lowland Tibet, but with human encroachment are only now found in the mountains.

alexis vasquez
alexis vasquez

I believe its very possible there is undiscovered animals. I think most of these animals come out at night , its very scary at night. I hope there is someone who is not afraid of the dark to discover these large night animals.

ken starlin
ken starlin

Robert Rockwell must be related to Ellie May Clampett, based upon his use of the technical term "critters"...

Oz Navarro
Oz Navarro

NAT-GEO! One of the best to inspire. Thank you for being there for me as a child, I must say. I had a lot of alone time growing up, and your work kept me studying and thinking healthy. I love all of you..... you kept a smile on my face even in the hard times. Maybe one day, my work will be as pro as the one's that inspired me as a child - to this day. And hopefully, I too will have inspired someone to live better , fight to keep learning, so smiles can spread like a ripple over our generations. 

John Wolfe
John Wolfe

My great uncle from Scotland claimed to have wrestled one in the Highlands, he did return with a bloody proper foul odor but that wasn't unusual for him.

Sasha Carter
Sasha Carter

So what did this ancient bear look like?

Would it kinda be like a dire bear?

Cause that would be f'ing terrifying, its scary enough to come across a normal bear. I remember accidentally seeing a corpse torn up by a bear online on Snopes as a kid. Forever traumatized. Btw the bear ate the bottom half of the guy including his pants except for the was gross. 

Anyways, I'm still rooting for Bigfoot. Life is more fun with mysteries. 

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Is there any significant difference between a polar bear and a regular bear except for the white and the other brown?  Here again we have someone who claims to have been shown the corpse of a Yeti, but as is usual NO PHOTO. We are not saying the Yeti or Abonimable  Snow Man doesn't exist....merely that this article seems bent on showing that it doesn't, that what we are seeing are bears.  We are inclined to accept that people throughout the world are seeing something other than a bear simply because there have been too many reports made in ancient and modern times. The same applies to UFOs. Of course the proof is in the pudding and one must have some doubt until we have proven the case. All we have here is a few hairs of bears!  Does "publish or perish" apply here?

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

We have to be careful though because Cave bears were well known to go into caves to die. This explains why we have so many perfectly preserves bear skulls, claws and hair samples. how do we know the suppose "yeti hair" isnt just an old cave bear sample?

jasha dutt
jasha dutt

Frivolous as it may read,  and I relate this with all  apologies to scientists and the  scientifically inclined; an old but popular folklore in the Garhwal Himalayas in northern India, has it that village women were at times dragged away by  bear like creatures that came  down from the heights. These creatures would  cohabit  with their human hostage, take care of her but not before immobilising her  by licking her soles. Search parties that managed  at times to reach the creature's lair would find the kidnapped woman reluctant to return to civilization !

Scout Anonymous
Scout Anonymous

The key words are "supposed hair samples." The rest of the research and conclusions rest upon this faulty foundation. It is either a hoax to counteract the findings of the group in the US who presented evidence of genuine Sasquatch or is innocently based on a naive assumption which is highly unlikely to be true. All it means is that they did not actually have Yeti hair but a brown bear.

Ker Than
Ker Than

Hi @El Gabilon, I'm the author of this post. There are many physical differences between polar bears and brown bears (e.g. polar bears are bigger, and have longer necks, etc.). And I agree with you that even if the hairs are proven to from a bear, it doesn't necessarily follow that the Yeti is a bear. Brian Regal in the article makes the point that the creature the hairs came from and the Yeti people have reported seeing could be different things. 

Phil Schaefer
Phil Schaefer

@C. Dufour Considering it was from mummified remains, I think that's a very plausible theory.

george mcnair
george mcnair

This is quite interesting because the same reports have come from Hoopa Indians from northern California. As weird as it sound, the foot licking was also reported.

sean mccready
sean mccready

@Scout Anonymous i highly disagree. They found it way too high up in the mountains for it to be a brown bear, i watched this documentary and found it very interesting, hybrids and cross breeds are made every day with dogs etc...why not bears? as i said before they were too high up for it to be any modern bear as they limit where they stay and travel. 

Leif Thompson
Leif Thompson

@sean mccready @Scout Anonymous

Polar bears and Brown bears can interbreed freely with each other, and produce fertile offspring.  The offspring are called "Pizzlies" and are mostly brown with a polar bear's habits.

Polar bears are classified as a different species than brown bears because they have extreme behavior differences from brown bears.  They eat only meat, they have webbed feet and can swim extreme differences, and they are white.  Aside from all of that, they are not really different critters.  It wouldn't surprise me if a polar bear was a 100 percent dna match to a brown bear.

Here is a good article on pizzlies


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