In 1951, a British explorer named Eric Shipton looking for an alternative route up Mt. Everest found a footprint that appeared to be hominoid. He took a picture, and the mystery of the Yeti—a Sherpa word for “wild man”—cast a spell over the world. Daniel Taylor, author of Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, has been searching for signs of this “Abominable Snowman” in the high Himalayas since he was a child.
Talking from his home in West Virginia, Taylor explains what he thinks made that human-like footprint, how his search eventually led to the creation of a national park, and why, in an age where we have become disconnected from nature, we have a deep need to believe in mysteries.
The key evidence for the existence of the Yeti was the photo of a footprint taken by British explorer Eric Shipton in 1951. Talk us through that event—and why Shipton’s image has been regarded as the Rosetta Stone in Yeti lore.
The photograph was taken on the Menlung Glacier, west of Mount Everest, on the Nepal-Tibet border. Shipton and Michael Ward were searching for an alternative Everest route when they came across the prints. Shipton was one of the most highly respected Everest explorers, so if he is bringing back a print, it is a real print. Nobody ever questioned that. But what is it?
What was captivating about the prints was that they’re really sharp. The snow was hard so the photo looks like a sort of plaster of Paris cast. The second feature was that the prints looked like a human footprint, but with a thumb. So, you get this primate-like feeling but hominoid at the same time. Its enormous size—13 inches—also suggests a magnificent hominoid, a King Kong type of image! And the media grabbed it.
Numerous expeditions were sent out in search of the Yeti. Give us a brief timeline.
The most important one was the Daily Mail one in 1954. That’s when Yeti fever took off, though the name for the Yeti was given as the Abominable Snowman. Then American oilman Tom Slick mounted several expeditions. One of them had 500 porters and spent 6 months in the field. They even took along bloodhounds to track the scent.
The World Book Encyclopedia then got captivated by the Yeti and approached Edmund Hillary. He had been somewhat of a believer in the 1950s but he said, “We shouldn’t go just Yeti searching, we should study how people live at high altitude.” So they built a house at 19,000 feet and did a bunch of experiments on how humans acclimatize. They’re the ones who first made the distinction between the Sherpa belief in the Yeti and the Yeti as a mysterious hominoid that lives in the mountains.
Describe how you first became fascinated by the Yeti.
My grandmother came from Cincinnati; my grandfather was a cowboy in Kansas. They met in medical school in Kansas City in hard times and decided to go to India as medical missionaries. In 1914 they ended up in an area near India’s western border with Nepal: dense, rich jungle, made famous by Jim Corbett, in books like Man-Eaters of Kumaon.
I come into the picture in 1946, when my own parents went to India to take over running a hospital. It was a fabulous childhood. My grandparents had bought a property at the top of a mountain near the old British hill station of Mussoorie. It was a lovely old compound with jungle all around.
One Saturday, during the monsoon, I saw the famous picture of the Yeti’s footprint in a magazine. I knew most of the jungle animals so when the curator at the British Museum said he thought these were prints of the langur monkey, I said, “This is outrageous! I know the langur monkey, bouncing on the tin roof all the time. Some other animal must have made this mysterious, human-like footprint.”
I must have gone to my father and grandfather and they said, “Danny, that’s the Yeti!” I said, “What is the Yeti?” They said, “The Yeti is a wild man that lives out in the mountains, and that’s his footprint.” That’s when the spark was lit.
Your own search eventually became focused on a wild area of Nepal known as the Barun Valley. Put us on the ground—and explain your hypothesis about what the Yeti actually is.
Due to its microclimate, the Barun Valley brings in more moisture than any other valley in the Himalayan system. That means the Barun is really dense jungle with a lot of rain. That is why people didn’t settle it. If you’re looking for the last read-out of the wild, it is this valley. It is so dense that very few people have actually entered it, even the locals who live on its edge.
I was advised to go there by the King of Nepal, who said, “If you want to go to the wildest place, where the Yeti might be, it is the Barun.” And when the King says that, you go, because he really knows his country.
Once I got in that valley I found footprints. I’d seen footprints before but these were fresh and I had no doubt I had found the Yeti.
The question was, what made them?
A local hunter I worked with said he thought what I’d found was a tree bear. I’d never heard of a tree bear in this region. Suddenly we had an explanation for where the thumb came from. A bear that lives in a tree forces an inner digit down so it can make an opposable grip. Normal bears cannot make an opposable grip. But if you’re spending a lot of time in the tree, you train that one thumb to grab a branch or break bamboo. So I spent two years trying to figure out whether it was a species, sub-species, or a juvenile bear.
DNA analysis became a powerful new tool in the search for the Yeti. Tell us about the tests done by Bryan Sykes, at Oxford University, in England, and what new light they shed on the mystery.
They created a lot of confusion! A professor from Oxford makes a global call for all Yeti artifacts—hair, fingernails, bones, fragments—and he gets many, many artifacts, mostly bits of bear or sheep. He then does DNA analysis and finds that two appear to be bear-like, but can’t be explained by any known animal. The closest DNA connection is the polar bear but with mysterious DNA sequences.
After he publishes his research, the Yeti myth gets reactivated worldwide. A couple of doctoral students then decide to check his DNA sequencing. They show that he made a mistake and that rather than proposing a new animal it is the incomplete sequence of a known animal. Once again, we come back to the bear.
You write towards the end of the book, “At the end of the search for a wild man in the snows, a new wild grows.” Tell us about the Makalu-Barun National Park—and your work with the local community to create a “Yeti Trail.”
In my search for the Yeti, I had stumbled into, arguably, the greatest wilderness on the planet. But it was not a protected area. Villagers were moving in and making the Barun into fields. On the Tibetan side, the Chinese were making a road into the valley immediately north of the Barun to clear-cut the timber! This is one of the world’s three or four most majestic places on the planet, so I said, I’ve got to do something to protect it!
I’m not the World Wildlife Fund. So I decided to take my family heritage of community-based solutions in healthcare and apply it to nature protection, working with the local community to manage the whole landscape rather than just creating pockets. When I initiated this in the mid 1980s the idea had been kicked around but nobody had ever done it. So it was extremely exciting to take the idea of participatory, zone-based conservation and do it in the highest place on Earth. Now, tourists are walking on the Yeti Trail through a pristine, wild park.
You have spent 60 years searching for the Yeti, Daniel. What are your final thoughts? And how did this odyssey change your life?
In this series of discoveries, I came to what I and many other biologists now believe is a completely new understanding of biology, which I call bio-resilience. As we look to save life itself we are concentrating on the diversity of DNA. But there are certain life forms like the crow, cockroaches, or zebra mussels which are more resilient than others and can deal with temperature and moisture changes due to climate change. The lesson of the Yeti is that we have to treasure and build up the resilience in biology if we are going to save life itself.
It changed my life because I understood life in a different way. In a world that’s increasingly urban, it is important that we understand we are part of life, connected to life. There are Yeti legends all over the world. There’s a Russian legend about the Jungle Man, and there’s a Chinese legend. This leads us into the question, what is this human hunger for these humanoid apparitions? I’m convinced it evolved out of the Victorian age when people were circling the world looking for the missing link.
The deep mystery at our core is that we want to be connected to the great beyond. And we need symbols to help us understand the connection. That’s why we believe in God or angels or the Loch Ness Monster. Throughout human history, and across human cultures, we have developed messengers from the great beyond. Ultimately, that’s what the Yeti is.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.