by William L. Straus jr.
During recent years, stories have been coming out of India and Tibet about a giant mammal that lives above the snow line. According to some accounts, this creature is more than 7 feet in height, walks erect, has an apelike head and face, and is covered with heavy blond or reddish hair. The name "Abominable Snowman" has been given to the animal; the implication, of course, is that it is some sort of giant primate.
Huge footprints in the snow, at heights of from 10,000 to 21,000 feet above sea level, and attributed to the "snowman," have been reported by a variety of people, including members of various Himalayan expeditions. From the latter source have come actual photographs of the footprints, which could pass for those of a large primate. Indeed, it has even been suggested, perhaps with more levity than seriousness; that the "snowman" may be no other than the giant ape, Gigantopithecus blacki, persisting as a relic of the Pleistocene epoch in the seclusion of the Himalayas. This, of course, is at best no more than sheer speculation. As a matter of fact, Gigantopithecus itself is of decidedly uncertain status, being founded on three molar teeth, probably of Middle or Upper Pleistocene age, recovered from a Chinese drugstore in Hong Kong.
In connection with the matter of identification, it must be emphasized that there is no record of any "snowman" ever having been captured either alive or dead or even photographed. Identification rests solely upon the footprints and verbal evidence. It must be admitted that the footprints do bear some resemblance to those of a primate; on the other hand, they could as well be those of a bear. This alternative is not as strange as it may seem offhand, for the general superficial resemblance of ursine and primate feet has long been recognized by naturalists and comparative anatomists.
Wood Jones [Hallmarks of Mankind (1948)] points out that the animal footprint most commonly mistaken for that of man is that of the bear; in this connection he notes that the footprint of the mysterious "orang pendek," once believed by both natives and Europeans to be that of some small jungle race of men, finally was proved to be the footprint of the Malayan bear. Furthermore, many bears readily stand erect and even indulge in bipedal locomotion on occasion. Consequently, the identification of the "abominable snowman" as a bipedal primate has been vigorously rejected by many zoologists and anthropologists. To most of them, a large bear seems a more acceptable and more plausible explanation.
The question of the nature of the "abominable snowman" has been investigated by the Rev. Swami Pranavananda [Indian Geographical J. 30, 99 (July-Sept. 1955)], who concludes that the animal is no other than the red bear of the Himalayas. According to the author, the "snowman" is known to Tibetans as mi-te, meaning "man-bear." There are three varieties of bear in this region: black, brown, and red. The last of these is the mi-te, which is known to walk on its hind legs like a man. The author reports several accounts of the mi-te gathered from Tibetan eyewitnesses.
A shepherd from eastern Tibet, whose sheep had been attacked by the animal at a height of 16,000 feet along the Kyang Chu, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, stated that the mi-te, after first running on all fours, rose on its hind legs and departed following ineffectual gunfire from the shepherds; it was described as of about the height of a man and light red or reddish brown in color. A number of pilgrim nomads from northern Tibet identified the mi-te as the red bear and reported having encountered it at a height of 17,000 feet in the source region of the Kubi, a headstream of the Brahmaputra.
According to another informant, a mi-te was seen by shepherds near Tomomopo, on the Tag Tsangpo, on the south-eastern side of Manasarovar, at a height of 15,000 feet. At times it moved on all four legs; at others, on its hind legs alone. When erect, its height was a little greater than that of a tall man. The body was covered by a thick coat of reddish-brown hair. The footprints, left on hard ground scantily covered by sand, measured 11 inches in length and 5 inches in breadth. Although the imprints of the hind feet had five toes, those of the front feet exhibited only four toes. The toes in general were of about equal length, approximately 1½ inches; the little toes, however, were slightly shorter.
Ten days later, when the shepherds had gone up the valley to graze their sheep, they encountered footprints of the mi-te in the snow. These prints were considerably larger than those left in the sand, measuring 18 inches in length with a corresponding increase in breadth; furthermore, no traces of the toes remained. This was obviously due to melting of the snow at the edges of the imprint after long exposure to the sun, with consequent enlargement of the entire impression.
Pranavananda notes that footprints in the snow are subject to change in dimensions, deformation and obliteration of details (such as impressions of toes), not only through the action of the sun, but also as a result of blizzards or strong winds. When crossing Khandosanglam Pass in 1941, he came across giant footprints. Khandosanglam is a pass east of Kailas, a holy peak; according to Tibetan tradition it can be negotiated only by those pious pilgrims who have completed 12 circumambulations of Kailas by the regular parakrama route. Hence perhaps one or two pilgrims negotiate this pass in a year. It was ascertained that a lama had crossed the pass some 25 days earlier. His were the footprints encountered by the author. As a result of the warm July sun, the deep snow along their edges had melted away, producing a trail of greatly enlarged prints that were 21 inches long and correspondingly increased in width.
It is not difficult to see, as the author points out, how a superstitious pilgrim might have readily described such footprints as those of a great 1000-year-old Himalayan Yogi or as those of Hanuman or some other legendary character; indeed, they might well have been described by some Himalayan expedition as the footprints of an "abominable snowman" or even by a credulous anthropologist as those of a prehistoric man. Nor is there any reason why the snow footprints of the red Himalayan bear might not suffer similar misinterpretation.
According to Pranavananda, the red bear is not the only mammal that frequently makes excursions far onto the snow fields and glaciers, apparently chiefly in search of food. The wild yak, Tibetan wild horse, lynx, snow leopard, wolf, ibex, bharal, ghural, Tibetan antelope, musk-deer, and other animals do likewise, for vegetation can occur up to an altitude of 20,000 feet or more. Their footprints also can be so altered by sun, blizzard, and wind as to be capable of being misinterpreted. The author believes that the footprints reported by Eric Shipton as attaining the size of those of a young elephant were those of a snow leopard, or wolf magnified by melting of the snow at their edges.
Some people, while not accepting the "snowman" footprints as those of a giant bipedal primate, have nevertheless regarded them as primate in origin and have attributed them to the langur or black-faced Himalayan monkey. Pranavananda, however, rejects this interpretation, since the langur is seldom or never seen above the tree line and, hence, does not wander on the snow. Moreover, he says, langurs in the upper Himalayas move down to lower, warmer regions well in advance of the snowfall.
Another probable factor in the creation of the "abominable snowman" legend is a linguistic one. The author notes that different persons have translated differently and sometimes grossly mistranslated the original local Tibetan words designating the animal that has been identified as the "abominable snowman." In this connection, it is to be noted that most of the current "snowman" stories come from India rather than from Tibet itself. It appears likely that mistranslation of local Tibetan words by foreigners has been responsible for some misconception.
The fact that the matter has not been thoroughly investigated on the Tibetan side of the Himalayas where the local population has a correct knowledge of the identity of the animal has helped perpetuate the wrong conception of the animal, according to Pranavananda's view. Mi-te, which has been translated by some Himalayan expeditionists as "abominable, filthy, disgusting to a repulsive degree, dirty," actually means "man-bear." Kangmi, or "snowman," is merely an alternate word for the same animal. Hence the term miteh-kangmi, from whence "abominable snowman," represents an incorrect combination, owing to mistranslation, of two terms that are essentially synonymous.
Thus the "abominable snowman" would seem, on the basis of the best evidence now available, to be no other than the Himalayan red bear. The matter, of course, cannot be conclusively settled until a specimen of undoubted "snowman" is secured for study.
From: Science 123, 1024-1025 (8 June 1956)
Robert K. Enders
It is probable that the footprints that have been reported from the snows of the Himalayas as being those of the "Abominable Snowman" may have been made by several orders of mammals [W. L. Straus, Jr., Science 123, 1024 (1956)]. In April 1953, tracks that looked like the photographs published in several popular magazines as being those of the "Abominable Snowman" were seen by the writer along the snow-covered trail to Baltistan, near Sonamarg, Kashmir. Some of the tracks were old, and some were fresh. The fresh tracks were large 4 to 6 inches wide and 10 to 14 inches long and appeared to be made by a biped. In some of the fresher tracks the imprint of the toes became more and more pronounced as one followed the track, and then the toes disappeared and the tracks became larger. The bottom of the new and larger tracks showed a pattern like a rough weave but within a few yards became smooth and free from any distinguishing marks.
The tracks were made by men wearing snow sandals to protect their feet, not from the snow but from ice crystals that form from thawing and freezing. These sandals were woven of a plant that seemed to be much like the cattail, Typha. The plant grows in marshy areas and is cut in the fall and dried, but before it is too dry it is woven into a crude sandal. These snow sandals are worn by many inhabitants, either because they are too poor to buy leather or because they belong to a Buddhist sect that will not use leather. The sandals first wear under the toes, so the imprint of the toes is clear in the snow. When the wear goes too far, the foot-covering is discarded and the track changes suddenly. Discarded sandals were examined but were not saved, for the "Abominable Snowman" was considered to be the product of the imagination of men who saw "animal" tracks that had been enlarged by melting of the snow. Although the use of such snow sandals may be a local custom, it is quite possible that some of the tracks reported by explorers were made by men wearing the type of sandal described here.
Lawrence W. Swan
Recent accounts [Science 123, lO24 (1956); 126, 858 (1957)] have given various interpretations of the Abominable Snowman or Yeti of the Himalayas. This note on the same subject is directed toward pointing out some aspects of the legend which have been overlooked. The interpretation that tracks in the snow ascribed to the Yeti may be made by man is valid in some instances, but it is clear that footprints cannot logically be attributed to even the most solitary hermit when they are made in remote glaciated terrain at great altitudes where local inhabitants simply would not travel.
The explanation that the Yeti tracks are made by red bears raises a number of difficulties. The footprints, such as those photographed by Eric Shipton in 1951 1, do not resemble bear tracks. Frequently, genuine red bear tracks have been attributed to the Yeti, but when photographs of these tracks have been examined, the bear origin has been clearly established 2. Perhaps the greatest difficulty with the bear theory, and the point most often disregarded in statements concerning Yeti tracks, is the fact that the high-altitude red bear of the Himalayas (Ursus arctos isabellinus) is found only in the western Himalayas, whereas the origin of the Yeti legend and the source of all "genuine" Yeti tracks is in the eastern Himalayas. There is a fairly striking faunal difference between these two regions, and it is not legitimate, nor is it good zoogeography, to attempt to discredit the legend on evidence obtained from the western Himalayas or the plateau of Tibet. The Abominable Snowman, presumably, has no business in these parts.
Prior to the advent of the eastern Himalayan Sherpas into all sections of the Himalayas as members of expeditions, the mountain peoples from Kashmir to Kumaon had apparently never heard of the Yeti, although they have many other legends. In the eastern Himalayas, from the Everest area through Sikkim, residents of the high valleys continually describe the Yeti (in Sherpa, ye means high rocky places; ti or te or the means a sort of being, perhaps a dwarf but not necessarily a bear) as a bipedal creature with reddish hair, varying in height from four to six feet. Their description fits, in many ways, a bipedal ape, although these people should have no certain knowledge of apes. It is improbable that the Sherpas, who are fine observers and who have a good acquaintance with bears from their frequent travels in Tibet, would repeatedly confuse a bear standing on his hind legs with the Yeti which they describe. Furthermore, in the high valleys of the eastern Himalayas, there are no reports of bears. The forest bear Selenarctos thibetanus has not been reported above tree line, much less at 19,000 or 20,000 feet. It is conceivable and possible that the bear of the eastern Tibetan plateau, the so-called blue bear, Ursus arctos pruinosus, may occasionally cross over the main crest of the eastern Himalayas, but, if so, this migration has not been reported, and the observant Sherpas deny it. Essentially there is a problem of interpretation involving footprints, which, although they do not resemble bear tracks (and are bipedal over considerable distances, unlike single or overlapping bear tracks), are alleged to be caused by bears in localities where bears are not known to exist.
That the tracks, or at least the sources of the legend, may stem from Himalayan langurs does not seen likely or pertinent. These forest monkeys are well known to the mountain peoples, and the Yeti footprints can scarcely be confused with langur tracks, That the unique footprints may be the result of the high-altitude effects of evaporation and sublimation is not borne out by fresh Yeti tracks, where some detail of the foot is clear. High-altitude footprints do enlarge and may alter in shape, but this, obvious alteration, which may surprise the casual traveler from the lowlands, is promptly recognized by an individual with experience in snow at high altitudes. It is not correct to assume that only the naive have seen the tracks, and it is equally erroneous to assume that the Yeti is only the imagined maker of all sorts of ablated footprints.
There has been a curious silence in the scientific literature concerning the two unusual scalps found in separate monasteries in the Khumbu region of eastern Nepal. A mammologist of the Zoological Survey of India, Biswamoy Biswas, has examined the scalps, and it has been demonstrated that they are not artifacts 3. Photographs of the scalps are quite remarkable in that they indicate a somewhat conical occipital extension, as if the skull possessed prominent temporal and nuchal crests. There is in the scalps the distinct suggestion of a large anthropoid ape. Coincidentally, the footprints photographed by Shipton closely resemble a cast of a foot of the mountain gorilla made by Carl Akeley in East Africa 4.
This cast, which was made on a dead specimen, exhibits a prominent hallux somewhat proximal to the remaining toes and perhaps more adducted than it would be in life. The line of toes arches in a slight semicircle, with the fifth digit close to and somewhat beneath the fourth digit, so that it could be inconspicuous in a footprint. The sole and heel of the foot are broad, with the lateral and medial borders approximately parallel. The general outline, the relationship of the hallux, the position and angle of the toes, and the inconspicuous fifth digit strongly suggest the Yeti footprint. Indeed, there are no other footprints which can approach the likeness of the Yeti track. Although it is true that foot impressions in the snow are open to wide subjective interpretation, it would seem to be a conservative assumption that the Yeti track, as it appears in good photographs, resembles Akeley's gorilla cast much more than it does any normal footprint of a bear.
In addition, there are reports of reversed "knuckle" prints such as might be made by an ape and, in fact, there are all sorts of tenuous indications from various Yeti tracks which can be interpreted to point toward the ape origin of the footprints. Among the apes, the mountain gorilla sometimes inhabits relatively high altitudes (its presence on snow fields has been recorded) in an alpine ecological zone not unlike that found in the Himalayas. The zoogeographical status of the eastern Himalayas as an area where relictual genera are frequent suggests that the existence of a relictual high-altitude ape with relatives in the tropics of Africa and Southern Asia is not an illogical supposition. Similar distributions are found among other mammal groups which at one time were widespread in Asia.
Whereas it is perhaps presumptuous to assume, at this time, that the Yeti is in reality some large anthropoid ape, it seems that this possibility has not been eliminated or sufficiently considered in the current arguments of the Yeti critics.
1. E. Shipton, The Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition, 1951 (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1952)
by William L. Straus, jr.
I certainly have never denied the possibility of the existence of an "abominable snowman," whether it be a giant ape or some other unknown creature. I am only adhering to a basic tenet of scientific procedure when I ask for something in the way of positive proof of its reality. Unfortunately, those who claim to have seen the "snowman" seem never to have a rifle at hand, nor even a camera. Inference and argument are entertaining and admittedly suggestive; but the real proof of the pudding is in the eating thereof. Collateral evidence, such as footprints, is subject to diverse interpretations. In this connection, I cannot help but recall the "orang pendek" and the "Loch Ness monster." If someone supplies me with the cadaver of an undoubted "snowman," I will be only too glad to dissect it and report, to the best of my ability, on the creature's zoological affinities. Until such proof of its existence, or other proof which is just as convincing, is at hand, I reserve the right to be skeptical. Of particular pertinence in this instance is the observation of W. K. Brooks that "suspended judgment is the greatest triumph of intellectual discipline."
Published in Science 127, 882-884 April 1958
Portions of this website are reprinted and sometimes edited to fit the standards of this website