By William L. Straus, Jr., Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland
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
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-September 1955), who concludes that the animal is no other than the red bear of the Himalayas.
According to the author, Tibetans know the "snowman" as mi-teh, meaning "man-bear." There are three varieties of bear in this region: black, brown, and red. The last of these is the mi-teh, which is known to walk on its hind legs like a man. The author reports several accounts of the mi-teh 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-teh, 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, shepherds near Tomomopo saw a mi-teh, 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
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
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, an animal that behaves like a sheep, looks like a goat, the ghural, a stocky goat-like animal, 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. But is this the photograph of a snow leopard or wolf?
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-teh, which has
been translated by some Himalayan expeditionists as "abominable,
filthy, disgusting to a repulsive degree, dirty," actually means
Thus the "abominable
snowman" would seem, on the basis of the best evidence now
WILLIAM L. STRAUS,
© Science 123,
1025-1025 (8 June 1956)
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