Yeti is the name for a large, apelike creature said to live in the Himalayan mountain range of Nepal and Tibet. While similar to the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, of North America, the yeti is a hardier creature. It is able to live at high altitudes and in cold, inhospitable conditions in which most humans could not survive.
The creature allegedly walks upright, like a hunched-over person. It is roughly the size of a man, but much broader and with oversized feet. Pale brown or snow-white hair covers most of its body.
The ﬁrst legends of the yeti appeared in Tibetan mythology long before Western explorers arrived in that country. The word yeti may derive from the words yah and teh, which mean “rock-animal,” or from similar-sounding words that mean “magical creature.” Another name given to the creature was metch-kangmi, or “repugnant snowman.” It is from this moniker that the term Abominable Snowman was derived.
Stories about the yeti all agree on the basic facts. It is large and hairy, with a particularly pungent body odor. The yeti is solitary and shy, and it rarely comes into contact with human beings.The occasional traveler or goatherd might encounter huge footprints in the snow or lose a goat from his or her flock under suspicious circumstances, but for the most part the yeti avoids confrontation.
Part of the mystique of the yeti is that the local people believe them to be more than mere animals. According to the Sherpa, a local people best known for guiding Western explorers through the Himalayas, the yeti are supernatural creatures, standing between mankind and the demon-spirits who live on the mountain peaks.
Buddhist religious figures called lamas claim to have relics that came from yeti, including fingers, toes, and skulls, in their lamaseries, or homes. These relics are used to remind Buddhists of their connection to the world around them.
The first reporting of a yeti by an outsider was in 1832, when British explorer B.H. Hodson reported an attack on his native guides by creatures he calls rakshas, or demons. In 1889, a British soldier, Major L.A. Wadell, reported finding large, bearlike footprints in the snow well above the elevation at which any bear should be living. His guides told him it was a yeh-tih.
Over the next fifty years, such reports become more common. But because of the combination of extreme weather conditions and awkward political situations in Tibet and Nepal, no scientific expeditions were mounted to determine the truth. The stories grew and spread with every new sighting.
With the development of cameras and other equipment that could withstand the cold, and the easing of political restrictions between Tibet and the West, the rumors proved irresistible. The first modern sighting of the yeti was made in 1951.
Explorer Eric Shipton tracked a yeti along the slopes of the Menlung glacier until it disappeared into an ice field. The photographs taken on that trip of huge footprints, the clearest one measuring 12 inches (30 centimeters) long by 6 inches (15 centimeters) wide, are often held up as the best evidence of the existence of the yeti.
A year later, a British newspaper funded the first scientific survey of the yeti, sending trained scientists and cameramen into the mountains with some of the best guides available. They found more tracks, a scalp of coarse hair, and droppings that they claimed came from a yeti.
The team was allowed to take one hair from that scalp out of the country, but testing proved inconclusive. Several other expeditions came back with similar evidence, which also was deemed questionable.
In 1956, a Texas oilman and millionaire named Thomas Slick mounted a large, government-backed expedition to Tibet. He and his team had up-to-date scientific equipment, weapons, and trained bloodhounds. They returned with photos, footprint castings, and two fingers of a mummified hand they claimed was that of a yeti.
The fingers later disappeared, and the Slick expedition was thrown into doubt by Sir Edmund Hillary (of Everest fame) and Marlin Perkins (later known for the television series Wild Kingdom), who did not believe that the yeti existed.
For a short time, the debate raged fiercely in scientific journals. By the 1970s, however, science moved on, and the search for the yeti, like the pursuit of the Loch Ness monster and other unlikely creatures, became the province of fringe scientists and explorers.
In contrast to theories about other such creatures, perhaps because of its potential relationship to humans, theories about the yeti’s origin are still popular topics.
Some researchers claim that the yeti and its kin around the world are wild men, perhaps direct descendents of the first primates to come out of Africa, which evolved to possess intelligence almost equal to that of humans. Others believe that the yeti is a modern but not yet identified ape, a close relative to the gorilla.
One theory traces the yeti back to the primate Gigantopithecus. This giant ape lived during the Pleistocene era, 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, in the region that is now China and Southeast Asia. Gigantopithecus became extinct, but a branch of its family still may survive in the yeti.
A related idea suggests that the yeti is descended from our own ancestor, the Neanderthal. Both of these theories fail to account for the fact that Gigantopithecus was last seen in the fossil record at 500,000 B.C.E. and the last Neanderthal dates to 40,000 B.C.E.
The most recent explanation, formulated in 1999, suggests that the human family tree is older and has more branches than previously thought. It has been theorized that the yeti is an unidentified branch, a distant cousin of modern Homo sapiens that has adapted to the colder climate.
There have been no reputable reports of face-to-face encounters, and the few photos that are believed to exist were taken from too great a distance to provide positive identification. No one has ever captured a live yeti or discovered a skeleton or other remnant that can be conclusively proven to have come from one. So all theories are pure conjecture.