A genetic analysis of hair collected by people catching a glimpse of what they believed was a yeti, Bigfoot or Sasquatch has matched the samples to bears and other common animals, dealing a blow to those who believe mythic beasts roam the wild unbeknownst to science.
The researchers from Oxford University and the Museum of Zoology in the Swiss city of Lausanne undertook the analysis, reported on Tuesday, because of complaints from eyewitnesses.
These people said that despite hundreds of sightings and footprint evidence, science has never taken seriously their claims that surviving bands of ancient humans, extinct apes, or other mysterious creatures roam the Pacific Northwest, Himalayas and elsewhere.
Since rejecting a claim without examining the evidence is unscientific, said geneticist Bryan Sykes of Oxford University, he and colleagues decided to investigate. “I don't think cryptozoology has been served particularly well by the scientific community,” Sykes said.
Sykes turned to the Lausanne museum initially to consult the archives of Bernard Heuvelmans, a scientist considered to be the founder of cryptozoology, the controversial search for animals whose existence has not been proven.
In 2012, the researchers decided to push ahead and solicited hair samples “attributed to one of these creatures by the donor,” according to Sykes.
After microscopic and other examination weeded out samples that were plant and glass fibers, the team recovered DNA from 30 hair samples. They sequenced the genomes and compared the sequences to those of known animals.
Eight samples from Russia had DNA sequences of the brown or black bear, horse, cow, or raccoon, they report in Proceedings of the (British) Royal Society B. Bigfoot hairs from California, Washington, and other US states had genome sequences that matched those of the black bear, porcupine, horse, sheep, wolf (though possibly dog or coyote), cow, and other common species.
Two samples, including hair from one yeti shot by a hunter on the Tibetan Plateau 40 years ago had DNA matching some sequences from a fossil of a polar bear that lived during the Pleistocene, the last ice age.
“It was a bombshell,” Lausanne museum researcher Michel Sartori told the Geneva-based Le Temps newspaper. “Furthermore, we compared the two samples with DNA taken from a 130,000-year-old polar bear jaw found in Svalbard in 2004 and the correspondence was perfect.”
The polar bear is not known to have inhabited northern India. The scientists speculate that the hair may be from a previously unknown species of bear or a polar-bear/brown-bear hybrid which "may well contribute to the biological foundation of the yeti legend," they write.
“We are going to carry out more tests to find out" if the hairs come from hybrid bears unknown to science, Sykes said, “but first we have to find one in the wild. The expedition is in the planning stage.”
Interest in creatures unknown to science has remained strong ever since the discovery of mysteriously large footprints in the 1950s in northern California.
While Sykes said they didn't find any proof of Bigfoot-related creatures, he acknowledged their paper doesn't prove they don't exist.
"The fact that none of these samples turned out to be (a Yeti) doesn't mean the next one won't," he said.
Others said proving that Bigfoot is real requires significantly more than a mere hair sample.
“I would want visual or physical proof, like a body part, on top of the DNA evidence,” said Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology at New York University.
He warned Bigfoot enthusiasts not to make assumptions when they find weird things in the forest. “Every mammal in the forest leaves hair and poop behind and that's what we've found,” he said. “Just not the big guy himself.”
Some experts said that if Bigfoot existed, there would be a lot more to find than just a few errant hairs.
“Those who believe in the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster need basic instruction in sex,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University in North Carolina, in an email. “Each Yeti has two parents, four grandparents and so on,” he said. “There should have been herds of (Yetis),” he wrote. “Where were they hiding?”