Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Abominable Snowman: Yetis from The Long Walk to Bear mtDNA

The recent paper on genetic analysis of hair samples from possible unknown species, brought back memories of the hunt for the  ‘abominable snowman’ or ‘yeti’ in the 1950s. For I was born within sight of ‘Cloud House’ in Sandiacre, Derbyshire (but on the Nottinghamshire side of the border across the River Erewash) which became the home sometime in the 1950s of Slavomir Rawicz, author of The Long Walk. Rawicz said he had seen such creatures while crossing the Himalayas in his tale of escaping from a Soviet camp and walking to freedom in India. To schoolboys in Stapleford, and probably to a greater extent to those in Sandiacre, whom we never met since they went to different county schools, it could only be a matter of time before somebody discovered what the beast was. With a celebrity author on the doorstep it could not be anything else.

Over the years, we have been disappointed. Lead after lead brought false hope and no convincing evidence. We could not stay in our 1950s state of superior knowledge for long (It shouldn’t be called the abominable snowman, the proper name is yeti, we would proclaim in the playground).

The yeti is where one set of myths and legends meets another set of myths and legends. The first set is about The Long Walk itself as I discovered a short while ago when I remembered Slavomir Rawicz and wondered what had happened to him (he died in 2004). I read the book at the age of 13 when the Companion Book Club edition arrived in the post. I was completely unaware his book had come under attack for being a fabrication (even allowing for journalistic licence on the part of the ghost writer, Ronald Downing of the Daily Mail, the newspaper which had funded a 1954 expedition to find the yeti). A number of reviewers of the book were highly sceptical at the time of publication and the intensity of investigation and speculation increased markedly over the past ten years or so. I have read numerous websites and Linda Willis’s book, Looking for Mr Smith, published in 2010, which attempted to find all the available evidence. Emerging records from Poland and Russia appeared to indicate that Rawicz could not have walked all the way from Siberia to India. Then other Polish émigrés in Britain claimed that they had made the walk and that Rawicz had not. But the records, if correct, appeared to rule these claims out as well.

Having read the available information, my view is that the story is an amalgam of the tribulations of Polish prisoners who escaped or who were released after Stalin’s amnesty in 1941 and then made their way from the USSR to join General Anders’s army which gathered at Pahlevi in Persia before going on to Palestine and to fight as Polish II Corps alongside the British Eighth Army in Italy. Surviving fragments of evidence suggest that some may indeed have walked from Siberia to India. Conversations between Anders’s troops on what happened to groups and individuals after they came together at Pahlevi could have provided the basis for such an amalgamation into one story. I also have the feeling that while Rawicz was named as the author, he may have been writing on behalf of a group of individuals, some of whom could not be named because of possible danger to family and friends left behind the Iron Curtain, and writing to ensure that the story of the horrors the Poles faced in Stalin’s USSR and their escape to fight for freedom would not be forgotten. Rawicz himself though in numerous interviews and correspondence defended his book to the last. Whether the real truth will ever be discovered I do not know. However, for the present story, the connection with the yeti is of interest. This is where the first set of myths and legends meets the second.

From some reports I have read, in January 1954 the Daily Mail published an article describing Rawicz’s encounter with yetis and that Downing then went to see him at home near Nottingham in order follow the story up; out of that meeting came The Long Walk. However, I have also seen that the January 1954 article was written by Downing (The Snowman: The Strangest Story Yet, Daily Mail, 7 January). How Rawicz’s yeti story came to be in the newspapers at all I do not know, and none of those who have avidly researched the veracity of The Long Walk seem to have looked into what I see as an important element in the story of how the book came to be written (I have not seen the early newspaper articles but would like to hear from someone who has). This is what Linda Willis wrote about the initial contact between Rawicz and Downing:

It was during 1954, with the increasing interest in Mount Everest, that word trickled down through contacts, either in the field of journalism or through returned servicemen, that there was someone living in the English Midlands who had been through an incredible adventure, including sightings of abominable snowmen.

If it was Downing's story that appeared on 7 January 1954, then it would have been during 1953, not 1954, that 'word trickled down'. That, however, gets us no nearer to determining what Rawicz’s motives were in seeking or accepting publicity for his claimed sighting of yetis.

In view of the doubts about Rawicz’s book, did he really see some animals that he could not identify himself at some stage in his travels? If he had not then he was obviously only too willing to perpetuate the mischief since a young friend of the family in one of the online discussions states that Rawicz gave him a sketch of the creatures. On the back was Rawicz’s signature and the inscription ‘Observed in the spring of 1942’.

So I turn from the continuing debate, with its mixture of real historical researchers and conspiracy theorists, on the Long Walk and Rawicz to consider real evidence in ‘cryptozoology’, that mixture of epi-zoology, psychology, anthropology and its own conspiracy theories I usually ignore.

The new properly-published genetic evidence is from mitochondrial DNA extracted from hair samples. Short sequences in a highly conserved gene from two samples of ‘yeti’ hair, one from Ladakh (golden-brown in colour) and one from Bhutan (reddish-brown), showed a 100% match to DNA recovered from a Pleistocene fossil of Ursus maritimus, the Polar Bear, but not with examples of modern polar bears. The authors consider three possibilities to explain the match: ‘a previously unrecognized bear species, colour variants of U. maritimus, or U. arctos [Brown Bear]/U. maritimus hybrids’. Hybridization is known between modern Polar and Brown bears in the wild and in captivity. The authors do not appear to have considered any involvement of the Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus) in the mix which I find a little odd since they note that the hunter who shot the specimen in Ladakh noted that its kind ‘behave more aggressively towards humans than known indigenous bear species’ a characteristic of U. thibetanus (as well as of U. maritimus) compared with U. arctos.

The preliminary evidence suggests that a bear, with the strong possibility of an ancient polar bear as a maternal ancestor, accounts at least in part, and perhaps entirely, for the ‘yeti’.

This photograph of an American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) standing upright shows how easily a bear at a distance could be mistaken for a large humanoid primate, particularly if its head were pointed downwards while feeding on berries, for example. From George Jennison’s Natural History: Animals. London: Black. 1929

The thought also struck me last year when reading the brilliant biography of the physiologist, Griffith Pugh, Everest. The First Ascent, by his daughter Harriet Tuckey, that some sightings of humanoid animals by travellers in the Himalayas may have been not just humanoid but human. Tuckey wrote that in January 1961, a strange man walked into base camp at Mingbo (15000 ft, 4600 m). He was small, slight, barefoot and wearing only a turban, short jacket, cotton trousers and a shirt. He spent nights sheltered under a rock at temperatures below -10°C. He also had the curious habit of eating glass; microscope slides and pipettes preferred. It turned out that Man Badhur was a carpenter, and had come to the Mingbo Valley on a pilgrimage, the result of a religious revelation. Pugh who was fascinated by this pilgrim’s appearance made many physiological observations (published in 1963) to determine how Man Badhur survived the cold and, moreover, avoided frostbite.

However, my point is that perhaps Man Badhur was not a sole example of human animals walking and living off the land in the Himalayas. Such holy men could well appear at a distance to be some strange humanoid creature depending on what they were wearing.

In this post I have touched on myths and legends, from The Long Walk to the yeti. But I am still intrigued by Slavomir Rawicz’s description of an encounter with the latter. Was it him? Was it somebody else who had then told the story in Anders’s Army? Or was he seeking publicity for himself or the cause of exposing the foulness of Stalin’s USSR and just cashing in on the zeitgeist of all things Everest and the Himalayas in Britain after its first ascent on the eve of the Coronation in 1953? I just do not know.

Away from myths and legends, the scientific interest now lies in sorting out just what the bears of the Himalayas are and where they came from.

Genetic Analysis
Sykes, B C, Mullis, R A, Hagenmuller, C, Melton T W, Sartori M. 2014. Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281, 20140161
The Long Walk
Rawicz S. 1956. The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom. London: Constable. (This is the reference to the 1st edition)
Willis L. 2010. Looking for Mr Smith. New York: Skyhorse
Griffith Pugh
Tuckey H, 2013. Everest. The First Ascent. The Untold Story of Griffith Pugh, The Man Who Made It Possible. London: Random House
Pugh L G C E. 1963. Tolerance to extreme cold in a Nepalese pilgrim. Journal of Applied Physiology 18, 1234-1238