No Reason to Believe That Sykes’s Yeti-Bear Cryptid Exists
Ronald H. Pine and Eliécer E. Gutiérrez
In the November/December 2014 Skeptical Inquirer, Sharon Hill (in her article “Bigfoot DNA Data Disappoints and Reveals Surprise”) reported on the results of a study by Bryan Sykes, of the firm Oxford Ancestors Ltd., and four others, which was published in 2014 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Sykes et al. 2014). The study consisted of DNA analysis of thirty hair samples that the authors had been told were thought to be from “anomalous primates,” that is, from Bigfoot, Yeti, and the like. The authors concluded that all but two of these samples came from known domestic and wild animals and from one human.'
The two exceptions were represented to the authors as being from the Himalayas and from Yetis. Sykes and company claimed that these samples were genetically identical, at least in the very short mitochondrial DNA sequence they analyzed, with the sequence from a 40,000-year-old Polar Bear. This convinced them that the Himalayan samples must have come from a type of bear unknown to science, although they admitted that the genetic makeup of Himalayan bears of known species was undocumented. One of these samples was said to have come from an animal shot by a hunter very familiar with the Brown Bear. This hunter had supposedly claimed that the behavior of this animal was very different from that of ordinary Brown Bears. If this hunter was so familiar with Brown Bears, though, it seems odd that he would not realize that the animal he’d shot was a bear of some sort and not a Yeti. Sykes et al. do not explain this hunter’s confusion in this regard. They suggested that this supposed unknown type of bear might have been, at least in part, responsible for the Yeti legends, “especially if, as reported by the hunter […], they behave more aggressively towards humans than known indigenous bear species.” In various statements to the media, Sykes emphasized that he intended to mount an expedition to the Himalayas in search of the newly minted cryptid and to write a book about his investigations in cryptozoology.
When we became aware of Sykes et al.’s conclusions, we were immediately skeptical because—for all they or anyone else knew—the ordinary Brown Bears of the Himalayas might, on occasion, or regularly, have the same very short DNA sequence as at least some Polar Bears, past and/or present. The two are, after all, each other’s closest relatives. We also thought it strange that Sykes et al. had not acquired samples of museum specimens of Himalayan Brown Bears and sequenced their DNA—a task that could be easily accomplished—to see if any of them might match those that they attributed to an “anomalous” bear. We also wondered why going to the trouble of mounting an expedition to the Himalayas was contemplated when such museum specimens are readily available for analysis. In addition, the scope of their analysis seemed insufficient.
Then Ceiridwen Edwards and Ross Barnett (2014) published a paper in which they stated that the supposed cryptid samples were old samples that might have undergone degradation, thus causing them to be misidentified. They also pointed out that these samples matched a specimen of a present-day Polar Bear, not a fossilized one, as Sykes et al. had claimed. Then Sykes and two of his colleagues (Melton et al. 2014) vouched for the non-degradation of their samples and reaffirmed the supposed need to get a sample or samples from the Himalayas, seemingly trusting their two old, supposedly cryptid samples but still not trusting museum-derived samples, some of which might be younger. It may be that Sykes’s partiality for mounting an expedition is related to perceived newsworthiness and associated book and TV series opportunities.
The analyses that we then conducted and published showed that the relevant DNA sequence of Brown Bears is sufficiently variable that it overlaps with that of Polar Bears and so they cannot be told apart on that basis (Gutiérrez and Pine 2015). Thus there is no reason to believe that Sykes et al.’s two samples came from anything but ordinary Brown Bears.
The press for the most part misinterpreted our research, often stating that we had shown that Yetis were just bears, among other errors. Sykes has been quoted as saying that we had just used “statistics” in our analysis, as if statistics were not an acceptable pathway to scientific conclusions, and, further, that he has disdain for genetics research that heavily involves mathematics (the modern field of bioinformatics). He has also suggested that we, as “desk-bound molecular taxonomists” should be “getting off [our] butt” and doing fieldwork. Those familiar with our careers, of course, know of our extensive field experience, which has even taken one of us (Pine) to the Himalayas, where Sykes’s Yeti-bear cryptid is supposed to live.
The second author of the Sykes et al. paper was Rhettman A. Mullis Jr., president and chairman of the board of the Bigfootology organization. This organization’s “creed” affirms the existence of Bigfoot. It also, less formally, affirms the existence of Yetis, which it says are related animals. Its website lists Sykes as the organization’s official United Kingdom Representative and Team Geneticist, and the “top geneticist in the world.” Mullis states he was with Sykes when “[…] an experience […] caused [Sykes] to lose his objectivity for a while and [he] went from skeptic to believer [in Bigfoot].” Mullis says that he promised not to discuss the nature of this experience, so that Sykes could reveal it in his then forthcoming book (The Nature of the Beast: The First Scientific Evidence on the Survival of Apemen into Modern Times). Sykes also claims to have a mysterious hair sample from Bhutan, which he cannot identify at all, although it seems to us that it should be easily identifiable through DNA analysis at least to biological family. But perhaps he has now managed to identify it in time for this to have enlivened his book. According to Mullis, another TV series is also in the works, featuring DNA analyses of presumptive Bigfoot tissues. As team geneticist, Sykes will presumably be involved in this series. All things considered, Sykes, named “Cryptozoologist of the Year 2013” according to the blog CryptoZooNews, seems to be gaining more and more prominence and respect among cryptozoologists. However, certain of his pronouncements seem highly dubious to his fellow scientists; he has reached some embarrassingly incorrect conclusions, and a number of his statements as to his credentials are thought to be misleading. As a result of this, he has lately come under criticism in the press, various blogs, and social networks. His hypothesis that Zana, a woman who had entered cryptozoological lore as a potential “ape-person” of some sort, was a survivor of a hitherto unknown early hominid migration out of Africa is an example of a dubious hypothesis; his genetic sequencing of the Mesolithic “Cheddar Man” has been questioned; and his now-refuted identification of a Floridian as a descendant of Genghis Khan is an example of a demonstrably false conclusion, while his representing of himself as a current professor at Oxford and a member of a (nonexistent) research institute is regarded as misleading.
The latest development is that, as of this writing, Sykes’s book has just now been published, although it is not yet available, either in print or electronically, outside of the United Kingdom. In the publisher’s current online teaser (www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1444791257/ref=rdr_ext_tmb) about this work, one can see that one of the chapters is titled “The Snow Bear,” presumably Sykes’s name for the Himalayan cryptid that he and his coauthors created. In an excerpt, including the entire first chapter, we learn of the experience that, according to Mullis, turned Sykes into a “believer” of sorts in Bigfoot. The late Donald Wallace, according to Sykes, engaged in work on a family of Bigfoot in the Cascade Mountains and got to know one named the “Big Guy.” This individual supposedly resides in a cavity under a very large fir tree and is so depicted in a drawing at the beginning of the chapter. Sykes and Mullis were led to the site by Wallace’s daughter, Lori Simmons. Sykes could discover no entry to the supposed cavity but, when Simmons stamped on the ground, eventually six knocks were heard, perceived by Sykes to have come from under the tree and said by Simmons to be the preferred method of communication by this Bigfoot, which she states has amorous intentions toward her. (Claims of knocking communication are common in Bigfoot lore and reports. Knocking was also often involved in séances during the heyday of Spiritualism, probably for the same reasons.) Sykes says that he found the whole experience to be profoundly disturbing and a true mystery.
In the lead-in to Chapter 2, Sykes repeats a portion of the account by Slavomir Rawicz of his supposedly watching Yetis for two hours during Rawicz’s supposed four-thousand-mile trek across Asia after escape from a Soviet prison camp, and as described in his ghostwritten book The Long Walk. Sykes treats this journey as history, at least up to where his text in the teaser leaves off, although the consensus is that Rawicz’s story is a hoax. A later chapter is titled “Zana.”
Edwards, C.J., and R. Barnett. 2014. Himalayan ‘yeti’ DNA: Polar bear or DNA degradation? A comment on ‘Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to Yeti’ by Sykes et al. (2014). Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20141712. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2014.1712.
Gutiérrez, Eliécer E., and Ronald H. Pine. 2015. No need to replace an “anomalous” primate (Primates) with an “anomalous” bear (Carnivora, Ursidae). ZooKeys 487: 141–154. doi: 10. 3897/zookeys.487.9176. Online at http://zookeys.pensoft.net/articles.php?id=4885.
Melton, Terry W., Michel Sartori, and Bryan C. Sykes. 2014. Response to Edward [sic] and Barnett. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282: 20142434. doi: 10. 1098/rspb.2014.2434.
Sykes, Bryan C., Rhettman A. Mullis, Christopher Hagenmuller, et al. 2014. Genetic analysis of hair samples attributed to yeti, bigfoot and other anomalous primates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20140161. doi: 10. 1098/rspb.2014.0161. Online at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1789/20140161.full.pdf+html.