Nearly every time Sujoy Das leads a trekking group in the Himalayas, he gets the question, asked half in jest, half in hope. Has he ever spotted signs of the yeti?
Mr Das guides treks on some of the mightiest Himalayan peaks — Everest, Annapurna, Gangapurna — and through the Nepali valleys that lie in between. This is the terrain where the myth of the yeti — or the Abominable Snowman — first arose, and where it still persists. A hirsute, apelike creature, taller than most human beings, the yeti and its legend grew out of old local tales about wild men living in the mountains.
European explorers seized upon the mystery and expanded it, reporting glimpses of the creature or finding outsize footprints in the snow. Every Everest expedition seemed to keep half an eye cocked for the yeti or its tracks; one British mountaineer took photos of footprints twice the size of the average adult human's foot.
The fascination has not died down. "In Nepal and in the Everest region, this question always comes up. Has anyone see a yeti?" Mr Das said, who lives in Kolkata and runs South Col Expeditions. "The local people say they have, but we don't know if it is actually one. I always say: 'No, I haven't seen one.'"
A new genetic study of nine purported yeti samples, however, may put the legend into deep freeze forever. The results, published last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggested that eight of the samples were from a different sort of shaggy, wild creature: a bear. (The one remaining sample came from an even less elusive creature: a dog.)
Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at the University of Buffalo, New York, who led the study, called it “the most rigorous analysis to date” of relics of the so-called yeti.
Ms Lindqvist first became involved in the yeti myth in 2014, when other researchers contacted her to compare the genes in two purported yeti hair samples with those in a 120,000-year-old polar bear fossil she was working on.
“But the data was very limited, and it made me suspicious about the speculation that the yeti legend represented some strange, hybrid bear roaming the Himalaya mountains,” Ms Lindqvist said. “So I agreed to follow up on this study with a more rigorous approach based on more genetic data from more purported yeti samples.”
The samples came from everywhere: hair found in Tibet in the 1930s; a fragment of leg bone, coloured a toasted brown, recovered from a mountain cave; a tooth and a lump of petrified faeces, which had been carefully stored in an Italian museum devoted to the alpinist Reinhold Messner.
Mountaineers and explorers have hunted for the definitive yeti sample throughout the 20th century. In 1961, Edmund Hillary, one of the first two men to climb Everest, led an expedition to Nepal purely in quest of the yeti.
"He went to Khumjung, a monastery above Namche Bazaar [in Nepal], where a yeti scalp was preserved by the headman of the village," Mr Das told The National. "Hillary got the headman's permission to take the scalp, to get it tested."
One of the villagers accompanied Hillary on his trip. “They thought: ‘Hillary is a foreigner. He doesn’t know what this is, or what the value of it is to them,’” he said. “So they did this world tour with the scalp, meeting anthropologists and so on. The net result: the experts said it was the scalp of a Tibetan blue bear.”
Others have also advanced the theory that the various bits of the yeti — footprints, hair, bone samples — came from a species of bear. In his new book yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, the conservationist Daniel C Taylor, who has searched for signs of the yeti ever since he was a child growing up in India, concludes that the footprints most probably belong to an Asiatic black bear.
Ms Lindqvist and her team compared their nine samples with 15 others that were known to be from local bear populations. Previous research had hinted at an unknown type of bear, but eight of the nine yeti samples proved to belong conclusively to well-known types of black and brown bears.
An inkling of this ursine identity has existed all along. In 1921, the British explorer Charles Howard-Bury, having found footprints in the snow, was told by his Sherpa guides that they belonged to the “metoh-kangmi”, a wild creature living in the snows.
Later writers misinterpreted "metoh" as "filthy" and replaced it with the more elegant "Abominable". But a knowledge of the Tibetan language would have provided the clue, for the words "metoh kangmi" translate to "man-bear of the snows".