Giant footprints 32 inches long and 15 inches wide — that is what an Indian Army team claims to have seen during a Himalayan expedition earlier this month. The longest known feet of a human being, according to the Guinness Book of Records, measure 15.78 inches. The normal width of human feet is not more than two to four inches. The average size of feet of apes like the gorilla is between 10 and 14 inches.
This has led to the Indian Army concluding that the footprints they have observed — and whose photographs they have put out on the Internet — must be of the Yeti, a mythical snowman that is said to inhabit the high Himalayas. There is no scientific evidence thus far that a creature like a snowman — bipedal, hairy, five to eight feet tall — exists, but the Yeti remains a part of Himalayan folklore, making frequent appearances in popular culture, including in fiction and children’s books like Tintin and in movies, where it is often depicted as a bigger version of a mountain gorilla.
The Indian Army is not the first to buy into the Yeti myth. For over a century, mountaineers, adventurers and scientists from the West have brought back tales of the Yeti from their expeditions in the Himalayas, having possibly heard these from their local guides for whom the Yeti is a matter of faith. Some of them reported to have actually sighted the beast, like N A Tombazi, a Greek photographer and geologist (some texts describe him as an Italian), who during an expedition in Sikkim in 1925 claimed to have seen the Yeti from about 200 to 300 yards.
“It walked upright and bent down occasionally to uproot a few rhododendrons. It looked dark against the snow and wore no clothes. Within a moment or so it had moved on to disappear in the undergrowth. I examined the footprints which in shape were like those of a man but only about 5 inches long. The five toes and the arch were distinctly recognisable, and the imprints were certainly those of a biped,” he is reported to have written in his Account of Photographic Expedition to the Southern Glaciers of Kanchenjunga in the Sikkim Himalaya, published in 1925.
There have been several reports of large footprints in the Himalayan snow, and described as being of the Yeti. The most famous of these were photographs of a long line of apparently fresh footprints taken by Sri Lanka-born mountaineer Eric Shipton and his colleague, Michael Ward, a surgeon, in a 1951 expedition. The footprints they saw were 13 inches long and 8 inches wide. Having no measuring equipment, Shipton took the photograph of the footprint alongside an ice-axe to bring an element of scale. Those photographs triggered immense excitement, were studied extensively and taken as strong evidence of the existence of the Yeti. They also became the genesis for many expeditions aimed solely at searching for the Yeti, many of which returned with hairs, bones and faeces claimed to be of the mythical creature.
In July 1986, the legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner reported having seen “gigantic” footprints in Tibet. “It was absolutely distinct. Even the toes were unmistakable. To see that the imprint was fresh I touched the soil next to it. It was fresh,” he was quoted as saying in Graham Hoyland’s book Yeti: An Abominable History.
A number of other eminent mountaineers, including Sir John Hunt and Sir Edmund Hillary, too have reported their encounters with the Yeti, mainly in the form of strange footprints that did not look like those of humans or any other known animal.
These repeated accounts of footprints led to rigorous scientific analysis of various specimens brought back by the expeditions. Two of the most recent studies were published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B, in 2014 and 2017.
The 2014 study, led by geneticist Bryan Sykes, now an emeritus fellow at the University of Oxford, studied 30 hair samples brought from different sites in the Himalayas. It said all samples except two could be matched with known species. But the study suggested that those two samples, which appeared to belong to a polar bear, could not be matched fully with any known species, thereby giving rise to speculation that an unknown animal could be lurking. However, upon rechecking the results, it was found that there was a mistake, and what appeared to be the genetic sequence of a new animal was in fact an incomplete sequence of known species.
The 2017 paper was by a group of researchers led by Tianying Lan of Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Buffalo, New York, and described a comprehensive genetic survey of all available specimens collected from the Himalayas and claimed to belong to the Yeti. This group discounted the possibility of the existence of the Yeti from the available evidence.
“This study represents the most rigorous analysis to date of samples suspected to derive from anomalous or mythical ‘hominid’-like creatures, strongly suggesting that the biological basis of the Yeti legend is local brown and black bears,” the study concluded.
Several explanations have been offered for the unusually large footprints that have been observed and photographed. Writing many years later, in 1997, about the photographs that he and Eric Shipton had taken in 1951, Michael Ward, the surgeon, said that these could be the footprints of human beings with unusually large and deformed feet.
“The attribution by some people of the footprints seen by Shipton and myself… to a Yeti seems untenable, as many years of investigation have revealed no evidence of any such animal. A more likely explanation is that they were those of a local inhabitant with cold-tolerant feet and possibly some congenital or acquired abnormality or foot infection. The possibility that they were formed by overlapping prints must be considered. Other possibilities are that the prints are those of a brown bear or Langur monkey, but no tail marks were seen. It is doubtful if this puzzle will ever be solved,” he wrote.
Ward said he had personally come across people in the Himalayas who walked barefoot in snow and cited a couple of examples. In another article titled The Yeti Footprints: Myth and Reality, he wrote “We will never know for certain what man or animal made the footprints in the Menlung basin in 1951, but I think that the above possible explanations (human deformed feet) are as plausible as any that have been put forward so far.”
Many others have suggested that these could be the footprints of bears found in the region — Asiatic black bear, Tibetan brown bear and Himalayan brown bear. “A frequent comment about the prints is that they may have been made by a smaller, known, animal, whose tracks were subsequently distorted and enlarged by melting. This is no doubt true of some of the footprints found in the Himalayas…” wrote J A McNeely, E W Cronin and H B Emery in their 1973 article The Yeti — Not a Snowman.
The footprints reported by the Indian Army could be the biggest ones spotted till date, but possibly again be attributed to local bears.
“This is most certainly the Himalayan black bear, with overprints of hind foot on to front foot,” said Daniel C Taylor, author of Yeti: The Ecology of a Mystery, told The Indian Express. “If only one footprint, this is the size of a dinosaur. So it has to be an overprint (overlap), almost certainly Ursus thibetanus (Asiatic black bear). Maybe a mother bear with a cub hopping behind,” he said.
Charlotte Lindqvist, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo, and co-author of the 2017 genetic study, also suggested that these footprints could only be of bears. “So far, all genetic evidence extracted from supposed yeti remains show that they came from bears that live on the region today. No research has proven the opposite and I am not at all convinced these footprints provide any new evidence to prove otherwise. I am sure there are many more plausible explanations for these footprints,” she told The Indian Express.
“It is indeed curious that they seem to follow in a line, and where did these other prints on the picture come from? I believe experts have said before that bears can walk in their own footprints, possibly making the imprints look larger and possibly explaining such large footprints,” she said.