Legends of mysterious part-human creatures have circulated for centuries, and those stories persist today in cultures around the world, from Yeti in the Himalayas to the Almas, or "wild man," in Central Asia to Sasquatch, aka Bigfoot, in North America.
Now a research team has performed the first rigorous genetic analysis of three dozen hair samples that their collectors claimed came from such undiscovered, living humanoids.
"Like everyone else, I was curious to know what was at the bottom of all of the rumors and myths," said Bryan Sykes, a professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, who led the study.
The samples, it turned out, belonged to a range of creatures: raccoons, sheep, bears, dogs, humans and more. Bigfoot, however, was not one of them.
Sykes and his colleagues acquired 57 hair samples from museums and collectors in the Himalayas, Russia, the United States and Indonesia. After excluding two non-hair samples, the team selected 36 of the remaining ones for analysis. They thoroughly cleaned the hairs using forensic techniques and then sequenced mitochondrial DNA recovered from the hair shafts. Thirty of the samples yielded genetic material, which they compared with listings in a genetic database of known species.
Nearly all of the samples, the team reports in The Proceedings of the Royal Society B, came from normal animals living in their known range - with the exception of two from the Himalayas closely connected to an ancient species of polar bear.
As Sykes acknowledges, "absence of proof is never proof of absence." The findings do not disprove the legends themselves but show only that none of the specific hair samples tested came from a cryptid - a formally undescribed hypothetical species - primate.
Norman MacLeod, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the Natural History Museum in London who published a commentary about Sykes' paper in the same journal, said the study would have been strengthened had the team analyzed all 55 hair samples rather than just 36. But the method, he said, does provide a "powerful new tool" for Bigfoot proponents to use in their searches, "so that should make everyone happy."