Set high in a remote Himalayan mountain range stands the Pangboche Buddhist monastery.
During heavy snowstorms, it can be found only by travellers who listen for the monks’ ceremonial horns.
The walls are lined with traditional Nepalese paintings depicting the treacherous tracks to the monastery.
And among them are pictures of the legendary ape-like creature we refer to as the Yeti.
This might seem fanciful until you learn that, for many years, a shriveled hand (about the size of an adult human’s, with long, fat fingers and curling nails) was also on display in the monastery – and revered by the monks, who believed it protected them from bad luck.
I would know nothing about this story were it not for the fact that while walking around a collection of human and primate skeletons at the Royal College of Surgeons in London three years ago, I came across a withered finger which had only recently been found in the vaults of the College’s Hunterian Museum. It was labelled ‘a Yeti finger from Pangboche hand’.
What was the story behind this finger, I wondered, and how did it end up in London? Where was the rest of the ‘Pangboche hand’? And what truth was there behind the label’s claim that this finger belonged to the Yeti of ancient legend?
The myth has it that the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, is a vast creature which inhabits the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Tibet, where tales about Yetis have been passed down through generations.
Fossil remains found there from the Pleistocene age (2,500,000 to 11,700 years ago) reveal skeletons of a creature called the Gigantopithecus, or great ape, which became extinct 300,000 years ago.
These towering primates reached about 10ft in height and weighed half a ton.
It is possible they lived alongside our human ancestors in what are now China, India and Vietnam. Yet the scientific community generally regards this species simply as a large, extinct ape – and the Yeti as nothing more than a legend.
Tales of the Meh-te, or ‘man bear’ as Yetis are known in Nepal, gained popular currency in the West only in the 1830s when the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal published British orientalist B. H. Hodgson’s account of a tall, two-legged creature covered with dark hair that he claimed to have seen while trekking in Nepal.
Reports became more frequent in the 20th century as Westerners began making attempts to scale the Himalayas, and reported seeing strange footprints or odd creatures. In 1925, a photographer with the Royal Geographical Society reported seeing a creature near the world’s largest glacier, the Zemu, in India.
N. A. Tombazi wrote that ‘unquestionably, the figure in outline was exactly like a human being, walking upright and stopping occasionally to pull at some dwarf rhododendron bushes’.
He says the creature’s prints were ‘similar in shape to those of a man, but six to seven inches long by four inches wide’.
The Daily Mail sponsored an expedition in 1954 to investigate recent Yeti sightings reported in the paper’s pages. During the trek, mountaineer John Angelo Jackson tracked and photographed many footprints, some of which were large and could not be identified as belonging to any known animal.