It is right up there with the Loch Ness monster: the subject of claimed sightings, passionately promoted by believers, dismissed by the scientific community. But now experts say they have found the best evidence to date that the yeti might – just conceivably – be real.
Tests at Oxford Brookes University on hairs which local people believe came from a yeti in an Indian jungle have failed to link them with any known species and are said to bear "a startling resemblance" to those brought back from the Himalayas by Sir Edmund Hillary half a century ago.
Ape expert Ian Redmond, who is co-ordinating the research, said: "The hairs are the most positive evidence yet that a yeti might possibly exist, because they are tangible. We are very excited about the preliminary results, although more tests need to be done."
The two short hairs – 33mm and 44mm long – were picked up in thick forest in the Garo hills in the mountains of north-east India five years ago after a forester reported seeing a yeti – locally known as mande barung, or "forest man" – for three days in a row breaking branches off trees and eating their sap.
The hills are one of several places in the world where similar creatures – Bigfoot in the US, the sasquatch in Canada, the sajarang gigi in Indonesia, and the yeti in Nepal – are part of local legend and from where occasional sightings are reported.
After being brought to Britain, the hairs were magnified up to 200 times, and one of them was cast in varnish to make a better two-dimensional image. They were then compared with hairs from animals known to live in the hills. "We fully expected them to come from a known animal," said Mr Redmond. "We failed to find that. So the mystery remains and we go on to the next stage of investigation."
The hairs will now be examined under an even more powerful microscope and sent to two different laboratories – in Oxford and Cardiff – for DNA testing. Follicles containing cells remain on the base of the hairs, said Mr Redmond, "so there is every chance that we will be able to get even closer to the truth".
If DNA analysis cannot identify the creature, it should be able to work out what it is related to, he explained. "It could easily be an unknown primate, even if it is not a yeti."
People in the Garo Hills believe that the yeti exists, and there have been repeated reported sightings of the creatures and their footprints, including by such famous mountaineers as Lord Hunt, who led the Everest expedition.