18Oct2013

How big boots led to Bigfoot

How do you turn a pair of hiking boots into a film about the yeti?  Well, it’s a long story – so, here goes.

In 1997 I was in the kingdom of Bhutan making a natural history film called The Last Shangri-La. We had a local nomad as a guide called Nado (which means Black) who carried all our equipment on his surly yaks from camp to camp. Nado wore an old pair of holey plimsolls – through which his toes poked -  but every morning,  when I woke, he’d be making the fire and feeding the yaks and have on my excellent Gore-Tex trekking boots, which I’d leave the night before to dry out by the fire. 

As we came to the end of the expedition Nado suggested that if I gave him my boots I could sleep with his wife back at his village. I made a counter offer. If he told me where I could film a Migyur – the name the local give to the yeti - he could have my boots.

That evening over a bottle of Bhutanese Mist (the local whiskey made out of molasses), Nado described various stories of where the Migyur lived and of hair raising encounters between nomads the creature, as well as where I should go if I wanted to see one – if I was stupid enough.

When we got back into Thimphu – the capital of Bhutan -  Nado had arranged for a huge brown and very smelly skin to be shown to me – it came from a Migyur he told me – and if you slept on it, it would cure you of impotence. (Clearly Nado sensed a business opportunity, since I’d  declined the offer of his wife).

I took a small hair sample from the skin and when I got back to England I sent it to Bryan Sykes, professor of molecular biology at Oxford University, whose book on DNA analysis I’d read. 

It was a bear, declared Sykes - but an unusual bear. Not one he’d come across before. It was enough to persuade a commissioning editor at Channel 4 that there was a story: the yeti was bear and we would find it. That was 2001.

The expedition that followed took us into the north eastern regions of Bhutan and finished in a terrifyingly dense bamboo forest that was full of bears and tigers. 

It culminated in our on-screen biologist collecting a few more samples of hair from a huge hollow tree where we had been led by a man in a traditional kho (the kilt the locals wear)  and red wellington boots, and who said he was the King’s royal Migyur hunter.

Bryan tested this hair too and declared he had no idea what it was.  A mystery.

Last year I heard again from Bryan Sykes - a bit older and a lot wiser.  He had refined his DNA techniques and was planning a new project to test the most promising Bigfoot samples from around the world. He wondered if they weren’t actually surviving Neanderthals or other relic hominids. 

We eventually landed another commission from Channel 4 to make a series on the various Bigfoot myths around the world.  This time nothing would escape the all seeing eye of science. Bryan had developed a way of getting rid of the usual contamination on the samples that had beleaguered species identification in the past – and if it were anything interesting out there, we would identify it. 

As we got to the end of the shoot, I asked Bryan if he remembered the mystery hair we had examined 12 years ago – and to my surprise he said he thought it was still in his freezer, alongside a chili con carne -  labelled; Migyur Hair, Bhutan.

And there it was. 

The results were astonishing.  This time Bryan was able to extract and identify the DNA.  It was another bear – but “not as we know it”.  Instead it was an exact match for an ancient polar bear that died in Svalbard  at least 40,000 years ago and probably more like 100,000 years. 

Bryan had delivered on his promise that there would be no more mysteries. So, all that remained was to work out how a ancient polar bear got from Norway to Bhutan. 

That is probably another story – and maybe another commission. Which goes to show, never underestimate the value of a good pair of walking boots.

Harry Marshall is executive producer of Icon Films’ Bigfoot Files, which airs on 20 October at 8pm on Channel 4

This article first appeared in Broadcast 18th October 2013

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