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The Strange Saga of the Stolen Yeti Hand

article-imageThe replica yeti hand (via Return the Hand)

Turns out, if a group of Nepalese monks are missing their yeti hand, they’ll accept a replacement from the same people who crafted the costumes and weapons for the Lord of the Rings movies. Just don’t expect them to forget how Jimmy Stewart smuggled part of the hand out under the nose of customs officials, or how the ensuing attention led to the theft of the monks’ other yeti relics.

New Zealand pilot, mountain climber, and adventurer Mike Allsop has reportedly delivered the replica hand of the abominable snowman hand to the monks of the Pangboche Monastery in Nepal, more than a half-century after a hunter working for oil man Tom Slick spirited parts of the relic out of of Nepal for analysis elsewhere. Allsop didn’t respond to requests for comment, but what more is there to say? The hand, such as it is, has been returned.

This is no small matter for the monastery, which relied on donations from those who visited the monastery’s yeti hand and skull cap.

“I want to help the monastery have an income again — I want to help them out,” Allsop told the BBC in 2011.

article-image
“Original” yeti scalp and hand (via Return the Hand)

It’s just the latest odd turn of events for an odd artifact — an age-browned and craggy set of hand bones, crudely stitched together with wire, one fingertip partially covered with leathery skin. The fake hand is meant to right a wrong dating back decades. For years the Pangboche monks displayed the supposed yeti relics to visitors of the monastery, conveniently located along a trekking trail toward Mount Everest in the Himalayas, in relative peace.

That all changed in 1957. Slick, a Texas oilman, arrived in Nepal, ready to spare no expense to fund a reconnaissance expedition to hunt for the mythical abominable snowman in Nepal. The quest failed, but Slick, injured while on the hunt, commissioned two guides, brothers Peter and Bryan Byrne, to continue his search.

Later that year, Peter Byrne discovered that the monks of the Pangboche monastery in a Nepalese valley claimed to hold a yeti skull top and hand. On Slick’s orders, and after much debate by the monks, Byrne negotiated to obtain a single finger from the hand, in exchange for a relatively significant fee toward the temple’s upkeep and a replacement human finger.

“We made a donation of ten thousand rupees to the temple — only about $160.00 in today’s rate of exchange, but a large amount for a community where the average income might be as little as $15 in a year — and the lamas then gave me a go ahead to take one finger and replace it with another […] from the human hand I had brought back from London,” wrote Byrne, in a letter to Allsop.

Byrne was not the first Westerner to see the supposed yeti remains. As early as 1953, a group of Indian mountaineers and an Austrian and British scientist viewed and measured the yeti scalp, although none of them mentioned the hand. The relics, it seemed, provided a source of income for the centuries-old temple since they were viewed as sacred relics by local worshippers and because the monks would allow visitors to photograph the bones for a fee.

article-imageJimmy Stewart and a cryptid (via listverse.com)

Byrne smuggled the finger and some skin from the hand across the Nepalese border into India, where he made a rendez-vous in Calcutta with American movie star Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria. The famous couple agreed to smuggle the finger into the United Kingdom for research by Slick’s friend and primatologist Osman Hill of the Zoological Society of London, which they did by hiding it within Gloria Stewart’s undergarments in her luggage.

Wrote Byrne in his letter: “Then, three days later, the hotel’s concierge called from reception to say that there was a British customs officer in the hotel lobby asking to see them […] and could he send him up. They said yes, of course and a few minutes later a young British customs official appeared at the door [o]f their suite, Gloria’s lingerie case in hand. They gave the man a cup of tea, had a pleasant chat and signed a receipt for the case which, Gloria noticed, was locked and had not been opened. Ushering the young man out the door, she pointed this out to him and asked why it not been opened and examined by Customs. ‘Oh madame,’ said the young man, ‘certainly not. A British customs official would never open a ladies lingerie case’.”

article-imagePangboche Monastery in Nepal (via Return the Hand)

Several years later, the publisher of World Book Encyclopedia commissioned an expedition into the Himalayas, led by the famed Everest co-conqueror Edmund Hillary. Hillary proposed a hunt to discover if the yeti was myth or monster. The expedition set out in late 1960, and while it failed to find evidence of the yeti, Hillary methodically debunked the supposed yeti bones he found in Nepal, including the bones of Pangboche – which now included a human finger crudely wired into place, courtesy of Byrne in 1958.

Wrote the expedition commanders: “The Pangboche monastery also boasts a ‘Yeti’ hand, which more than one expert (examining photographs and a flake of skin) has declared to be human or part human. The hand is skeletal; heavy, markedly squared phalanges are wired together and the palm partly covered with brown, leathery skin. It is possible that some of the bones are not human, but almost certainly the best part of the hand is. It is a large but slender human hand, a woman’s perhaps, but more possibly a young lama’s.”

article-imageBack in London, Hill examined the finger and declared it of human origin, although a number of other scientists in Slick’s circle weren’t convinced, and Hill himself later expressed doubts. Skin taken by Byrne also didn’t prove definitive and testing of the skin decades later by the US television show Unexplained Mysteries also found no clear answer as to the skin’s origin. The hand at the monastery vanished in 1991 after the story of the yeti relic aired. Meanwhile, Peter Byrne began a hunt for another mythical creature: the Sasquatch.

The bone analyzed by Hill disappeared, until resurfacing in the collection of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, which notes it was obtained in 1976 as part of a bequest from Hill.

In 2011, for the making of the BBC documentary, the finger was analyzed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland at the request of journalist Matthew Hill, and its DNA proved human.

“We had several fragments that we put into one big sequence and then we matched that against the database and we found human DNA,” Rob Ogden, of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, told the BBC. “We had to stitch it together. So it wasn’t too surprising but it was obviously slightly disappointing that you hadn’t discovered something brand new.”

The Hunterian Museum stated at that time that no formal request from the monks to return the finger had yet arrived. Perhaps the monks believed nobody would drop a coin in the donation box to only see a finger.

 

Sources:

  • Coleman, Loren. Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1989.
  • Goode, Caroline Nixon. Tom Slick: Mystery Hunter. Bracey, Virginia: Paraview. 2005.
  • Coleman, Loren. Tom Slick: True Life Encounters in Cryptozoology. Fresno, California: Craven Street Books. 2002.
  • Soule, Gardner. Trail of the Abominable Snowman. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons. 1966. Print.
  • From Hillary, Sir Edward P. Nothing Venture, Nothing Win. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan. 1975.
  • From Hillary, Sir Edward P. and Doig, Desmond. High in the Thin Cold Air. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co. 1962.
  • Byrne, Peter.  Correspondence to site author dated March 2011. “Letter from Peter Byrne.” www.returnthehand.com. Retrievable at: http://bit.ly/13Cgxuw