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The Pangboche Hand was alleged to be the authentic, skeletal remains of a Yeti's hand, kept within a Buddhist monastery near Pangboche, Nepal. During the late 1950's, as the Western world's decadelong fascination with the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas reached its zenith, the Pangboche Hand was discovered by the outside world, becoming emblematic both to the proponents that fueled the craze and to the skeptics which led to its eventual burst.

These events first began to unfold shortly after 1954, with the empty-handed return of an English excursion to hunt the Yeti. Nevertheless, the crew remained convinced of its existence, an attitude that was shared in enthusiasm by the general population. In 1955, Irish big-game hunter Peter Byrne, believing he'd witnessed the beast's tracks seven years earlier, announced his intention to assemble a hunting party to track the Yeti. The following year, Tom Slick, a Texas oil tycoon with a penchant for supporting fringe science, began to plan his own search. Shortly thereafter, the two men were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, prompting them to unite their efforts in what became a month long investigation within the Arun Valley. At the end of this time, Slick had become thoroughly convinced that the situation warranted a much larger operation.

As part of his preparations for this next expedition, Slick persuaded two other oil men and big-game hunters, F. Kirk Johnson Sr. and Jr., to invest in the trip, as well as recruiting several experts, in fields such as anthropology and primatology, to analyze any evidence that might be found. In the field, the group was to be led by American naturalist Gerald Russell, who had also participated in the earlier 1954 attempt; with Slick opting to stay behind, it was Peter Byrne, along with his brother Bryan, and a number of Sherpas and porters who rounded out the rest of the expedition, which set off in February 1958.

Toward the end of May, the group arrived at the village of Pangboche, where Byrne befriended an old Buddhist monk with a taste for Scotch. One night, while the two were drinking, the monk confided in Byrne that the local Buddhist temple housed a precious secret, the skeletal hand of a Yeti. The monk asked if he'd like to see it for himself; Byrne agreed, and the two walked over to the temple. Byrne was quite impressed upon seeing the Pangboche Hand, which he gauged to be roughly the size of a human hand, and immediately began to photograph it. After he finished, Byrne asked if it were possible for him to return with the hand, but the monk rebuffed the idea, explaining that the hand could never leave the temple walls, lest catastrophe strike both the monks and the village of Pangboche. Byrne tried his luck, asking if he could perhaps take a piece of the hand with him, but the monk refused that request as well.

Come June, the expedition returned. While they had been unable to obtain any conclusive evidence, the team was optimistic that the discovery of a Yeti was only a matter of time. Along with several local eyewitness accounts, the party had documented a number of suspicious snow prints, as well as a fair amount of potential evidence (such as, stool samples, alleged Yeti pelts, what was claimed to be a Yeti paw, and, of course, Byrne's photographs of the Pangboche Hand). Slick, in particular, found the expedition's findings absolutely compelling; he and the Kirk Johnsons agreed to sponsor yet another trip in December, though this time they intended only to send the two Byrne brothers.

Even so, despite Slick's high spirits, the expedition received only a lukewarm reception among his scientific consultants. The best evidence, they determined, was inconclusive, while the rest was most probably a hoax. The paw that was brought back, for instance, was revealed to have belonged to a snow leopard, and the supposed Yeti pelts were found not to be fur at all, but rather fibers. Opinions on the Pangboche Hand photos, however, were more ambivalent. Upon examining them, English primatologist W.C. Osman Hill concluded that it was indeed plausible that the hand had come from "an unknown anthropoid". To be any more certain, though, would require an actual sample.

For this, Byrne had a plan. Returning to the Pangboche monastery (with ample Scotch), Byrne was given an opportunity to examine the hand a second time. Secretly, he clipped off one of the hand's fingers, replacing the phalanges with corresponding human bones. When, at last, the hand was wired back together, Byrne placed it in its box and pocketed the stolen bones. From there, it was relatively easy carrying the bones out of Nepal; smuggling them from Asia, on the other hand, promised to be an entirely different matter. To solve this, the Byrne brothers traveled south to Calcutta, where they met up with, of all people, Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria—friends of the Kirk Johnsons who had been travelling through India at the time. Stewart agreed to smuggle the bones, and, as the story goes, managed to do so by stowing them within his wife's panties, packed inside her travel luggage. Their ploy worked. Once in London, the bones were promptly delivered to Osman Hall.

With access, at last, to the bones of the Pangboche Hand, Osman Hill performed the close examination he'd been waiting for. Be that as it may, following a brief hesitation, he ultimately concluded that they were human bones after all. George Agogino, an American anthropologist and another of Slick's experts, disputed Osman Hill's findings, however, claiming that the size and shape of the bones in question were characteristic of apes, rather than humans. Agogino went on to send the sample to nearly two-dozen other experts for examination. In the end, their opinions were almost evenly divided between those who felt the bones were human, and those that believed they belonged to some form of ape. A chemical analysis of the bones proved inconclusive.

Around this time, in July 1959, Sir Edmund Hillary had begun publically expressing his desire to return to the Himalayas, with the intent of studying human physiology in a low-oxygen environment. And, while there, he also intended to investigate any local legends regarding the Yeti. To this end, Hillary assembled a team of twenty-two scientists and mountaineers; the Field Enterprises Educational Corporation, publisher of the World Book Encyclopedia, agreed to finance the expedition, and so, on September 13th, 1960, the crew set out from Kathmandu.

As they travelled, the team's scientific skepticism grew. Examining an alleged Yeti pelt in the village of Beding, the investigative team found that it was, instead, the fur of a rare Tibetan blue bear. Encountering "Yeti tracks" on the Ripimu glacier—less than two miles from the Menlung glacier where explorer Eric Shipton had photographed similar prints in 1951—the team soon realized that they were, in fact, the result of smaller tracks (such as those made by foxes or wild dogs) which had grown in size due to the sublimation of surrounding snow. Finally, the crew took a look at the relics kept by the village elders and the local Buddhist monasteries. The venerated "Yeti scalps", however, were nothing more than stretched hides of the serow, a goat-antelope found in the region. As for the Pangboche Hand, Hillary concluded: "This is essentially a human hand, strung together with wire, with the possible inclusion of several animal bones"(2). By promising to raise funds for a local school, Hillary and his team were allowed to borrow the furs for testing. The labs confirmed the assessments made by the team, and on November 25th, the expedition ended. The New York Times ran the headline, "Snowman Melted", and the January 13th, 1961 issue of Time featured an article on the expedition by Hillary titled "Epitaph to the Elusive Abominable Snowman". Hillary's influence was said to be so pervasive, that American newspapers didn't report again on the Abominable Snowman for over a decade.

For his part, Peter Byrne contested Hillary’s findings, believing that his "desecration" of the Pangboche Hand had caused Hillary to misidentify it as a hoax. He also believed that the scalps, which Hillary determined were false, had actually been crafted by elders of the village Khumjung, out of jealousy for the monks and their Pangboche Hand. Yet, despite his allegations, Byrne found himself in the underwhelming minority, and after Tom Slick's death in a 1962 plane crash, all serious pursuits of the Yeti came to an end.

Thirty years later, in 1991, investigation of the Pangboche Hand was renewed when producers of the television program Unsolved Mysteries learned of a remaining bone tissue sample in the possession of George Agogino, kept all this time in an envelope inside his desk drawer. With his permission, the sample was sent to the University of California's molecular evolution laboratory for analysis. Appropriately, the results were inconclusive, though they indicated that the source was most likely human. Taped interviews for the program were also conducted with both Agogino and Peter Byrne, as well as Tom Slick's biographer Loren Coleman. In the aired segment, Byrne acknowledged the results of the lab's analysis, believing that they confirmed his belief and other's that the Yeti was not an ape-like creature at all, but rather some form of subhuman hominid.

In 1999, the documentary Sasquatch Odyssey: The Hunt for Bigfoot made humourous reference to Jimmy and Gloria Stewart for their part in the events involving the Pangboche Hand: due to the use of archive footage, both were posthumously credited as "Conveyor of Yeti Finger".

At last, though, it appears that Peter Byrne will, fittingly, have the final word regarding the Pangboche Hand's fate, claiming, as of January 22nd, 2002, that the relic had been stolen entirely from the Pangboche monastery, a year or two prior. His guess: that the monks, who had been in the habit of showing the hand to travelers for a price, simply "showed it to one too many"(5).


Sources

  1. Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs (2009)
  2. "Epitaph to the Elusive Abominable Snowman" by Sir Edmund Hillary, Life (January 13th, 1961)
  3. "Yeti" Unsolved Mysteries
  4. "Unsolved Mysteries: Yeti" Youtube
  5. "The Pangboche Hand" Bigfoot Encounters
  6. Sasquatch Odyssey: The Hunt for Bigfoot Internet Movie Database
  7. "Jimmy Stewart and the Yeti" by Loren Coleman, The Anomalist

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