Coon hunts the yeti

I was looking through Carleton Coon’s The Origin of Races, hunting down some old references to ABO variation in primates (more on that later).

So, naturally in light of my other recent work, I went reading through what Coon had to say about Miocene apes. And there on pp. 207-208 I found Coon’s account of the Yeti:

The Pleistocene ended -- if it ended at all -- only ten thousand years ago, a mere yesterday zoologically. It would be noteworthy if all of the apes of China, the number of genera being still undetermined, could be shown to ahve become extinct at the close of that period. But there is evidence that they did not do so. For example, the philosopher Hsün-Tzu, who lived a hundred years after Confucius, or about 400 B.C., definitely states that an ape the size of a man and covered with hair lived in the Yellow River Valley in his day, and also that it stood erect. Furthermore, the Liang Annals, written in the Time of the warring States, 200 B.C. to A.D. 200, places apes in the Sin-Kiang province, north of Tibet, near the country where the giant panda was first found as recently as 1930. A third book, entitled An Anatomical Dictionary for Recognizing Various Diseases, which originated in Tibet and was published in Peking at the end of the eighteenth century though it was probably written earlier, contains a systematic description of the fauna of Tibet and neighboring regions. Many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, and so on, are included, and each is illustrated with the recognizable woodcut. Not one of the animals is fantastic, composite, or mythical. Among them, in a group of monkeys, a tailless, bipedal primate is shown standing on a rock, with one arm stretched upward.... How, if at all, this wild man is related to the so-called yeti or abominable snowman remains to be determined, along with its relationship to the Pleistocene fossil aides of China. If there really is, has recently banned, and worried by people primate in Central Asia, its discovery, dead or alive, would be of enormous importance, not only for primate taxonomy but for its bearing on the the theoretical relationship between the erect posture, toolmaking, speech, and culture.

What I notice reading through old “comprehensive” books (I hesitate to call them “textbooks”, though some were intended as such) is how little they really had to go on. So you get a lot of filler material – the fossil record is fleshed out back to the Paleozoic, the authors write down anecdotes about their undergraduates. Hooton had an annoying habit of including poetry.

So the stories kind of built up over time, up to books of 600 pages or more, arranged like an Oxford Anthology of anthropology. Descriptions of fossils, stories about sites, short theory essays.

You sometimes hear people say that paleoanthropology hasn’t given their pet hypothesis a fair shake. But in many of these cases, the idea is old enough to have gotten plenty of attention from textbook writers desperate for material. With so few fossils, other historical and anthropological details became the science of paleoanthropology. Stories about ancient creature encounters were highly relevant – the next fossil or hunting party might after all show they were right!

Why did they go away? Well, because they never came to anything. And besides, there has been lots of new and relevant science to fill in those textbooks. The ancient Chinese records haven’t changed, but their place in anthropology certainly has!

Oh, and in case I gave the impression I hate poetry – I love poetry. It’s just twee Hahvahd poetry from 1947 I don’t like.