Published at 12:01AM, April 4 2015 Bryan Sykes, professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford, set out to investigate rumours that something almost human had been found lurking in remote woodland between Georgia and Russia. What he discovered could rewrite the history of humanity.
“In the early 1850s a merchant visiting the Ochamchir region of Abkhazia came across a young almasty [the Russian equivalent of the yeti] by a remote stretch of the Adzyubzha river. As soon as it caught sight of him the creature vanished into the forest. Some days later he returned with a group of hunters. When they saw it again, their dogs were unleashed, chased it into the forest and brought it down.
“After a fierce struggle it was eventually subdued and shackled to a log. It was clearly a female. She was held in a ditch surrounded by sharpened stakes, then sold on to a succession of “owners” until she was purchased by the Abkhaz nobleman Edgi Genaba and taken to his farming estate at Tkhina on the Mokva river.”
The wild humanoid was named Zana and tamed by Genaba until she came to serve him as a slave. About 6ft 6in, dark-skinned, covered with long, reddish-brown hair and extraordinarily muscular, she slept outdoors and ran naked around the estate until her death in 1890.
“In many ways Zana’s is a classic tale of a wild creature part-human, part-animal, captured and tamed. What has kept the story alive is that she had at least four children with local men. There are tales of drunken orgies and curious men being granted access to her in exchange for money.
“Two developments turned Zana’s story from an intriguing folk tale, albeit one substantiated by several witnesses, into a case with potential for scientific investigation. The first was that in 1971 Igor Burtsev [a Russian cryptozoologist] located the grave of Khwit, the younger of Zana’s two sons, in an overgrown graveyard in Tkhina and exhumed his body. The second was that Burtsev, and also lately Dmitri Pikulov, had managed to trace six of Zana’s living descendants.
“I could see a way of obtaining genetic information about Zana from her son’s skull. If I could recover mitochondrial DNA [passed down through the mother’s line], the strict matrilineal inheritance would mean that its sequence was identical to Zana’s. I could also see a way of discovering more about Zana’s genetic makeup through her living descendants.”
Professor Sykes sent one of the Russian enthusiasts to take DNA samples from Zana’s living relatives and set to work on analysing one of her son’s teeth. Their initial frustration at finding no matches with Neanderthal gene sequences quickly turned to astonishment.
“As soon as Khwit’s sequence came through I set about comparing it to the dozen or so Neanderthal sequences that have been published. It was very soon clear that Khwit’s, and thus Zana’s, mitochondrial DNA was not Neanderthal. The disappointment was temporary. Zana may not have been a Neanderthal but when I compared her detailed mitochondrial DNA sequence with my database of hundreds of thousands of records from all over the world, there was a major surprise. The sequence from Khwit’s tooth showed beyond doubt that his mitochondrial DNA, and therefore Zana’s, was from sub-Saharan Africa. I was stunned. How could it have happened that Zana, living wild in the forests of the Caucasus, had DNA from thousands of miles away on another continent?”
The DNA swabs from Zana’s descendants told the same story: she was pure African. But how did she get there?
“How was it that a full-blooded sub-Saharan African came to be living wild in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in the middle of the 19th century? None of the explanations is straightforward. There had been a few African slaves in Abkhazia in earlier centuries when it was part of the Ottoman Empire and Zana could have been an escaped slave. The difficulty is that although the slave theory might explain her African DNA, it does not account for her appearance. She was nothing like a modern African in her looks or behaviour. Feral children and adults are rarely healthy and are usually discovered on the verge of starvation, yet Zana had superhuman strength and athleticism. Is it likely that an escaped slave could have sustained herself in the wild, and so well that she developed remarkable physical attributes? Almost certainly not.
“But if not a Neanderthal, was she fully human? Zana may have been in the genus Homo without being fully Homo sapiens. To begin to answer this intriguing question, I checked to see if there were any matches with Zana’s mitochondrial sequence in any of the available databases. There were none that matched exactly. I also had the scraps of her nuclear genome scattered among her descendants. Again, the African segments did not match any records. I hope to know soon whether Zana was indeed a survivor of an antique race of humans. If Zana’s people were in the Caucasus during the 19th century when she was captured, they might well still be there to this day, living as they have for millennia somewhere in the wild valleys that radiate from the eternal snows of Elbrus.”
• Extracted from The Nature of the Beast: The First Scientific Evidence of the Survival of Apemen into Modern Times by Bryan Sykes (Coronet £25). To order for £20 including postage visit thetimes.co.uk/ bookshop or call 0845 2712134.