Stories that tell of diminutive humanoid creatures, running the gamut from magical and spiritual to decidedly material in nature, are a widely dispersed feature of human folklore. Nowhere in the world however does the possibility of fiction maturing into fact hinge so precipitously close, and yet so frustratingly far, to confirmation than in the Indonesian islands of Southeast Asia and Oceana.
On the largest of the exclusively Indonesian islands, Sumatra, local legend has persisted for centuries of an indigenous primate known as the “Orang Pendek” (literally, “short person”). Everyone from the Suku Anak Dalam (an indigenous Sumatran forest-dwelling people), to the island’s local villagers, to the Old Dutch colonists and modern Western visitors, have all described the same animal. The accounts delineate the Orang Pendek as a short ape standing roughly 1 meter (3 feet) tall, covered in short hair, possessed of a strong chest and arms, and, perhaps most importantly, habitually bipedal.
The discovery of an extant habitually bipedal primate anywhere in the world would be huge news, as human beings are currently understood to be the only surviving members of the habitually bipedal primate clade, hominins. A small handful of individuals, most notably conservationist Debbie Martyr, have been looking for the Orang Pendek in Sumatra for over a decade (recently National Geographic even funded an expedition to search for the elusive dwarf). Many, including Debbie Martyr, claim to have seen the creature, but to this date no hard quantifiable and/or testable evidence has surfaced, not even a blurry photograph. The most substantial body of evidence currently available to a serious investigation would be the amassed accounts of locals.
Believers cite the sheer quantity and uniformity of sightings and legends among Sumatran witnesses as strong evidence, as well as the fact that among a local mythology replete with magical beings the Orang Pendek is particularly non-magical, just another animal of the island (one fond of raiding crops). Critics point to the same vastness and diversity of local superstitions as indication of just how seriously this legend should really be taken (not very). They attribute reported sightings to misidentification of the island’s native documented animals, such as Gibbons, Sun Bears (the world’s smallest bear), and maybe even rare Orangutans. All three of those animals are capable of brief periods of bipedal locomotion.
Interest in the Orang Pendek has been heightened somewhat in the last several years due in no small part to one of the most significant paleoanthropological discoveries of the last decade. Just a few islands to the southeast of Sumatra is situated the comparatively smaller isle, Flores. Here a similar folk-story to that of the Orang Pendek endures; that of the Ebu Gogo.
The Ebu Gogo are described by locals as also being roughly 1 meter tall, long haired and pot-bellied, having protruding ears, an awkward gait, and noticeable length in their arms and fingers. What is so intriguing about the Ebu Gogo myth though is that in 2004 a team of Australian and Indonesian paleoanthropologists discovered the remains of a hominin species in Flores’ Liang Bua Cave that seems to match the Ebu Gogo description well. The remains include an incomplete adult female skeleton (LB1), fragments from at least nine other individuals, and an assortment of stone tools.
Though the interpretation of the remains is a matter of debate among scientists, the prevailing view is that they represent an entirely new species of hominin; Homo floresiensis. The female specimen would have stood barely 3 feet tall and exhibited a surprisingly small cranial capacity of only 417 cm3, roughly the same as a chimpanzee’s (for comparison, a modern human’s cranial capacity is roughly 1100-1700 cm3 and Homo erectus, which was known to inhabit the nearby island of Java and from which H. floresiensis is believed to have diverged, boasted an average of 900 cm3). Some researchers have proposed that H. floresiensis does not actually represent a new species, but is instead a human specimen which suffered from a severe pathological growth disorder known as microcephaly. This hypothesis has been largely rejected however, and the current dominant hypothesis is that they represent a population of H. erectus who diverged into a new species through a process known as “Island Dwarfism” or “Insular Dwarfing”. In these instances, the relative scarcity of resources on smaller islands presents a unique set of challenges to organisms who reside there. This means that smaller individuals with lower caloric and dietary requirements than larger individuals will be selected for and ultimately be more reproductively successful. Indeed, the Stegodon, a type of dwarf elephant, is also known to have inhabited Flores contemporaneously with H. floresiensis and was even a likely prey animal for them.
One of the more astonishing factoids about the H. floresiensis case is that there are strong indications that they continued to live on the island until at least 13,000-12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption is presumed to have wiped them out. This is remarkably recent survival in the spectrum of hominin evolution and it has been suggested that the modern Ebu Gogo myth stems from either a collective cultural memory of past co-habitation or even that a small, isolated population of H. floresiensis survives to this day on Flores. The case of H. floresiensis, either way, prompted the following remarks from British paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Henry Gee in the journal Nature…
“The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as yetis are founded on grains of truth.
In the light of the Flores skeleton, a recent initiative to scour central Sumatra for ‘orang pendek’ can be viewed in a more serious light. This small, hairy, manlike creature has hitherto been known only from Malay folklore, a debatable strand of hair and a footprint. Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.” – Henry Gee
P. Brown et al. A new small-bodied hominin from the Late Pleistocene of Flores,
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A. Brumm et al. Early stone technology on Flores and its implications for Homo floresiensis. Nature. Vol. 441. 06 Jan 2006.
Dunning, Brian. Orang Pendek: Forest Hobbit of Sumatra. Skeptoid # 77. 04 Dec 2007. http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4077
D. Falk, et al. Brain shape in human microcephalics and Homo floresiensis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 104 no. 7. 13 Feb 2007.
Gee, Henry. Flores, God and Cryptozoology. Nature News. 25 Oct 2004. http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=1329
In Search of Orang Pendek. What is Orang Pendek?. http://www.orangpendek.org/orangpendek/
R. Jurmain, L. Kilgore, and W. Trevathan. Essentials of Physical Anthropology. 7th ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. 2006.
Roberts, Richard. Villagers speak of the small, hairy Ebu Gogo. http://www.primates.com/ebu-gogo/index.html