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The Mysterious Little People of Japan’s Far North

A commonly occurring phenomenon seen in the folklore and myth of a wide range of cultures throughout the world is the existence of miniature humanoid creatures. Faeries, dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, or by whatever other names they are known, mysterious little people of various types have consistently emerged as important elements of folklore across the globe and throughout disparate cultures since time unremembered. On the island of Hokkaido, in the cold northern reaches of the Japanese archipelago, the indigenous Ainu people too have their long traditions of an ancient race of dwarf-like people thought to have inhabited the land since long before humans arrived.

The Ainu knew these creatures as the Koropokkuru, also often variously written in other ways such as Kor-pok-un-kur, Koro-pok-guru, and Koro Pokunguru. They are also sometimes referred to as the Tsuchigumo. The name Koropokkuru is most commonly translated as “the people who live under the burdock leaves,” and implies the diminutive size of the creatures. In some stories a whole family was said to be able to fit underneath one burdock leaf, with one such leaf measuring about 4 feet across. The size reported for the Koropokkuru, however, actually varies from tradition to tradition, and they were said to be anywhere from 2 or 3 feet in height all the way down to only mere inches in height.

In addition to their small stature, the Koropokkuru were said to be rather rough and primitive looking, with large heads, prominent brows, and short, squashed noses. They were sometimes said to have reddish skinned faces, and most commonly the Koropokkuru were described as being rather hairy and odiferous. The non-Ainu Japanese of the time, and even early western explorers, already regarded the indigenous Ainu people as hairy brutes, and those who were acquainted with the Koropokkuru as well described these creatures as even more so. Despite this brutish, almost beastly appearance, the Koropokkuru had some signs of sophistication and civilization. They were said to use flint or stone knives, scrapers, and other simple tools and implements, and were also known for their ability in the art of pottery, which the Aiunu were not known to practice. Also unlike the Ainu, the Korropokkuru were said to dwell in pit dwellings, basically simple huts built over round holes in the earth, and this led them to sometimes be referred to as “the pit dwellers.” The Koropokkuru were also known to be capable of speech, and were able to communicate with the Ainu in this manner.

According to Ainu lore, this dwarf race was exceedingly shy and did not like to be seen, most often lurking in the periphery and hiding in the woods. Nevertheless, they were known to trade with the Ainu on occasion, although such transactions were brief and typically done under the cover of night, such was their wariness. For the most part, the elusive Koropokkuru were only fleetingly seen, and kept their distance from Ainu affairs unless absolutely necessary. The Koropokkuru and Ainu were said to have peacefully shared the land like this until a war broke out between them and the Koropokkuru were subsequently wiped out or driven away. After this disappearance and with the ever greater presence of mankind in Hokkaido, this mysterious race of ancient little people seemed to have vanished forever into the mists of time.

Was there any truth to any of these stories of small, humanoid creatures living in the wilds of Hokkaido, and if so what were they and where did they go? Incredibly, there has been some scattered evidence proposed over the years for such a non-Ainu race once living in Hokkaido. Archeologists have found evidence of strange pit dwellings all over Japan that are consistent with the stories of the Koropokkuru dwellings, but not consistent with the Ainu, who have always lived in thatched houses. These pits have often been found to contain stone implements not typical of the Ainu, as well as mysterious tools that seem too small to be comfortable or efficient for normal human-sized hands.

Another archeological find that has been used in the past to support the existence of the Koropokkuru was made in 1877 by Edward S. Morse, one of the first to conduct proper archeological investigations in Japan. At a site known as the Ōmori shell mound, Morse found an array of anthropologically significant pottery in that it did not fit in with what was known about Ainu culture. The pottery conflicted with the lack of such a craft among Ainu, and the mystery deepened with the Ainu denial that their ancestors had ever practiced pottery in any form. Morse found this to be quite odd, and by the time he published his findings in 1879, he had come to the conclusion that the Ōmori site was not an Ainu one, but rather that of some Neolithic race that predated the Ainu. Morse’s paper on the matter, entitled Shell Mounds of Ōmori, was actually quite significant in its time, and is widely regarded as marking the birth of Japanese anthropology and archeology.

Tsuboi Shōgorō, a student of Morse, as well as a founding member of the Anthropological Society and a later professor of anthropology at the Tokyo Imperial University, looked at this mysterious pottery and was mostly responsible for formulating a connection between these hypothetical ancient people and the dwarf-like Koropukkuru. Tsuboi uncovered the Ainu stories of the Koropokkuru and was struck by the affinity for pottery that they were said to display, something that was not associated with the Ainu at all. He used this information to further support Morse’s claims and to build that into a case for the existence of these diminutive creatures. Based on the pottery, pit dwellings, and stone implements, all inconsistent with Ainu, Tsuboi hypothesized that these objects were not made by Ainu, but rather by the mysterious Koropokkuru. Other anthropologists and scholars also came to similar conclusions, furthering the introduction of the Koropokkuru into academic discourse, however, these ideas were highly controversial and fiercely debated at the time.

If there was indeed some sort of Stone Age race of half sized, tool using, pit dwelling humanoids in Japan, what were they and where did they come from? One possibility is that the Koropokkuru were some type of race of pygmy humans. “Pygmies” comprise various ethnic groups around the world that are known for their remarkably small statures, and these peoples are generally defined as pygmies if their average height is less than 150cm (4 feet 11 inches). Pygmies can be found in Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman Islands, New Guinea, and the Philippines. Many of these far flung pygmy groups share similar characteristics such as certain physical traits and social customs, which seems to suggest that they were perhaps more common in the past and may have even shared a common ancestry far in the past. If this is true, and these pygmies have been able to spread out over such distances and inhabit various islands and continents, then it seems at least feasible that one such group of people could have at some point made its way to Japan. Although a lost tribe of Japanese pygmies may be behind stories of the Koropokkuru, the rough, brutish, almost ape-like physical characteristics described by the Ainu also seem to suggest that these dwarves may perhaps be something else entirely.

African pygmies in the Congo

Many cultures around the world have long reported the existence of half-sized, hairy hominids lurking in the wilds. These undersize hominids are known to many cryptozoologists as “Proto-Pygmies,” a term coined by the cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson, originally as “proto-pygmies.” Proto-Pygmies are typically described as being bipedal and very human-like, only covered with hair, which is sometimes of differing lengths, and possessing rough, primitive features such as prominent brows and short, thick noses. The possible existence of such seemingly fantastical creatures got a shot in the arm with the discovery of remains of a race of miniature hominids found on Flores Island in the Indonesian archipelago. The skeletal remains and other artifacts were found in Liang Bau Cave, on the Indonesian island of Flores, in 2003, and were first officially described in 2004. The creatures came to be known as Homo floresiensis, and are sometimes referred to as the “Hobbits of Flores.”

Research done on the relatively complete remains of a female specimen referred to as LB1, or the “Little Lady of Flores,” has shown that this full grown adult stood at a height of just 106cm (3 ft 11inches). It has also been established that these creatures were not merely dwarfed regular humans, but rather representatives of a completely new species of diminutive hominins. Perhaps just as surprising as the existence of these creatures is that specimens found thus far have been dated as being 90,000 to 18,000 years old, which makes them contemporaneous with modern humans. It is thought that these “Hobbits” may have existed as little as 12,000 years ago, and maybe even beyond. These creatures also seem to have had a high level of intelligence and relatively sophisticated technology. Among the skeletal remains of Homo floresiensis found in the cave, there were stone tools, including advanced types such as flaked points and evidence of fire use, marking them as being probably at least as intelligent as the humans of the time. Having such a wonderfully unique creature living contemporary to humans is exciting enough, but it also has far reaching implications for the various accounts of little hairy humanoids reported in modern times.

If something like Homo floresiensis has managed to survive into the present day, it gives us a realistic basis upon which to base accounts of similar creatures throughout the region and indeed the world. Already there are relatively contemporary accounts of pygmy hominids in the immediate area that survived until as recently as the 19th century. Among the local people, the creatures were known as the Ebu Gogo, which were said to be small, hairy, cave dwellers. Indonesia also has its stories of the Orang Pendek, a small hairy hominid that is often likened to Homo floresiensis. Stories such as these suggest that perhaps these Flores Hobbits have retained remnant populations in the region.

It would perhaps not be too unusual to find Homo floresiensis, or at least relatives of them, on other Indonesian islands. Stone tools linked to Homo floresiensis have been found on Flores that date back to 840,000 to 750,000 years ago, far predating the arrival of modern humans some 40,000 years ago. The question is how did they get there? Flores Island has long remained isolated, with no land bridges for such creatures to cross. Even when sea levels were at their lowest, Flores was still separated from the mainland by 24 km (15 miles) of water. This suggests that in addition to their tool use and ability to utilize fire, Homo floresiensis, or their ancestors, were able to cross sea barriers as well, perhaps by using some sort of primitive rafts. The idea of sea going ancestors of Homo floresiensis opens up a whole world of possibilities regarding Proto-Pygmies beyond Flores Island and even Indonesia. In fact, stories of hairy little people are scattered throughout Oceania.

Hawaii has its Menehune, 2 to 3 foot tall hominids with stout, muscular bodies, low foreheads, and reddish faces. Interestingly the Koropokkuru similarly are described as having red faces. Ceylon has a type of 3 foot tall hairy hominid known as the Nittaewo. Fiji too has stories of tiny, 2 foot tall hairy dwarves. On the island of Palau, remains were found of an “insular dwarf” that dated to a mere 900 – 2,800 years ago. The northern mountains of Queensland, Australia have long been thought to be the haunt of a race of miniature hairy humanoids known as the Junjdy. These beings were said to be half the size of the native Aborigines. Is it possible that Homo floresiensis, or their ancestors, possibly Homo erectus, spread out throughout Oceania and evolved in isolation into the many kinds of Proto-Pygmies reported today from these far flung places? If so, could such creatures not have made it to other parts of the Pacific as well, including even Japan? Certainly if these creatures did cross sea barriers and manage to inhabit a place as far from Indonesia as Hawaii, the idea that they could have reached Japan should not be too entirely far-fetched.

A Proto-Pygmy related to the Flores hobbits would fit in quite well with the stories of the Koropokkuru. The appearance seems to bear a resemblance, as does the use of stone tools present in both of these creatures. It is also thought that Homo floresiensis was quite possibly capable of speech, although to what extent is not well understood. This ability to speak could possibly explain why the Koropokkuru had the ability to interact and trade with the Ainu, at least in some rudimentary manner. Indeed the vocalizations often reported with Proto-Pygmies in other parts of the Pacific could also be explained by this ability to produce speech.

A remnant population of an ancestor of Homo floresiensis, evolved in isolation on the island of Hokkaido, Japan, does not seem to be a completely impossible notion especially when considering what we know of these “Flores Hobbits” and the amount of Proto-Pygmy accounts scattered throughout the Pacific region. Maybe the presence of these early hominids was more far-reaching than is currently suspected. It is also possible that these creatures may even be remnant populations of some early early human ancestor such as Homo erectus, possibly displaying island dwarfism and other adaptations due to the geographical isolation on the island of Hokkaido.

Although there are no modern accounts of the Koropokkuru, the mystery remains. Did these Japanese Proto- Pygmies exist? Was there ever a race of ancient, miniature hominids that lived contemporaneously with human beings in Japan? If so, what could they have been? Were they a population of pygmy hominids or merely folkloric shadow creatures from another time? These are questions for which we have no answers at this point. Yet perhaps the answers are somewhere out there right now in the cold, expansive wilderness of Hokkaido.