In 2004, a remarkable discovery was made in Flores, an island situated east of Komodo. It was a discovery of what appeared to be a small human, but which some researchers believed may have been the impetus for the tales of the mysterious ape called Orang-pendek. I was recently asked if the Orang-pendek and what became known as Homo floresiensis, are one and the same. On this issue, I'll hand you over to Richard Freeman, creature-seeker and a former head-keeper at England's Twycross Zoo, and someone who has followed this issue closely - having spent a considerable amount of time in the area. Richard states:
“Some theorize that the Orang-pendek may be a small hominian. As far back as the 1940s William Charles Osman Hill, primatologist, zoologist, and anatomist, postulated that Orang-pendek might have a possible connection to the fossils of Homo erectus. Along with the Nittaewo of Sri Lanka, he believed that they might be a dwarf island form of Homo erectus. Island dwarfism occurs when a species colonizes an island smaller than the landmass from whence it came. With fewer resources the species’ descendants evolve into a smaller species.
“The notion of a tiny island hominian was proven in a spectacular manner in 2004. Australian paleontologist Mike Morwood was excavating the Liang Bua cave in the west of Flores when he made a remarkable discovery, an adult skull of a human-like creature, but of tiny proportions. Further excavations uncovered more of the skeleton and a number of other individuals. Most incredibly of all, the remains were not fossilized. Their constitution was likened to wet tissue paper. The bones had to be allowed to dry before they could be excavated. Besides the creatures were tools, weapons, and evidence of fire use.
“The creatures were named Homo floresiensis and in life would have stood only one meter tall. Despite having a smaller cranial capacity than a chimpanzee, it seems that Homo floresiensis was highly intelligent. Not only did it use fire and stone tools, it seems to have hunted pygmy stegodont elephants and giant rodents with which it shared its island home.
“Some tried to discredit the find as nothing more than microcephalic examples of modern man. This theory is quite absurd as the skull of Homo floresiensis are rounded and not elongate or proportionately tiny in the way microcephalics invariably are. Neither could microcephalics produce the tools that the remains were found alongside. Finally, the idea of a number of microcephalics, a rare condition as it is, all being found in the same cave is patently absurd. In general, life expectancy for individuals with microcephaly is reduced and the prognosis for normal brain function is poor. The prognosis varies depending on the presence of associated abnormalities.
“Recent work seems to suggest that Homo floresiensis is even more incredible than we first thought. It now seems that, rather than being a descendent of Homo erectus as originally postulated, but outside of the genus Homo and more closely related to the African Australopithecus. The last known Australopithecus, Australopithecus africanus died out 1.9 million years ago. It seems that the Liang Bua population of Homo floresiensis was killed during the eruption of a volcano around 12,000 years ago. But anthropologist Gregory Forth and others have suggested that Homo floresiensis survived in other parts of Flores until recently and may have been the genesis of the Ebu gogo legends.
“Indeed, the Ebu gogo is said to survive in the deep jungles of Flores even today. The legend of the Ebu gogo’s destruction by fire may be a distorted retelling of real events. Around 1830 a volcano known as Ebu Lobo erupted, spewing lava for a distance of 4km. The date matches fairly well with the date that the Ebu gogo were supposedly destroyed. Could the localized eruption have killed off a late surviving population of Homo floresiensis or have forced them away from the area, leading to the folktale? It seems quite possible that Homo floresiensis and the Ebu gogo are one and the same as are the other Flores creatures known under different names. It is also perfectly possible that Homo floresiensis is still alive and well on Flores and on other Indonesian islands.
“When it was first discovered, many people made the link between Homo floresiensis and the Orang-pendek. Debbie Martyr told me of stories from Sumatra of a race of tiny hairy people. They used tools and fire and lived only in the very deep jungle. But here is the catch, the native people knew them to be totally distinct from the Orang-pendek. These little people were smaller than Orang-pendek and though hairy, they were much less ape-like. Unlike Orang-pendek they fashioned tools, used fires and lived in small tribes. Orang-pendek has no use of fire. It may use sticks as weapons but – as far as we know – it does not seem to fashion tools. Furthermore, it is solitary."
Richard concludes: “Homo floresiensis and Orang-pendek do not match up well. The latter is larger, more primitive, and more solidly built. All of the tracks I have seen of the Orang-pendek show an offset big toe, a feature indicative of an ape. All the eyewitness descriptions seem to be recalling an upright ape and not a hominian.”