Orang Pendek: Forest Hobbit of Sumatra

A description of Sumatra's own little miniature Bigfoot legend.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Cryptozoology

Skeptoid #77
December 4, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Ssssshhh! We're in a dense jungle on the island of Sumatra, quietly making our way toward a brownish, three-foot-tall ape that one of our party spotted walking upright. Stop, he sees us! Wow, look at him. Note the scientifically plausible facial features and body geometry. Look at his small feet, which leave tracks surprisingly like those of the sun bear. Let's see if we can move a little closer — oh, there he goes! Watch him swing expertly up into the trees, and — wow, he's gone, just like that. Isn't it amazing that of all of us holding cameras, nobody thought to take a photograph? Well, just punch ourselves in the head for that one. Apparently, the orang pendek has some mystical quality that makes even the most dedicated of eyewitnesses forget to use their cameras.

Well, here's one convincing factoid about the orang pendek: It sounds a lot like orangutan, so it's probably a relative or subspecies, and not some ridiculous cryptid with a wild sounding name like Bigfoot or Abominable Snowman. In fact, the similarity in names is not much help at all. Orang pendek is simply Indonesian for "short person", just as orang utan means "forest person". If you were hoping that orang pendek's legitimate-sounding name meant that it has some zoological classification, you are disappointed.

Sometime in the 1980's, cryptozoologists began reading early 20th century accounts from Dutch settlers in Sumatra, and found that a few of their numerous reports about the strange animals they encountered there could be generally corroborated with one of the numerous characters from local Indonesian jungle lore, the orang pendek. Considering the large number of Dutch stories, most of which had nothing to do with any kind of ape-like creature, and the even larger number of fanciful native legends of magical forest creatures, this connection made by cryptozoologists was really quite a stretch. But it stuck, and now orang pendek is a firm fixture in the cryptozoology files.

So much so, in fact, that in the 1990's a pair of British cryptozoologists named Debbie Martyr and Jeremy Holden began a 15-year search in Sumatra. They interviewed hundreds of natives, set up motion-triggered camera traps, made plaster footprint casts, and tramped along hundreds of miles of jungle trails. Debbie formed a detailed and specific description of orang pendek:

"[It is] usually no more than 85 or 90cm in height — although occasionally as large as 120cm. The body is covered in a coat of dark grey or black flecked with grey hair. But it is the sheer physical power of the orang pendek that most impresses the Kerinci villagers. They speak in awe, of its broad shoulders, huge chest and upper abdomen and powerful arms. The animal is so strong, the villagers would whisper that it can uproot small trees and even break rattan vines. The legs, in comparison, are short and slim, the feet neat and small, usually turned out at an angle of up to 45 degrees. The head slopes back to a distinct crest — similar to the gorilla — and there appears to be a bony ridge above the eyes. But the mouth is small and neat, the eyes are set wide apart and the nose is distinctly humanoid. When frightened, the animal exposes its teeth — revealing oddly broad incisors and prominent, long canine teeth."

With all of their hardware and determination, you'd think they would have gotten a photograph. But they never did. Both Debbie and Jeremy claim to have seen orang pendek on multiple occasions, but unfortunately, neither thought to employ that camera they were holding. Not even a hastily shot blurred photo of the animal running away? And yet they both saw it on several occasions? Hmmm.

More recently, two British dudes, Adam Davies and Andrew Sanderson, have been traveling around Sumatra trying to collect evidence. They brought back footprint casts and some hairs. The hairs were analyzed by microscope and determined to be from an unknown primate; and then their DNA was analyzed and found to be disappointingly human. So much for objective microscope analysis performed by cryptozoologist proponents.

There have never been any reports of orang pendek corpses or bones or body parts preserved in villages like the Tibetans do with Yeti skull caps (or goat skull caps, take your pick), so what evidence does exist of orang pendek? Well, there's nothing at all that a scientist would call evidence. There is tons of anecdotal evidence in the form of ancient legends and verbal reports, but none of that can be tested. There are footprint casts, which tend to be dismissed by most primatologists because they are indirect evidence of indirect evidence of something that's said to leave footprints exactly like those of a child. When you analyze footprints, you're up against some pretty long odds. The Bigfoot guys face this same problem. You can hold a plaster cast in your hand and measure it and say all sorts of stuff about it, but it's never good evidence. You can hold it in your hand, and yet all you know of its origin is that the person who made it gave you an untestable verbal claim that it came from a footprint-shaped hole in the ground; and even assuming that footprint-shaped hole in the ground was there, and was not made by the guy himself, it's still of unknown origin. This is why a footprint cast can never rise above the status of anecdotal evidence. But such anecdotal evidence does still have value. You can form hypotheses from it, such as, "Maybe an orang pendek does exist in the area where this cast is said to be from," and now you have a hypothesis that can be tested. We've already had a number of people out there in Sumatra testing this hypothesis, and so far they have zilch.

It seems a shame to discard all the eyewitness accounts; moreover, it seems scientifically irresponsible. These eyewitness accounts have been coming for hundreds of years. Surely all these people must be seeing something, right? Well, again, when we in the brotherhood do what we call "science" we have to sort testable evidence from untestable evidence. Untestable verbal accounts don't prove a thing, but they do give us stuff like starting points for where to search for actual testable evidence. They clearly do have value. Debbie and Jeremy assembled a vast collection of such stories and followed every plausible lead to search for testable evidence.

So why didn't they come up with anything? Are all the eyewitness accounts and ancient stories wrong? Not necessarily. Sumatra is a big place and we're looking for a tiny little monkey walking around. What else might account for the stories? There are several reasonable possibilities. Gibbons and orangutans both live in Sumatra and could be responsible for all the sightings. Gibbons are the right size and color, but only walk on their hind legs for a short time. Young orangutans are the right size, but they generally live further to the north and orang pendek is usually reported to be a different color.

Earlier I mentioned the sun bear as a candidate for the footprints. Discounting some of the lore that says orang pendek's feet point backwards to fool trackers, the footprints are generally said to look just like those of a seven-year-old child. The sun bear, with its narrow feet and claws positioned just like toes, also leaves footprints that are said to look just like those of a (what was it again?) oh yes — a seven-year-old child.

There is a stranger possibility that has been opined by some. The 2003 discovery of Homo floresiensis on Flores, another Indonesian island, was widely reported in the media as a "Hobbit", a new species of early human who lived a mere 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. What we have here is actual hard evidence that a creature, roughly similar to orang pendek in size and some other respects, did live in the vicinity at one time. This doesn't suggest that it might still live in the vicinity, but the possibility is always there. It's just really unlikely, considering that it would have had to live side-by-side with humans (Homo erectus first came to the region an estimated two million years ago). You'd think that in all that time, there would have had to have been some crossing of paths beyond the isolated village story or two.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

At least one remote population in Sumatra has a legend of small forest people that they call the ebu gogo, but modern correlations with orang pendek are really more the work of overzealous cryptozoologists than the result of any real academic historiography. Such overly optimistic correlations have drawn claims that the ebu gogo is known to have existed as recently as the year 1900, but it turns out that the source of such claims are merely stories from remote tribes of the form "My grandfather used to tell how their tribal elder got magical advice from an ebu gogo in the forest." Keep in mind that Sumatra is so diverse and fragmented that there are still 52 languages spoken there. Sumatra is a supermarket of folklore. I doubt you could find any ancient population anywhere on the island that's not going to have a dozen such legends, whether that tribe ever actually encountered Homo floresiensis in its ancient history or not. In such an environment, it would not be a tall order to substantiate just about any crazy story you want, just by matching it up with some local legend.

So if you travel to Sumatra and plan to spend some time camping in the jungle, I wouldn't worry too much about a tiny ape running around your campsite and wreaking havoc, or beating its little chest in a cute little Tarzan display. Maybe there is an orang pendek, but so far, if you want to believe in it, that's all you have to go on: Your own belief.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Allen, Benedict. Hunting the Gugu. UK: Macmillan(hard), 1989. 192-208.

Brown, G. Great Bear Almanac. New York: Lyons Press - Globe Pequot Press, 1993. 23.

Brown, P., Sutikna, T., Morwood, M., Soejono, R., Jatmiko, W., Saptomo, E., Awe Due, R. "A new small-bodied hominid from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia." Nature. 28 Oct. 2004, 431: 1055-1061.

Eberhart, George M. Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology, Volume 2. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2002. 722.

Goldenberg, Linda. Little People and a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2007. 112.

Huyghe, P., Coleman, L. Field Guide To Bigfoot, Yeti, & Other Mystery Primates Worldwide. New York: Harper Perennial, 1999. 224.

Rodgers, Susan. "Folklore with a Vengeance: A Sumatran Literature of Resistance in the Colonial Indies and New Order Indonesia." Journal of American Folklore. 1 Apr. 2003, Volume 116, Number 460: 129-158.

Scot, Barbara J. The Violet Shyness of Their Eyes: Notes from Nepal. Oregon: CALYX Books, 1993. 287 - 288.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Orang Pendek: Forest Hobbit of Sumatra." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 4 Dec 2007. Web. 31 Aug 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4077>


10 most recent comments | Show all 36 comments

Bravo Richard. Your papers with your expert claims are published in which journal?

What would Brian know just listing standard doubts that biologists and anthropologists and cryptozoologists of note have.

PS Brian actually is in a stable with a very well known monster hunter who is well read.

Your refs to your work again.. It would look grat having someone well published on the matter and about to receive a prize from the Leakey foundations various for anthropology disputing a mere skeptic. Its a win-win for us observers on skeptoid.

Henk V, Sydney Australia
September 3, 2011 10:14pm

I find it rather disturbing that cryptozoology is treated as it is. Far too many cryptozoologists and wannabes have become "believers", apparently under the impression that cryptozoology is a religion... Just how polarized people can get over this is pretty evident, considering many of the above posts.

Though the majority of moster hunters may refute any evidence against them, there is no reason to believe that cryptozoology cannot be approached in a scientific manner. The scientific cryptozoologist would have to be the strongest of men, those prepared to disprove their hypothesis on a regular basis. Most people do not care to admit that they "wasted 15 years" researching something that does not exist, and likely possess a bias. It's, in fact, better to be WARY of someone who has investd too much. It's human nature, and it's not that difficult to see. That isn't to say that no scientific contribution was made in those 15 years, as disproving something (or contributing evidence against) is valuable to science as well.

Verdi also poses a very valid point, which I notice no one else has taken the time to consider.

And Richard, if you're a man of science, as you seem to think, why are you placing so much value on anecdotal evidence? Yes, it's evidence, but of the weakest kind. The much publicized alien anal-prodding stories were proven to be night terrors. This is an example of why it is foolish to trust blindly. Provide us with some hard evidence if you are so certain.

Kevin, Edmonton
September 5, 2011 10:44am

Its not hard Kevin. Real cryptozoologists would have to bee paid scientists with funding that is enough to support their work.

The others are called hobbyists.

A cryptozoologists is hunting myth... making its scientific validity tenuous.

If something odd is observed, folk get the funding to ascertain what it is. And then use the money to try to do experiments trying to observe such an event.

Were it that a creature so elusive as a bigfoot a yeti a sino neanderthal or a true new hominid being more than just a proposal at least one of them would have been dissected by now (shoot first, ask conferences later...businee as usual!)

I am quite happy to accept that something large (bigger than a dog) may well be found in the future. What I am not happy about is the immediate precept that it has to be a mythological creature from its initial establishment in a pseudo scientific report.

If someone had said we have spotted what is possibly a new species of ape or bear or dog, I'd be happy.

If someone says "we think we have found the spangeld flying man-ape of paradise" then, I am afraid the old "here we go again" mind set throws up its usual comedy routine.

As I have stated above, if it turns out to be a brown dog with a yellow tail the freaky zoology folk wold say, hey, we knew it was something.

Its the fall back position that herals rank amateurs.

Henk V, sin city, Oz
September 5, 2011 8:25pm

I really think the condescending tone lessens the impact of your argument. This is a common flaw among the skeptic community. Is your goal to be persuasive, or insulting? If it is to be persuasive, you would accomplish more with less sarcasm.

Now, on to my opion about Orang Pendek. I think there may be something to it, but that it will probably turn out to be interesting but not Earth shattering. My intuitive guess is that it is the mixing of reports of multiple already-known animals, including orangutans. That would be interesting because they are not thought to be present in that part of Sumatra.

The most interesting ape-related discovery of recent years as to be the Bili ape. Chimps the size of small Gorillas - very neat. So, who knows, maybe they will find something of similarly interesting, but not profound, nature in Sumatra.

One question, are you sure the western witnesses had cameras on them at the moments they saw the animal? Your post implies that they did, but do we know that?

Jonathan, Atlanta
November 15, 2011 2:39pm

I don't get what the 'crypto-nerds' get off on myself.

We already have thousands of known fascinating creatures and these folks trace fable and legend to 'discover' another.

IF this creature was already known to us today, it would be nothing special to most humans, including - maybe especially - cryptozoologists.

The probably extinct Thylacine for example, we look at the photos and footage, a little sadder that we probably killed off another species, yet if it were alive today would we 'cherish' it anymore today than any other marsupial today? I think not. How many folks today get really 'excited' about a known animal? Heck we could even be trying to control it because it maybe a pest!!!

We know that worldwide there are thousands of undiscovered creatures from nematodes to mammals, if the crypto-crowd want to discover something new then just look for something smaller - but of course microscopic worms are not interesting enough for these folks are they?

It seems to me that crptozooologists have a lower threshold for evidence. The old 'I saw it so it must be true' anecdote is something we hear from ghost-hunters to alien hypothesis believers all the time, and I for one don't buy it, I know that humans can be fooled and eye-witnesses do get observations wrong, I certainly have.

True we can't say that the Orang Pendek doesn't exist, nor can we say the same for dragons, unicorns or perhaps even Ming the Merciless.

Myths without proof are just myths.

David "sheeple" Healey, Maidenhead, UK
September 26, 2012 9:25am

Sadly that wouldnt be crypto and even sadder... finding bugs and creepies, fish and beetles happens every day.

Be singularly amased and get a PhD in the process...Isolate a few square yards of your lawn and start logging... If you are profoundly unlucky, you get an ecology doctorate for that square few yards..

If astondlingly lucky you get a few papers on new species and...grants for students to dig up the rest of the property...

Biology is worth it... get out there guys..

The students? they drink beer... getting a degree in brewing costs a lot... just do it from scratch..

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
December 18, 2012 3:39am

If this animal does/did exist,it probably won't much longer.The scandalous destruction of the rainforest in Sumatra caused by companies from Indonesia,Malaysia and Singapore and with the willing encouragement of the Indonesian Gvt. would no doubt seal its destruction,along with other endangered species we do know about such as the orang-utan,rhinoceros and Sumatran tiger.

nick cox, singapore
August 28, 2013 12:45am

at four or five nut brown wigs per pelt I can see why people would like to think they exist.

Mortal Dilpin, Greenacres by the sea Oz
September 13, 2013 12:00am

Lars Thomas and his team from Copenhagen University concluded that are sample hairs brought back in 2009 were from a large unknown primate. Other samples are currently with Professor Bryan Sykes of Oxford University.
I took seven years of constant searching before the snow leopard was filmed. Do you think we can just stoll out and film an orang-pendek in a couple of weeks? This is an on going project and we are now working with Dr Achad Yanuar of theNational University of Java and Dr Wilson Novarino of Andalas University.
You keep on bleaing about subjects you know nothing about and places you have never bee from your comfy chair. I'll keep going back into the jungle and doing real research.

Richard Freeman, Exeter
September 28, 2013 6:54pm

"What we have here is actual hard evidence that a creature, roughly similar to orang pendek in size and some other respects, did live in the vicinity at one time."

Vicinity ! Sumatra is a huge island. Its closest point to Flores is at a mere 2000 km ! From the place where orang pendek is suppose to live to where the Flores man was found it's probably close to 3000 km.

I wish you would sometimes peruse a map or two just to gain a little general knowledge before posting !

Critical thinking for the sake of de-bunking and deprived of general knowledge is not of much use I think.

Eric, France
April 1, 2014 5:54am

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