Orang Pendek: Forest Hobbit of Sumatra
A description of Sumatra's own little miniature Bigfoot legend.
by Brian Dunning
December 4, 2007
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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.
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.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Orang Pendek: Forest Hobbit of Sumatra." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
4 Dec 2007. Web.
19 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4077>
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.
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