Friday, April 27, 2012

Orang Pendek, Small Man of Sumatra

Deep in the jungles of Sumatra there lives a creature few outsiders have ever seen, a bipedal (walks on two legs) species of ape or proto-humanoid that stands roughly one meter tall and is generally reported as being covered in an orange fur or hair, similar to the Orangutan.
Locals call it "Orang Pendek", which means Short Person in Indonesian. This is the name given to an animal that people have been seeing for hundreds of years in and around Kerinci-Seblat National Park in central Sumatra. However, the Orang Pendek is described as being distinctly different from the Orangutan in that it is more humanoid in appearance and walks in a completely upright, human-like posture. One of the most fascinating aspects of this animal is its bipedality. Can you guess the only ape we know of that walks primarily bipedally? Us humans! The existence of another bipedal ape could force us to reconsider fundamental questions about our own evolution.

Without fail, local witnesses and legends describe Orang Pendek as: an ape, who standing between three and five feet tall and covered with fur, with a strong chest and arms, the creature walks upright along the ground like a human. Though short in stature, many witnesses report it to have a thick, muscular upper body, and the strength to uproot small trees. Orang Pendek is said to eat vegetation and small animals.
Even though its name means "short person", everyone will tell you that, "Of course it's not a person, it's an animal!" Consider orang-utans, whose name means "forest person". Apes and monkeys have been ascribed human-like qualities throughout history in this region of the world.  It poses no threat to humans, though it can become quite ferocious when cornered. It is a creature well known to Sumatrans, but only relatively recently researchers have begun to investigate the truth behind Orang Pendek. Consider also that Orang Pendek is almost never described as being magical or spirit-like in nature. I think this is an important point in that, while legends of forest spirits and magical beings abound in the local culture, Orang Pendek is described matter-of-factly as just another animal of the forest.

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). 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.
No specimen, living or dead, has ever been recovered, and little evidence exists beyond stories and footprints. Even barring the footprint evidence, the wide range of sightings alone calls for some investigation, and they're tough to dismiss. Some claim supposed sightings of Orang Pendek are misidentifications of local, known animals. The orangutan and gibbon are two primates that inhabit the same region, but if historical witness accounts are to be believed neither are likely explanations for this bizarre creature. Others believe Orang Pendek is possibly an unknown species of primate.

Recently, much more attention has been focused on legends of the Orang Pendek because of the discovery of the Indonesian "hobbit" or Homo floresiensis on the nearby island of Flores in 2003. Homo floresiensis is an extremely small species of human that was known to have survived at least until 12,000 years ago, which means it likely co-existed on the island with modern homo sapiens. According to local legend, which names Homo floresiensis the ebu gogo, it survived until at least the year 1900, and may still be alive today. Some researchers think that the Orang Pendek is the same species as the ebu gogo. The Orang Pendek is often classified as a proto-pygmy, a type of smaller, more human-like hairy humanoid.  
Is it reasonable to think that if Homo floresiensis were able to migrate to the island of Flores in ancient times, they may have gained a foothold in Sumatra as well?

Could Orang Pendek be an unknown primate, or is there an undocumented species of human running around the jungles of Sumatra? Or, Orang Pendek may be the product of misidentified animals, and generations of campfire stories dating back to a time when modern humans shared the land with a bizarre but now extinct creature. Perhaps someday we’ll know the truth, but until then the short people of the forest will remain a mystery. 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.

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