Gregory Forth is an anthropologist, professor at the Canadian University of Alberta for more than 30 years. For decades he has been exploring the culture of the inhabitants of the Indonesian island of Flores, precisely there they discovered fossil remains attributed to a dwarf human species nicknamed the Hobbit.
Gregory Forth’s new book Between Ape and Human puts forward an explosive hypothesis: an creature locally described as intermediate between human and ape could continue to live on the island of Flores, well known by one of the island peoples, the Lio.
A big thank you to Gregory Forth who agreed to answer questions from Strange reality.
Strange reality : Could you describe your work as cultural anthropologist, researcher.
Gregory Forth : I first began research in eastern Indonesia in 1975-76, when I lived for two years on Sumba, a large island to the south of Flores. My interest really began in 1984, when I started a new project in the Nage ethnolinguistic region of Flores and began hearings stories of creatures called ebu gogo, who local people said became extinct several hundred years previously. I came across the ‘ape-men’ (lai ho’a) described by the Lio people, further to the east, in 2003. This was fortunately before the discovery of Homo floresiensis, in western Flores, was announced in autumn 2004. But needless to add, the paleontological find further spurred my interest in figures like the Lio ape-men.
(PS I not longer favour the term ‘wildman, wildmen’ so in the present book I speak of ‘ape-men’, which more closely accords with local depictions.)
The island of Flores is 360 km long, with a population of around 2 million. Six main different languages are spoken by a population of mostly Melanesian origin. Two important archaeological sites: the cave of Liang Bua where all the remains of Floresiensis were found, and the site of Mata Menge where fossils of another primate similar, but smaller and older than Floresiensis, were found.
In your book we can see that you are very careful with testimonies, not hiding anything from the different versions that witnesses can give over the years. Why is this important?
In any study it’s important to make clear (for yourself and others) how you acquired knowledge of a topic and what factors could affect what people say and how you understood it. For that reason I reject some sighting reports as not reflecting a scientifically undocumented creature. In the book, such transparency allows readers to evaluate my data and interpretations. As much as anything the study involved getting to know Lio people and how they think about and express themselves on certain topics—standard procedure in ethnography, or anthropological fieldwork.
From the observations collected could you describe lai ho’a, the ape-man of Flores?
The book presents descriptions of ape-men throughout. Not surprisingly, the descriptions vary somewhat, especially among eyewitness accounts. But in general they were all describing the same thing—a small hominoid, standing on average around a metre tall and walking erect like a physically modern human but with ape- or ‘monkeylike’ facial features, and a rather hairy body. Often they were described as appearing intermediate between humans and apes (thus the title of the book), but much smaller than and lacking the very long tails of Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fasciliaris), the only non-human primate documented for the island. The overall appearance of the ape-men thus closely corresponds to reconstructions of Homo floresiensis, though of course we cannot know how hairy floresiensis was. There even seems to be agreement between what has been said about floresiensis morphology and the way floresiensis moved bipedally, on the one hand, and descriptions of apemen offered by some eyewitnesses, on the other. As for differences, the ape-men may have been somewhat smaller and shorter than the type-specimen of Homo floresiensis, but this specimen was taller than the other individuals found at the discovery site, Liang Bua. As I discuss in the book, the apemen could descend from small-bodied hominins present on Flores perhaps a million years ago, rather than directly from H. floresiensis, the hominins found in the single site called Liang Bua. Evidence for much older hominins, which may or may not have been the ancestors of floresiensis, suggest a creature even smaller than floresiensis.
Representations and reconstructions of Homo Floresiensis
What makes you think the Lai ho’a is an existing species ? Because some sightings are very recent? Because some of the descriptions sound realistics and because the environment could allow an undiscovered primate species to remain hidden ?
All of these factors suggest that the lai ho’a could be a new species. But circumstantial factors add to the argument. Most importantly, remains of Homo floresiensis have been found at just a single site on a long, thin mountainous island with an area of over 14,000 square kilometres. It is impossible that they would have lived at a single site, so as palaeoanthropologists have admitted, we just don’t know when they became extinct—or if they did, why they became extinct. The only objections I’ve read so far against the survival of the ape-men (or floresiensis, if they’re not one and the same), includes the old chestnut that if they did exist, they would have been noticed or discovered by know. This, rather arrogantly, ignores the fact that they have been noticed—by Flores Islanders! Another standard objection is that local resources (in this case on Flores) would not be sufficient to support them. But as I discuss in the book, the island is not that small and includes mountainous regions where humans never or rarely go. It also contains sufficient sources of food for a very small-bodied hominin—and one that, according to local opinion, is very rare. One thing that is equally certain is that, if anyone had claimed before the discovery of the remains of floresiensis, that there had been a tiny hominin living on Flores, perhaps overlapping with Homo sapiens, then exactly the same points would have been made by palaeoanthropologists and others, against the possibility that any such thing had existed.
Located near the Wallace line, which delimits the Indomalayan and Australasian ecosystems, the island of Flores is notably home to the largest species of rat in the world.
Island rule is a general principle that aims to explain how selective pressures related to food resources on islands can explain why some animals remain much smaller (island dwarfism) or grow much larger (island gigantism) than they do on the continent. In general, small rodents and marsupials on islands tend to become gigantic, while carnivores, elephants, and grazing animals like antelopes and deer tend toward dwarfism.
What are the dfferences between Ebu-Gogo and Lai ho’a ?
Regarding lai ho’a and ebu gogo, there’s not much difference between the two. Ebu gogo seems somewhat larger and hairier; they are also portrayed as dull-witted whereas the lai ho’a are not. But as ebu gogo are locally thought to be extinct, all this comes from stories passed down over generations. (On the other hand, my chapter 8 reveals new evidence suggesting that something like the ebu gogo may have survived until the 1970s.)
Lai ho’a bares ressemblances to many « little people» signtings around the world. We have for example the orang pendek of Sumatra, a short ape-man described to walk strangely too. We still have sightings in our old Europe. All of them are considered today as purely mythical.
In the book I review several reasons for thinking that the Lio ape-men might be something other than a species so far undiscovered and unrecognized by academic science. In Chapter 3, I discuss whether they might be non-physical (or non-empirical) beings, like forest spirits for example, and show why this is very unlikely. I also consider in detail why it’s difficult to attribute the sightings to monkeys, an undiscovered species of ape (like gibbons), or something like a ‘hidden’ tribe of humans (like the negritos found elsewhere in Southeast Asia). However, there’s no reason why these sorts of interpretations should not be the best way of explaining claims about other small humanlike beings in other parts of the world. For example, I’ve suggested in an article and also in another book, that the Sumatran ‘orang pendek’ is most likely an orang-utan or another species of relatively large ape. But each case has to be taken on its own merits—and in its own cultural, linguistic, ecological, and historical setting.
Do you think Flores ape-men, could be scientifically discovered ? What would be required to achieve this goal according to you ?
To convince scientists of the existence of the ape-man would require a specimen—a body (living or dead) or a large part of a body (e.g. the head). Footprints or photographs would not be sufficient, though they could inspire field zoologists to start looking. As regards footprints, one reason they are not commonly mentioned is because local people have no good reason to look for or even notice them. In the past, some Lio hunters had expertise in recognizing tracks of different animals. But Lio don’t hunt ape-men and, moreover, generally seek to avoid them. What’s more, for some decades or longer, Lio men have been less engaged in hunting than previously. For the same reason, many people once residing in inland regions have begun to move to the coast and closer to modern roads—where there would be less chance of encountering an ape-man, let alone its tracks. Ape-men are characterized as creatures of high mountain forest. For several reasons, ape-men being ‘discovered’ by academic scientists would very likely not be a good thing for the species. It would also present us with the moral problem of what to do with them—should they be treated like fellow humans or like apes ? For all kinds of anthropology, the discovery would be momentous. I’m reminded of a remark attributed to a member of the Homo floresiensis discovery team, who, referring to the species small size, physically primitive features, and recent dates, said he would have been less surprised if someone had discovered a space alien.
About the concept of living fossil. We have other examples that show some possible archaic species could have survive until this day. You mentioned Coelancanthe as an example. Is this phenomenon accepted by science ? How do we explain it ?
Yes, the fact that two species of Coelacanth have survived to the present is accepted by scientists. Another case is the Laotian rock rat, which I also discuss in the book. I’m not sure it is correct to say that modern Coelacanths haven’t evolved, though they are identifiable as the same sort of animal as what was previously presumed to have gone extinct before the dinosaurs. Why this happens while other species change into physically quite different animals, which are then interpreted as different species or included in a more inclusive taxon (e.g. Homo erectus and Homo sapiens) has no simple answer—other than natural selection following mutation or environmental change.
(PS Since fossils are the remains of dead animals, a ‘living fossil’ is strictly speaking an impossibility.)
The term Living Fossil was coined by Darwin to refer to species that appear to have not evolved for millions of years. In this case, the coelacanth belongs to a group of fish which, with their fleshy fins, are considered close to terrestrial vertebrates. It seemed extinct since the Cretaceous, 70 million years ago. Like him, the New Zealand sphenodon punctatus is the last surviving of a reptilian order present 200 millions years ago. Genetic analyzes have shown that these animals actually evolved more slowly than the others.
We can see you are brave enough to focus on a taboo scientific question : is there other human species than us on earth today ? Cryptozoologists, or independant resarcher as we may call them, are investigating this as much as they can. Is it a legimitate quest ?
Actually, as an anthropologist ‘taboo’ interests me as much or more than some other topics I investigate. ‘Crypozoology’ literally means the study of ‘hidden’ animals, i.e. creatures that have yet to be ‘discovered’ or recognized by academic zoology. So unless one believes that there are no new animals to be found, it’s difficult to see why anyone should have any objection to it. At the same time, ‘cryptozoology’ attracts quite a bit of popular interest among non-scientists and non-academics who who sometimes connect cryptids with space aliens, conspiracy theories about the powers-that-be keeping knowledge from the general public, and so on. Naturally I have less sympathy for that. If trained zoologists and other academics were more open-minded, then there shouldn’t be any such thing as ‘cryptozoology’, because research into the possible existence of undiscovered animals would be part of ordinary zoology.
What is the next step in your researches ? How do you see the future of this scientific quest ? Lai ho’a may have a good chance to remain undiscovered ?
As I’m now in my seventies, it’s unlikely I’ll be going back to Flores to continue field research into the ape-men. But I hope that the book might inspire other people to do so. What would be required is a research team comprising younger and fitter people trained in anthropology, field zoology, and other relevant disciplines. Also, it would take a sustained effort, not just a visit of a few weeks, and that of course would require financial support. As you suggest in your last question, and for reasons I discuss in the last chapter of my book, lai hoa have a good chance of remaining undiscovered. If they recently became extinct, finding remains would also be unlikely as bones require a long time and very specific, favourable conditions in order to be fossilized or otherwise preserved. Besides, new species, and species thought to be extinct but still alive (like the Coelacanth) are usually found by accident, not by people deliberately going in search of them. But who knows. Homo floresiensis was a complete surprise.