Hobbits, Cannibals, and Ebu Gogos – Oh My!

HFlores01Animal Planet brought us another mix of legend, historical fact, and speculation last week with its movie, Cannibal in the Jungle. The difference with this one is that it was very interesting. So CryptoVille set about exploring the possibilities and what we can really know about hobbit fossils, whether they committed cannibalism, and just what the heck is an Ebu Gogo! (Image right by John Gurche from National Museum of Natural History.)

What is an Ebu Gogo?

The Animal Planet movie tried to link the historical fossil record concerning the Hobbit people with a very old legend that spans most of Southeast Asia – that of the Wildman.  In the Indonesian version of this story, on the island of Flores, the Nage people call the creature Ebu Gogo (meaning grandmother who eats anything) and it certainly has had a tumultuous and confusing history.

The creature itself is man-like in appearance, only much hairier. I’ve read where they can stand about 3 feet tall. Their broad faces sport wide mouths and flat noses. Both males and females have been seen.

HFlores03Residents of Flores say they have heard the Ebu Gogos speaking what the Nage think is their own language. They say the Ebu Gogos can repeat words that are said to them.  (Artist’s rendition of H. floresiensis, left.)

Whatever happened to them is still a mystery, but they do not seem to be around today, at least to anyone’s knowledge. Some Nage think they disappeared in the 17th Century soon after the Portuguese trading ships arrived on Flores.

Others say the Nage themselves exterminated them after the Ebu Gogos kept stealing food from their homes and kidnapping their children. According to this version, the villagers tricked the Ebu Gogos into accepting many palm fibers so they could make clothes out of them. The Ebu Gogo took the fibers back to their cave whereupon the villagers set the cave alight, killing most if not all of them.

Greg Forth’s Opinion

Greg Forth is an ethnographer (a scientist who studies individual cultures as a part of anthropology) at the University of Alberta, Canada. He wrote a very interesting article in Anthropology Today on the subject of the Ebu Gogo based on his experiences on the island of Flores. (I was unable to access this article without paying a large fee. However, John Hawks [a Vila-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison] discussed this article on his blog in 2005, so I was able to learn more there.)

HFlores04In his article, Greg explored the possibility that the Ebu Gogo may “actually [be] a preserved memory of relict populations of Homo floresiensis.” (Photo right unattributed.)

He compared this situation to the one we have with Bigfoot and asks the question, why do we not listen to the native peoples in the area?

We’ve been asking the same question here in CryptoVille for years!

Sadly, in his commentary on Greg’s article, John mentions that in modern times, anthropology has changed course a bit and is not as interested in studying the evolution of culture as we might hope. This is a problem because the Ebu Gogo, if it still exists today, by description is more human-like than a Bigfoot is, or another Southeast Asian “Wildman,” the Orang Pendek. Culture evolved along with humans and used to be an important area of study among anthropologists.

If it is more human-like, than it could be closer to the Hobbit people, H. floresiensis themselves, if not the exact same species.

HFloresCaveWhat is Homo floresiensis

In 2003 on the island of Flores in Indonesia, a group of scientists discovered an amazing creature, her remains hidden for eons in a cave in Liang Bua (Photo left). They named this new species Homo floresiensis, nicknamed “the Hobbit” because of its small stature.

This first fossil of a female, referred to as LB1, is the most complete found so far. Science tells us she stood 3 feet tall (1 meter) and weighed between 66 and 77 pounds (30-35 kg). They estimate she was 30 years old when she died.

Scientists believe this species had “large teeth for their small size, shrugged-forward shoulders, no chins, receding foreheads, and relatively large feet due to their short legs. Despite their small body and brain size, H. floresiensis made and used stone tools, hunted small elephants and large rodents, coped with predators such as giant Komodo dragons, and may have used fire.”

The Smithsonian Institution believes LB1 and her kind lived between 95,000 and 17,000 years ago. Other scientists have wondered if she is an offshoot of Homo erectus or a separate unique species.

MicrocephalyCritics countered that LB1 is just a human with microcephaly (a medical condition in which the circumference of the head is smaller than normal because the brain has not developed properly or has stopped growing. It can be present at birth or develop in the first few years of life, according to Google).

Tests and comparisons had been run on LB1’s skull until finally it was determined that her brain was fully developed for its size. The Hobbit brain would have taken up 26 cubic inches, whereas our brains, Homo sapiens, take up 79 cubic inches.

Charles Choi, a contributor to the LiveScience website, wrote, “Another possibility is that the hobbit evolved from Homo habilis, whose brains were only about 600 cubic cm (37 cubic inches).”

Found with the Hobbit

Along with LB1’s remains, the scientists discovered bird fossils of a six foot tall stork called the marabou stork. Three wrist bones were also found further making the case that H. floresiensis is its own species, and not a branch of something else. Some researchers have reported that they think the wrist bones of these creatures resemble those of apes more than humans, but I suppose if these hominids were evolving, that wouldn’t be unexpected.

HFlores05According to the Smithsonian Institute, “Paleoanthropologists found many stone tools associated with H. floresiensis and these tools are broadly similar to those found earlier on Flores and throughout the human evolutionary career. [Sic] There is also evidence that  H. floresiensis selectively hunted Stegodon sondaari (an extinct type of elephant) as hundreds of these bone fragments are found within H. floresiensis occupation layers and some of these S. sondaari bones show butchery marks.” (Photo right of other bones found in the same cave as LB1, along with stegodont teeth.)

Were They Cannibals

Science doesn’t know enough about them to say whether they were or not. The Nage legend seems to imply they may have been by saying they stole the Nage’s children. Why? One account said that was so the children could teach the “Ebu Gogo” to cook, but that seems bizarre to me.

There is still much more to learn about this species, but nowadays most scientists believe that H. floresiensis represents its own unique species of early human.

Does that mean this is the creature mistaken for the Ebu Gogo?

HFloresSizeCompareI suppose it’s possible. From what I read, in the days before H. floresiensis was discovered, anthropologists believed the Ebu Gogo legend was based on some type of monkey.

But with the discovery of this new species, some, like Gregory Forth, have speculated that the Ebu Gogo, and other “Wildman” creatures such as the Orang Pendek, may actually be based on long term cultural memories of H. floresiensis.

It’s important to remember that the Nage people feel the Ebu Gogo aren’t around anymore and I believe they would know better than anyone. So while H. floresiensis is a wonderful discovery and adds another fascinating chapter to evolutionary history, I am satisfied that this species is long gone and no longer bothering humans.

The Movie

I think Animal Planet did a nice job with this movie – it was very interesting, compelling, and enjoyable. They based their story on facts and legend and wove it into a fun plot. For instance, the fact that the scientists were looking for a very rare owl species is based on a real species, the Otus alfredi, known as the Scops owl.

This owl, described as “one of the world’s most elusive owls” lives on Flores, Indonesia. Here’s a photo of one:


I thought their make-up people did a wonderful job bringing H. floresiensis to life – scary and realistic!

But rest assured, the whole story was pure fiction, acted from a script. The fact it was loosely based on legends and some scientific data was fascinating.


So what do you think about all this? Did you like the movie? Do you still think H. floresiensis may still exist?











One comment

  1. Great article! That is a great discovery and also that they now know that homo florensiensis is a separate species that evolved separate from our ancestors.

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