Some time ago the world of paleoanthropology was surprised at the discovery of Homo floresiensis, a one-meter tall, primitive hominid that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores up until as recently as 12,000 years ago. The tiny stature of these hominids led wags to tag them as the “hobbits.”
But the folks on that island also have a legend of the Ebu Gogo, a tiny, hairy people that live in the deep forest. Could this legend have arisen from a distant memory? It’s possible, but there are some problems with the theory. Excerpt:
The proposed connection between the bones and the myth raised an interesting question, one that is being explored by anthropologists in other parts of the world: how far back in time can oral traditions accurately report events? Some scientists studying indigenous memory have suggested that oral traditions contain extraordinarily reliable records of real events occurring thousands of years ago. Where, then, are the boundaries between legend, memory, myth and science? Had the people of Flores preserved an oral record of H floresiensis?
The ethnographer who originally documented the tale of ebu gogo, Gregory Forth of the University of Alberta in Canada, argued that anthropologists are too inclined to dismiss folk categories as products of the imagination, while others pointed to the many correlations that existed between the description of ebu gogo and H floresiensis. Both were described as having long arms, for example, and being small in stature. Many were intrigued by the extreme detail of the legend; surely the vivid description of the ‘pendulous breasts’ that the ebu gogo allegedly threw over her shoulders must be compelling. Forth even lamented that the ‘dimensions of female breasts is, unfortunately, one of many things that cannot be gauged from paleontological evidence’.
From the beginning, there were, however, weak links in the proposed connection between the prehistoric bones and the mythical legend. To begin with, the two concepts exist in entirely different regions of Flores. The category ‘ebu gogo’ belongs to the Nage people who reside more than 100 kilometres away from the H floresiensis discovery site at Liang Bua, across treacherous mountains and thick jungle forests. The hobbit cave is instead home to the culturally and linguistically distinct people known as the Manggarai. While it is not unimaginable that H floresiensis could have roamed the landscape, it is suspicious that ebu gogo is not a Manggarai invention. A quick glance across the archipelago also reveals that stories of small forest creatures are not unique to Flores, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the area is rife with living, humanlike primates. The well-known orang pendek (short people) of nearby Sumatra, for example, are thought to be accounts of orangutans. While Flores has no orangutans, there are plenty of macaques.
While it’s neat to think that some racial memory of these little forest people may yet remain in the oral legends of the people of Flores, I’m inclined to agree with the skeptics. In the first place, more accurate dating has placed the most recent “hobbit” remains at closer to 50,000 years old; in the second, as noted above, there are other primates in the area that could more easily explain the legends. Occam’s Razor, I think, applies here.
It’s also interesting to note that some proponents of the existence of Bigfoot/Sasquatch type creatures purport that those beings are a remnant population of some hominid, such as Homo erectus or the Neanderthal. The problem with that, as with the Ebu Gogo legend, is simply this: There’s no evidence.
Some legends, it seems, are destined to remain as they are – only stories.