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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Ebu Gogo

Posted on Friday 12 November 2004


I'm not sure what to make of this story from Sumatra. Villagers claim that in the nearby jungle there lives an ape that walks like a man which they call sedapa or orang pendek ("short man"). A similar creature known as the batutut is said to inhabit the jungles of Borneo.

The possibility of Indonesia being the last home of various species of pre-modern hominids is certainly very tantalizing. We know that Homo erectus made it to Java about 1.7 million years ago (Java Man) and the latest discoveries on Flores confirm that they were widely travelled within the archipelago. The problem really comes down to the fact that virtually all cultures have folktales about little people (and giants as well) and that Indonesian culture, more so than many others, is filled with an astonishing range of gods, ghosts and mysterious creatures. Also, alas, cryptozoology is just one of those areas where the signal-to-nut ratio is exceedingly poor and I'm sure a lot of tales are easily obtained from the locals by paying tourists.

Nevertheless, folktales are always an interesting subject matter and Richard Roberts, who is one of the co-authors of the paper announcing the discovery of Homo floresiensis, has an interesting one to tell from Flores.

In the very first article I read on this discovery, I remember noticing that they referred to the skeleton of the 30 year-old woman as "Ebu". Ibu is Malay for mother and it turns out to be a reference to a group of creatures that populate local popular stories. They are known as the Ebu Gogo, which has been translated as "grandmother who eats anything".

One of the village elders told us that the Ebu Gogo ate everything raw, including vegetables, fruits, meat and, if they got the chance, even human meat.

When food was served to them they also ate the plates, made of pumpkin - the original guests from hell (or heaven, if you don't like washing up and don't mind replacing your dinner set every week).

The villagers say that the Ebu Gogo raided their crops, which they tolerated, but decided to chase them away when the Ebu Gogo stole - and ate - one of their babies.

They ran away with the baby to their cave which was at the foot of the local volcano, some tens of metres up a cliff face. The villagers offered them bales of dry grass as fodder, which they gratefully accepted.

A few days later, the villagers went back with a burning bale of grass which they tossed into the cave. Out ran the Ebu Gogo, singed but not fried, and were last seen heading west, in the direction of Liang Bua, where we found the Hobbit, as it happens.

When my colleague Gert van den Bergh first heard these stories a decade ago, which several of the villages around the volcano recount with only very minor changes in detail, he thought them no better than leprechaun tales until we unearthed the Hobbit. (I much prefer Ebu as the name of our find but my colleague Mike Morwood was insistent on Hobbit.)

The anatomical details in the legends are equally fascinating. They are described as about a metre tall, with long hair, pot bellies, ears that slightly stick out, a slightly awkward gait, and longish arms and fingers - both confirmed by our further finds this year.

They [the Ebu Gogo] murmured at each other and could repeat words [spoken by villagers] verbatim. For example, to 'here's some food', they would reply 'here's some food'. They could climb slender-girthed trees but, here's the rub, were never seen holding stone tools or anything similar, whereas we have lots of sophisticated artefacts in the H. floresiensis levels at Liang Bua. That's the only inconsistency with the Liang Bua evidence.

The women Ebu Gogo had extremely pendulous breasts, so long that they would throw them over their shoulders, which must have been quite a sight in full flight.

We did ask the villagers if they ever interbred with the Ebu Gogo. They vigorously denied this, but said that the women of Labuan Baju (a village at the far western end of Flores, better known as LBJ) had rather long breasts, so they must have done.

Poor LBJ must be the butt of jokes in Flores, rather like the Irish and Tasmanians.

The Chinese, I hear, have a similar joke about the Japanese as well...

One more thing:
A local eruption at Liang Bua (in western Flores) may have wiped out local hobbits around 12,000 years ago, but they could well have persisted much later in other parts of the island. The villagers said that the last hobbit was seen just before the village moved location, farther from the volcano, not long before the Dutch colonists settled in that part of central Flores, in the 19th century.

Do the Ebu Gogo still exist? It would be a hoot to search the last pockets of rainforest on the island. Not many such pockets exist, but who knows. At the very least, searching again for that lava cave, or others like it, should be done, because remains of hair only a few hundred years old, would surely survive, snagged on the cave walls or incorporated in deposits, and would be ideal for ancient DNA analyses.

Interestingly, we did find lumps of dirt with black hair in them this year in the Hobbit levels, but don't know yet if they're human or something else. We're getting DNA testing done, which we hope will be instructive.

Back on the question of interbreeding, we are continuously being confronted with the "Out of Africa" vs. "Multi-regionalism" debate.

La NuiT in the comments of an earlier post on H. floresiensis expressed some skepticism about the Out of Africa hypothesis. At the time I responded that while the Multi-regionalism scenario was appealing it didn't seem to be born out by the DNA evidence which favours a common African ancestry for all humans living today.

This piece recent piece of DNA research, however, may help to re-open the debate. This time on the side of Multi-regionalism.
The human RRM2P4 pseudogene has a pattern of nucleotide polymorphism that is unlike any locus published to date. A gene tree constructed from a 2.4 kb fragment of the RRM2P4 locus sequenced in a sample of 41 worldwide humans clearly roots in East Asia and has a most recent common ancestor ~2 million years before the present. The presence of this basal lineage exclusively in Asia results in higher nucleotide diversity among non-Africans than Africans. A global survey of a single nucleotide polymorphism that is diagnostic for the basal, Asian lineage in 570 individuals shows that it occurs at frequencies up to 53% in south China, while only one of 177 surveyed Africans carries this archaic lineage. We suggest that this ancient lineage is a remnant of introgressive hybridization between expanding anatomically modern humans emerging from Africa and archaic populations in Eurasia.
In other words, there is a piece of junk DNA (a "pseudogene") which appears to have its origin not in Africa but East Asia. More than 50% of Southern Chinese have the oldest version of it while only about half of one percent of Africans do. The implication of this is that, at least for this particular gene, the most recent common ancestor was about two million years ago (!) and that best explanation for this is that hybridization had taken place between modern humans and other hominids (again, think head lice).

This is only one gene and of course all the usual caveats apply. A great deal more study needs to go into this in order to make this result more conclusive.