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Monday, 15 August 2011

Alternative Info on the Orang Pendek

Alternative Info on the Orang Pendek

While browsing the internet and looking for folk art of Indonesian Nagas, I came across an art dealer's site which displayed this little woodcarving of a "Dwarf" (Pygmy)from the Banyuwangi region of Java: and the Banyuwangis claim to have been the ancestors of Balinese art. Here is the link to the page but the dealer is clearly only guessing as to the actual nature and meaning of the piece:

Actually, after looking over this carving I was struck by several similarities to the famous description of the Sedapa (Orang Pendek)by Van Heerwarden in 1918, especially in the detailed description of the facial features. I have always felt from Van Heerwarden's description that there were populations of human pygmys involved in the sightings on Sumatra as well as more than one type of unknown apes. There are supposedly populations of Pygmies in the Andaman Islands, Malaysia, elsewhere in Indonesia and in the Phillipines, and from this wood carving's appearance, the Pygmies of Sumatra are of a very similar appearance.

Quoting from Ivan Sanderson's Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life, pages 221-224:

Meanwhile, there was Mr. Van Heerwarden timber-cruising from the other side (the northeast) of the Barisans in Palembang province, but down in the swamp forests by the coast near the Banjoe-Asin River. In 1918 he spotted two series of tracks on the banks of a small creek in the Musi River district; one larger than the other, as if of a mother and child, as he remarks. These were perfectly human but exceedingly small. Later he discovered that a Mr. Breikers had also found such tracks in the same area. He then started making serious inquiries among—and this is of considerable significance in view of the Indonesian Government's statement given above—the Kubus; and he found three who had all, but unknown to the others, seen Gugus (i.e. Sedapas, or Orang Pendeks) in that region. Their descriptions agreed perfectly in that they were about 5 feet tall, walked erect, were clothed in black hair that formed a mane, and had prominent teeth. Van Heerwarden later heard that a hunter had found a dead one and tried to carry it back to his village but its body was much decomposed and the hunter himself died shortly afterward. Another, he learned, was said to have been spotted in a river and surrounded by locals in canoes but it dived adroitly and escaped.

By this time Mr. van Heerwarden was convinced that there really was some small hairy Hominid in these forests and he devoted much time to inquiries among the local hunters as to where they were most frequently seen. In time he was directed to a particular spot and decided to do exactly the right thing—namely, go there, sit down, shut up, and wait. And, he appears to have been well rewarded for, unless he is not only a complete but most adept liar, he got an extremely good look at one of the elusive creatures. He tells us that he was wild-pig hunting in an area of forest surrounded by rivers named Pulu-Rimau, in October, 1923, and, having failed to come up with the sounder (herd) decided to do this quiet sitting, and so went into hiding. For an hour or so nothing happened and then something in a tree caught his attention. He says:

"Then I happened by chance to look round to the left and spotted a slight movement in a small tree that stood alone. By now it was time for me to be going home, for it was not advisable to journey through such country after sundown. But all the same I was tempted out of curiosity to go and see what had caused the movement I had noticed. What sort of animal could be in that tree? My first quick look revealed nothing. But after walking round the tree again, I discovered a dark and hairy creature on a branch, the front of its body pressed tightly against the tree. It looked as if it were trying to make itself inconspicuous and felt that it was about to be discovered.

It must be a sedapa. Hunters will understand the excitement that possessed me. At first I merely watched and examined the beast which still clung motionless to the tree. While I kept my gun ready to fire, I tried to attract the sedapa's attention, by calling to it, but it would not budge. What was I to do? I could not get help to capture the beast. And as time was running short I was obliged to tackle it myself. I tried kicking the trunk of the tree, without the least result. I laid my gun on the ground and tried to get nearer the animal. I had hardly climbed 3 or 4 feet into the tree when the body above me began to move. The creature lifted itself a little from the branch and leant over the side so that I could then see its hair, its forehead and a pair of eyes which stared at me. Its movements had at first been slow and cautious, but as soon as the sedapa saw me the whole situation changed. It became nervous and trembled all over its body. In order to see it better I slid down on to the ground again.

The sedapa was also hairy on the front of its body; the colour there was a little lighter than on the back. The very dark hair on its head fell to just below the shoulder-blades or even almost to the waist. It was fairly thick and very shaggy. [Some of the Pygmy peoples in Indonesia have short curled hair like the African Pygmies and others have longer bushier hair, including "Afros"-DD] The lower part of its face seemed to end in more of a point than a man's; this brown face was almost hairless, whilst its forehead seemed to be high rather than low. Its eyebrows were the same colour as its hair and were very bushy. The eyes were frankly moving; they were of the darkest colour, very lively, and like human eyes. The nose was broad with fairly large nostrils, but in no way clumsy; it reminded me a little of a Kaffir's. Its lips were quite ordinary, but the width of its mouth was strikingly wide when open. Its canines showed clearly from time to time as its mouth twitched nervously. They seemed fairly large to me, at all events they were more developed than a man's. The incisors were regular. The colour of the teeth was yellowish white. Its chin was somewhat receding. For a moment, during a quick movement, I was able to see its right ear which was exactly like a little human ear. Its hands were slightly hairy on the back. Had it been standing, its arms would have reached to a little above its knees; they were therefore long, but its legs seemed to me rather short. I did not see its feet, but I did see some toes which were shaped in a very normal manner. This specimen was of the female sex and about 5 feet high. [The arms on the figurine are proportionately long and the legs proportionately short: this is recorded in normal Pygmy populations. Pygmies can also show abundant but short body hair-DD]

There was nothing repulsive or ugly about its face, nor was it at all ape-like, although the quick nervous movements of its eyes and mouth were very like those of a monkey in distress. I began to walk in a calm and friendly way to the sedapa, as if I were soothing a frightened dog or horse; but it did not make much difference. When I raised my gun to the little female I heard a plaintive "hu-hu," which was at once answered by similar echoes in the forest nearby.

I laid down my gun and climbed into the tree again. I had almost reached the foot of the bough when the sedapa ran very fast out along the branch, which bent heavily, hung on to the end and then dropped a good 10 feet to the ground. I slid hastily back to the ground, but before I could reach my gun again, the beast was almost 30 yards away. It went on running and gave a sort of whistle. Many people may think me childish if I say that when I saw its flying hair in the sights I did not pull the trigger. I suddenly felt that I was going to commit murder. I lifted my gun to my shoulder again, but once more my courage failed me. As far as I could see, its feet were broad and short, but that the sedapa runs with its heels foremost is quite untrue. "

This has always seemed to me to be a most straightforward report so it is interesting to note the reception it received when poor Mr. Van Heerwarden finally told of it. Even the equable Heuvelmans cannot restrain himself from quoting certain of these expressions by people who were neither there nor, in some cases had then ever been anywhere near Sumatra, and most notably those of the same Dr. K. W. Dammerman of Buitenzorg. This is so delightful that I herewith re-reproduce it for your edification and guidance as a glorious example of the sort of rubbish spouted by experts and for which you have to be constantly on the lookout. This savant, after saying that no white man except Mr. Van Heerwarden had ever so much as said that he had seen a Sedapa[Heuvelmans adds that this statement is untrue-DD], goes on to say: "But this writer is almost too exact in his description of the animal, so it does not seem impossible that the incident was either based on his imagination [i.e. that he was a liar—ITS], or, that he has written it strongly impressed by the stories about the Orang Pendek. But, even while admitting the general truth of the story [i.e. not daring to say that he was a liar—ITS], would it not be more likely that the animal in question was an Orang utan?" No it would not. I am wondering if Dr. Dammerman knew any zoology; I can hardly credit it.

Two Pygmy (Negrito) Women From the Philippines, about a Century Apart. (Woman Anthropologist to scale)

Now for the other side of the coin, there is the earlier report by Oostingh, which Sanderson mentions directly before Van Heerwarden's account:

In 1917, according to Westenek, a Mr. Oostingh, while in the Boekits and near the same mountain where Dr. Jacobson had been when the hunters said they saw a Sedapa, became "bushed." He wandered around in circles for several hours, as one invariably does if one gets lost in high forest. Suddenly, as his account goes, he came upon what he thought was a local man sitting on a log with his back toward him. Overjoyed to see any human being, as one also invariably is when so exhausted, he went forward but then got a profound shock. I let him tell about it in his own words, as taken from Westenek's account in De Tropische Natuur, and translated by Richard Garnett. This reads:

"I saw that he had short hair, cut short, I thought; and I suddenly realised that his neck was oddly leathery and extremely filthy. "That chap's got a very dirty and wrinkled neck!" I said to myself.

His body was as large as a medium-sized native's and he had thick square shoulders, not sloping at all. The colour was not brown, but looked like black earth, a sort of dusty black, more grey than black.

He clearly noticed my presence. He did not so much as turn his head, but stood up on his feet; he seemed to be quite as tall as I (about 5 feet 9 inches).

Then I saw that it was not a man, and I started back, for I was not armed. The creature calmly took several paces, without the least haste, and then, with his ludicrously long arm, grasped a sapling, which threatened to break under its weight, and quietly sprang into a tree, swinging in great leaps alternately to right and to left.

My chief impression was and still is: "What an enormously large beast!" It was not an orang-utan; I had seen one of these large apes a short time before at Artis [the Amsterdam Zoo].

It was more like a monstrously large siamang, but a siamang has long hair, and there was no doubt that it had short hair. I did not see its face, for, indeed, it never once looked at me."

Here again, the most obvious suggestion is, just as Mr. Oostingh himself says, that the creature was an enormous Siamang, perhaps a lone old one somewhat short on hair.
That it was more likely an ape than a Hominid is also perhaps further impressed upon us by the remark that it had "ludicrously long arm[s]." I do not know what to make of this report but I certainly wish that the creature had left some footprints. [Sanderson quote ends]

The part about the creature being short on hair is easily enough dealt with: several older male apes develop some degree of hair loss and this creature was going bald, as some individual chimpanzees are prone to doing. However the creature scarcely belongs with the other Orang Pendek reports because it is NOT SMALL. It is the size of a regular human being. I did a pasteup of a clip art Siamang illustration to point up the difference-the size is MUCH larger than any siamang should be expected to be. An Orang Pendek report would ordinarily be expected to be about the same size as an ordinary siamang. So on Sumatra it seems we have reports of both giants and dwarfs among both siamangs and orangutans, and human Pygmys as well.
[Ordinary-sized siamang compared to Oostingh's sighting]
Best Wishes, Dale D.


  1. Dale, why do you describe them as Pygmies? Five feet tall, the height in both descriptions, is not an unreasonable height for a man in that part of Sumatra, never mind a woman.

  2. And the answer is: That's NOT my description, that's actually what the WITNESSES were saying!
    You are actually incorrect though, the second description is of something well over five feet tall, the figure of 5'9" being mentioned.
    The name Orang Pendek (or Sedapa) means "Short Person" as in Dwarf or Pygmy. That is what the tradition says. Both Oostingh and Van Heerwarden made their reports in the context of traditional reports that said the creatures were short, from two and a half feet to five feet tall according to Heuvelmans' description. Five feet is the top end of that given range, and most Pygmy peoples in either Africa or Asia are between four and five feet tall. Both Heuvelmans and Sanderson call them Pygmies and allow that they can be five feet tall; Sanderson's name for their category is "Proto-Pygmies"
    So essentially, that's not my usage in particular, that's common usage for the type. And I agree it sounds peculiar that Van Heerwarden speaks of the female seen in the tree as being five feet tall and associates her with the legend of the "Short People" that lived in the woods. IMHO, the small woman that was seen in the tree was just a small native woman. But from what I can tell from the description, she belonged to the ethnic group called Pygmies (Negritos)and there are populations of such in the Andaman Islands just North of Sumatra that can average about five feet tall, both sexes included.

    For Oostingh's report, that IS my point, the creature is NOT SHORT and should never have been counted in with the other reports as it regularly is.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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