Indonesian 'Hobbit' Legends
May Be Factual

By Chris Brummitt
Independent Online - South Africa
MOUNT EBULO, Indonesia (Sapa-AP) -- Nellis Kua is too old to remember his exact age, but his eyes light up when he talks of the gang of hobbit-like creatures his grandparents told him once lived in the forest on the slopes of this still smoking Indonesian volcano.
"They had these big eyes, hair all over their body and spoke in a strange language," said Kua, his skin leathered by a lifetime tending coffee and chilli pepper crops under the harsh tropical sun.
"They stole our crops, our fruit and moonshine. They were so greedy they even ate the plates!"
Kua and other elders said the creatures, known locally as the "Ebu Gogo" or the "Grandmother who eats everything", were last seen on the central Indonesian island of Flores around 300 years ago.
The story had previously been dismissed as a legend - along with other tales of "little people" living in isolated rainforests that are common elsewhere in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
But a stunning archaeological find deep in a limestone cave on Flores has meant sceptics are having to take the tales more seriously.
An Indonesian-Australian scientific team announced recently they had found a skull and bones belonging to a new human dwarf species they said lived on the island until 12 000 years ago.
Homo florensius stood just one-metre-tall, used hand tools and had a brain smaller than a chimpanzee's. The find raised questions as to whether Homo Sapiens were the sole human inhabitants of the earth for tens of thousands of years as had been previously assumed, and whether the two groups ever met.
The discovery was feted around the world, but in recent weeks, several experts have questioned the team's findings, among them Indonesia's most prominent paleontologist, Professor Teuku Jacob.
Jacob, who is currently studying the fossils, says he believed the skull belonged to a human being suffering from a rare brain-shrinking disorder.
"This is all a little hasty," Jacob said. "From what I have seen, this not a new species, or even subspecies. It is just one individual with microcephaly."
Members of the Indonesian-Australian team are standing by their initial findings, which captured the public imagination amid comparisons to the fictional hobbits of JRR Tolkien's stories, including The Lord Of The Rings.
Using the tale of the "Ebu Gogo" to bolster their case, some team members have speculated that homo florensius may have lived on Flores until much later than 12 000 years ago, possibly as recently as a couple of hundred years ago.
Australian research team member Dr Richard Roberts said it was "not out of the question" that some of the creatures could still be living in some remote corner of the heavily-forested island.
"Until 2003, nobody knew this creature existed," said Roberts. "Now we know it did, it opens up all these possibilities that were closed to people's minds. The exciting part now will be to find some of these lost creatures."
The team is planning to return to the island next year to scour a series of limestone caves close to Kua's village to look for more recent evidence of homo florensius.
The scientific discovery has led a stream of adventurous tourists to visit the cave at Liang Bua village, where the fossils were unearthed. The island last made international headlines in 1992 when it was hit by an earthquake that killed 3 000 people. So far, access to the scientific dig site is unrestricted.
The cave, which is around 120km east of Kua's village, extends 40m into an escarpment and is as tall as a two-storey house. It lies at the end of a long, bumpy road that winds through coffee plantations and tin-roofed villages.
"I'm a sucker for this stuff," said Daniel Ruff, a 78-year-old tourist from Hayward, California, who made the trip recently. "For me, when I saw that cave it was mission accomplished."
The tourist office in Ruteng, the town nearest the cave, says the region plans to display the fossils, or copies of them, in a museum, but only after it finds the funds to build one.
The story of the Ebu Gogo has been known to anthropologists for years. It is rich in detail and has few mythical elements - factors that indicate is has a basis in fact, experts say.
"When I first heard these stories I was a bit sceptical," said Gert D van den Bergh, a Dutch researcher. "But the difference with the Ebu Gogo is that the local villagers talk about them as if they were an actual part of the fauna and that they have no supernatural powers."
Another distinguishing element to the story is that it ends with the villagers killing most or all of the Ebu Gogo. In other tales of "little people", the creatures are normally said to still be alive.
According to local stories it was villagers, not some natural disaster, that provided the catastrophic event that led to the Ebu Gogo's extinction.
Kua and other village elders said their ancestors - sick of the Ebu Gogo's constant scavenging - chased the creatures into a cave high on the volcano, then handed them bales of straw, which the creatures thought was a gift to keep them warm.
But the villagers concealed hot coals in the final bale of straw, which caught fire inside the cave, killing all the creatures except one male and one female, Kua said.
The couple, which escaped from the rear of the cave, were last seen heading west - the direction of the cave at Liang Bua where the bones were found.
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