07 Apr 2008, 23:49:00

Two new blog entries are up.

24 Feb 2006, 13:42:14

Watch: Is it Real? on the National Geographic Channel, 27 February 2006 at 8:00PM EST and 11:00PM EST!

13 Dec 2005, 21:00:00

All our cameras are out in the jungle!

01 Apr 2008, 14:13:00

Batang Ulas the Second

01 Apr 2008, 13:00:00

Batang Ulas the First

16 Feb 2006, 19:00:00

Fourth Trip to DGT

What is Orang Pendek?

"Orang Pendek" literally means "short person" in Indonesian. This is the name given to an animal that people have been seeing for hundreds of years in and around Kerinci-Seblat National Park in central Sumatra. Stories and sightings of this animal are intriguing enough that National Geographic has funded an expedition to Sumatra to capture the first photographic evidence of its existence.

The Animal

Without fail, local witnesses and legends describe Orang Pendek as: 1) an ape, 2) about one meter (~ three feet) tall, 3) with a strong chest and arms, 4) short hair covering its body, 5) that walks bipedally (on two legs). Even though its name means "short person", everyone will tell you that, "Of course it's not a person, it's an animal!" Consider orang-utans, whose name means "forest person". Apes and monkeys have been ascribed human-like qualities throughout history in this region of the world. Consider also that Orang Pendek is almost never described as being magical or spirit-like in nature. We think this is an important point in that, while legends of forest spirits and magical beings abound in the local culture, Orang Pendek is described matter-of-factly as just another animal of the forest.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this animal is its bipedality. Can you guess the only ape we know of that walks primarily bipedally? Us humans! The existence of another bipedal ape could force us to reconsider fundamental questions about our own evolution.

The Witnesses

We divide Orang Pendek's witnesses into four groups: 1) the Suku Anak Dalam, a group of people who have lived throughout their history in the area's forests, away from towns and cities; 2) local villagers, 3) Dutch settlers of the early 20th century, and 4) recent Westerners.

Suku Anak Dalam. Orang Pendek has been part of the Suku Anak Dalam's world for centuries. As long as outsiders have been documenting their culture, this forest-dwelling tribe has described the animal as a co-inhabitant of the forest. They know when they are entering and leaving Orang Pendek's territory, and they will often leave offerings of tobacco to keep it happy.1

Local Villagers. These Indonesians provide by far the largest wealth of lore and information we have on Orang Pendek. Everyone knows someone who has seen the animal, and it seems everyone has heard all the stories. This can be a disadvantage to our information gathering efforts, because most people seem to have adopted into their own beliefs a common story about Orang Pendek. For instance, many people we ask about the animal say its feet are put on backwards so that when it walks no one knows which way it's moving. We consider descriptions like this highly unlikely and use them as an indication of whether witnesses are speaking from personal or collective experience. In general, we find it difficult to decide what to make of this group of witnesses. While they are by far the most numerous and therefore likely group to have seen what we're searching for (and many provide very convincing, realistic, detailed descriptions), they also share a very strong tradition of a mythologically oriented view of their world. Many people we talk to ask us earnestly if we're afraid of ghosts while traveling in the jungle.

Dutch Settlers. In the early 1900's Indonesia was actually a Dutch colony (if you travel in Indonesia today you'll see Dutch influences everywhere from the architecture to the Indonesian language itself). A few settlers provided Westerners with their first introduction to Orang Pendek as they described several first- and second- hand experiences with the animal. Among the most famous of these witnesses was a man named Mr. Van Heerwarden, who while surveying some land in Sumatra in 1923, described this encounter:

I discovered a dark and hairy creature on a branch...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...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...There was nothing repulsive or ugly about its face, nor was it at all apelike.2

Another man, Mr. Oostingh, described another firsthand encounter with a strange animal. While walking through the forest, he saw what looked like a man, sitting on a log, facing away from him:

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...he seemed to be quite as tall as I. Then I saw that it was not a man. It was not an orang-utan. I had seen one of these large apes a short time before. It was more like a monstrously large siamang, but a siamang has long hair, and there was no doubt that it had short hair.2

These accounts are poorly documented, the witnesses obviously cannot be questioned further, and the descriptions they give differ significantly in some respects from the consensus of recent witnesses. But, regardless of how believable they are, these stories provide another piece of the complicated puzzle surrounding Orang Pendek.

Recent Westerners. As Western scientists ourselves, this group of witnesses provides us with the most accessible source of evidence. Most notable amongst this group are two British researchers, Debbie Martyr and Jeremy Holden. Both have been working more or less continuously to photograph Orang Pendek since 1990, so far without success. Both also claim to have seen Orang Pendek personally on several occasions. Through their "Project Orang Pendek", funded by Fauna and Flora International (www.fauna-flora.org), Debbie and Jeremy engaged in a multi-year effort in part to: a) systematically characterize local lore and witness accounts of Orang Pendek and b) employ camera-trapping methods to capture a picture of the animal. Their efforts and ultimate frustration have been a valuable source of expertise and caution for us.

Several other Brits have involved themselves briefly in the search, with no conclusive results. Adam Davies and Adam Sanderson are two of these, who recently received some press coverage on BBC after finding a footprint and hairs that may have been from Orang Pendek.

Missing Link?

Some suggest that Orang Pendek could be a missing link--a distant relative of ours representing an intermediate stage between us humans and the ancient ape-like primates from which we descended. Could it be a remnant of the genus Australopithecus--a very early, bipedal, hominid ancestor of ours? Orang Pendek's bipedality is certainly a very interesting characteristic to consider. Many paleoanthropologists say that, if members of Australopithecus were alive today, they would be described as bipedal apes. Interest in this question was piqued further after the recent discovery of fossils from a new species of our own genus Homo on Flores, another island in the Indonesian archipelago. These small people, named Homo floresiensis were around a meter tall, created and used fire and tools, and still lived 12,000 years ago--almost yesterday in evolutionary terms.

Honestly, we can't answer this question. We do know this, though: to every witness we interview, we ask, "Is Orang Pendek a person or an animal?" Consistently, people insist that it's an animal. Debbie Martyr and Jeremy Holden, as well, maintain that Orang Pendek is a great ape and not a hominid. However, we're not going to speculate either way, and there's no need for us to at this point. There just isn't enough evidence about where Orang Pendek will fit on the evolutionary tree.

Mistaken Identity?

There is certainly plenty of ammunition here for Orang Pendek skeptics. As an example, many locals say Orang Pendek's feet look like those of a seven year old child, and that they know this because of foot prints they've found while walking through the forest. However, another forest dwelling animal, the sun bear, is a likely source of these sightings. Bears in general are known for having feet that look quite human-like, and the sun bear's would match those of a child fairly well. So could Orang Pendek be nothing but the product of mistaken identity applied to the imaginative human mind? After all, gibbons and siamangs, who populate the forests in this area, are known to occasionally descend to the ground and walk for a few seconds at a time on two legs.

While we can detect a definite thread of realistic, believable, matter-of-fact documentation in the body of folklore the local people have developed surrounding Orang Pendek, we are continually impressed at how fantastical claims about Orang Pendek's appearance and behavior are often blended seamlessly with the mundane. And the variety of descriptions lets us know that not everyone is reporting their own personal experiences with photographic accuracy. Some claim Orang Pendek has a shoulder- or even waist-length mane of blonde hair. Some say it has black fur, some tan, or brown, red, grey. There are the backwards feet stories we mentioned above. Some say it can upend and break tree trunks in half effortlessly. Some Suku Anak Dalam have even claimed that Orang Pendek, learning from its more advanced neighbors, has learned how to smoke.1.

Additionally, the name "Orang Pendek" itself leads to confusion. We have had people come to our house and excitedly tell us they saw five Orang Pendek cross the road the other day as they were driving along a forest road. We in turn excitedly start taking notes and asking for descriptions, and eventually our witness begins describing the yellow shirts these Orang Pendek were wearing. We realized very quickly that many locals interpret the name more literally as referring to short people. Combine this with the tendency in the area among less educated people to muddle the difference between apes and forest dwelling people like the Suku Anak Dalam, and we have another possible source of mistaken identity.

So with all the confusion and myth surrounding this animal, why don't we just dismiss Orang Pendek as a complex case of mistaken identity? We don't dismiss it primarily for three reasons: 1) as mentioned above, in the midst of this fascinating body of folklore about Orang Pendek, there is a strong thread of a rational effort by our witnesses to genuinely communicate the existence of a realistic animal actually witnessed; 2) Debbie Martyr and Jeremy Holden, two researchers whose work shows strong scientific merit, insist that they have seen the animal personally, and it is something not yet documented by the West; and 3) hard evidence in the form of footprints and hairs have been found that, while they have not been completely analyzed, suggest the presence in these forests of an unknown animal fitting the description of Orang Pendek.


As a scientific endeavor, we must maintain a sense of healthy skepticism. And so we can't claim to know the answers, or even to be certain that Orang Pendek is nothing more than the creation of our incredibly imaginative minds. But along with skepticism, good scientists always keep their minds and beliefs open to a new understanding of our world. So what if Orang Pendek exists? How would you find it? And what new understanding would it give us of the world in which we live? Read about our project to find out what we think.


(1) Allen, Benedict. Hunting the Gugu. Faber and Faber, 2002.

(2) Cremo, Michael A. and Richard L. Thompson. Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History of the Human Race. Bhaktivedanta Book Publishing, 1996.