Jan 172016

A selection of the stone tools found on Sulawesi made by an unknown hominin. (Photo credit: Erick Setiabudi)

The paleoanthropological world was stunned by a January, 2016 publication of the discovery of stone tools from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. More than 200 artifacts were unearthed that were made by an unknown species of human ancestor, or hominin. Modern humans are thought to have occupied the island sometime between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, yet these newly discovered tools date back to between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. The most conservative dating estimate indicates some of these tools were made about 118,000 years ago, or more than 40,000 years before Homo sapiens arrived. This squarely points to a yet-to-be-recognized species of human occupying the island long before modern humans arrived.

Less than 100 miles to the south of Sulawesi is the Indonesian island of Flores. It is here in 2003 that the fossils of the now-famous “hobbit” species of hominin, Homo floresiensis, were discovered. These diminuative hominins are known to have been a little more than three feet tall, to have made and used stone tools, and to have lived on Flores as recently as 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. The presence of this tool-making species so close to Sulawesi makes them a strong candidate for the makers of the recently discovered tools on the island to the north, though this is not certain as no Homo floresiensis remains have been found anywhere but on Flores.

One of the many fascinating things about the discovery on Sulawesi and how it ties into the Flores hominins is the presence of folkloric, historic, and present-day reports of unknown hairy hominoids from both islands. On the island of Flores, long before the fossils of Homo floresiensis were unearthed, there were tales of the ebu gogo. Ebu gogo are described as what can only be described as either ape-like, or primitive man-like. They seem to be short (three or so feet tall), covered in hair, and extremely elusive. In some areas of Flores, they are thought to be extinct by the Floresians who live there, though in other areas sightings persist until the present. There is a strong possibility that ebu gogos are simply extant Homo floresiensis that never got the memo that their species had gone extinct.

On Sulawesi, there is also a tradition of hairy hominoids dating back to at least the 17th century. In 1701, the French priest Nicolas Gervaise wrote about the island being occupied by aggressive “monkeys and baboons,” some of which “walked upright like men.” They were also described to be as large as an English mastiff, the males of which are typically between 150 and 200 pounds, making the compared apes quite large.

The people who inhabit Sulawesi today continue to talk of what appears to be an unknown species of hominoid. In the northeast part of the island, they speak of the lolok, or “little forest men.” These creatures are the size of a child and are covered in hair which is longer on the head. They are rumored to have supernatural abilities, which is a motif found in many cultures worldwide in their descriptions of the local hominoids in the area.

While the lolok seems to be largely spiritual or mystical in nature, contemporary populations of Sulawesi have a tradition of far more human-like beings. In the mountainous Dirijo region of the island, the local people call these creatures To Ipono (“To” means human or person), and in the north they are referred to as To Uta (reportedly translated to “people of the forest”). Both the To Ipono and To Uta are described as being a little more than three feet tall and covered in hair. The To Uta is said to live in caves or hollowed out trees. They are also thought to have become “invisible,” but were often seen by the ancestors.  Could it be that this “invisibility” is just another way of the locals describing the extinction of a species from the local area?

With the discovery of the stone tools in Sulawesi, it seems that the suspected range of Homo floresiensis might have to be expanded to several of the islands in Indonesia. If, as I suspect, the modern day descriptions of ebu gogo, to ipono, and others are simply members of Homo floresiensis that have somehow survived to the present day, a very close look will have to be given to the folkloric tales from all of the islands of Indonesia, as well as the present day sighting reports from these same islands, southeast Asia, and even Australia. It could very well be that one or more hominin species quietly survive in remote corners of the world only rarely seen by the Homo sapiens that live alongside of them.