The recent announcement that scientists had found the bones of a “human dwarf” species on the remote island of Flores in Eastern Indonesia shocked anthropologists across the globe. Could these human dwarf people, dubbed Homo floresiensis, have lived alongside our taller human ancestors just 13,000 years ago? Before the discovery, scientists would have said “impossible!” But if you asked people I know on the island of Flores, they would say, “Yes, we know they lived here—until very recently, in fact.”
As both historian and anthropologist, I have spent many years researching Flores. It was during my initial trip to the island in 1992 that I first heard about “small people who looked like monkeys” who used to live alongside the current villagers’ ancestors. These creatures were referred to as the Ebu Gogo.
I first heard the term when one of my local informants—the term we anthropologists use to describe local elders and other residents who share community knowledge—was teasing a group of small children. He told them they’d better go to bed or Ebu Gogo would get them. Off they scampered, squawking and laughing into the adjacent room where they quickly fell asleep.
Curious, I asked my informant what Ebu Gogo meant. He smiled and told me it is what they tell children to scare them. I explained what the “boogie monster” was in English, and he agreed that it was similar. However, there was one difference—he claimed that Ebu Gogo had actually once lived just outside that very village. He insisted the story was true, and he sent me to one of the elders so I could hear more.
Again I was told that Ebu Gogo (”Ebu” meaning grandparent; “Gogo” has no literal translation, I was told) had indeed lived outside the village, as recently as several hundred years ago. They were not monkey, nor were they human. Their arms were longer than humans and their bodies were covered with hair. At one time, the Ebu Gogo had lived in close proximity to the local people. Over time, however, these Ebu Gogo became more and more trouble to the villagers. They would steal crops from the village and take villagers’ animals. Conflict and tension built between the two groups.
The villagers decided to have a party and invite the Ebu Gogo to see if this might help ease tensions. They built a big fire to cook meat for the festivities, but the Ebu Gogo would not come near it—they were afraid of it. So the villagers brought the Ebu Gogo food, with plates and utensils, but the Ebu Gogo threw the plates and utensils in the dirt and gobbled up all of the food. The villagers were insulted by this and a fight ensued, which ended in the killing of several Ebu Gogo. The rest fled to a cave in a cliff outside the village. The villagers could not pursue them because the cliff was too steep. The Ebu Gogo could climb there because of their monkey-like bodies.
After this incident, the raids on the villagers’ crops and animals became more frequent, and the villagers became more and more angry. The Ebu Gogo got so bold they stole a baby from the village—and the villagers could take it no more. Pretending to want to befriend the Ebu Gogo again, men from the village went to the bottom of the cliff and offered clothes to the Ebu Gogo, something the Ebu Gogo did not have. They used long poles of bamboo to pass the clothes up to the cave, and the Ebu Gogo received them gratefully. What the Ebu Gogo did not know, however, was that the villagers had soaked the clothes in cooking fuel and lit a small fire in the last packet of clothes before handing it up. The Ebu Gogo were burned alive in the cave, and that was the end of their existence outside the village.
I found the story—and my informants’ adamant insistence that it was all true—fascinating at the time. What was more intriguing, however, was that no one had ever entered the cave. A young man once tried, but plummeted to his death. The villagers believe the place is cursed and no one has dared try to enter again.
In light of this recent scientific discovery of Homo floresiens, this story becomes far more exciting. If, as the scientists have hypothesized, these creatures died out at least 13,000 years ago, the story of the Ebu Gobo illustrates the power of oral history and collective memory. But if the scientists are wrong and my insistent informants are correct, these creatures lived alongside the human population much more recently. Perhaps now is the time to return to the village and enter that mysterious cave.
Caty Husbands is a historian of Southeast Asia, and has spent several years conducting research on the island of Flores. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in modern Flores history.›