In 2003 the discovery of Homo Floresiensis created a stir in the international academic community. Widely contested, the species was allegedly a sort of dwarf man with a small skeletal structure and brain. It was this small size that led to the species being nicknamed Hobbits. Many supporters believed that they must have had a moderate intelligence because at no time in the probable history of the species was the island connected to any other land mass. This led to the conclusion that they might have built rafts to travel between islands, which meant they must have had technology and more than likely had language.
The most interesting part of the discovery was to me the time frame in which they were believed to have existed: up to 12,000 years ago. If this was correct, it would make them the most recent relative of Homo Sapiens to survive. Thus, surpassing even the Neanderthals by up to 12,000 years.
While all this interested me, the part of the story that truly drew me in was the legend of the Ebu Gogo. Members of the Nage, a tribe local to the island of Flores, claimed that there were a race of little cave dwelling men sharing the island with them up until around 300 years ago. At this time their tribe disposed of the Ebu Gogo by presenting them with palm fibers to make clothes. However, the Nage ignited the fibers. According to the legend, once the Ebu Gogo had taken these palm fibers back to their cave, all of them perished in fire that day. Some say that perhaps one pair, which retreated into the deepest forest, managed to survive.
I was twenty-one years old and a student of Anthropology at Florida State University when the discovery was announced in 2004. I followed the controversy closely. I was enraptured by the thought of finding the cave where the Ebu Gogo had been burnt and proving that H. Floresiensis had existed side by side with modern man. I wanted to prove the H. Sapiens might not be the only man around. In 2012 I graduated from FSU, and with the ink still wet on my PhD, I had no question where I was headed. You can call me a hopeless romantic, but there was no place but Flores for me.
I secured funding and authorization from the Indonesian government to study not H. Floresiensis but the Nage tribe. I was going to study their customs before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century . Not much was know about the Nage. THey had not been studied except sparsely in the 1940’s by a Portuguese colonial officer. After that by a professor from the University of Alberta in the late twentieth century.
In my time on the island, I labored at my research on the Nage people. However, my personal time was spent hiking in the forests on the island, ducking into every cave I could find, and hoping I would get lucky. I did all this to no avail.
Five years after I had arrived on the island, I began to despair of ever finding anything even related to H. Floresiensis. Oh, I had seen stone tools and even on one occasion the actual skeletal remains of LB1, the first specimen discovered. Alas, I saw them in the museum in Jakarta. I longed to find anything in the field that might be related to H. Floresiensis. I drove deeper and deeper into the forest. It was nothing but sheer desperation that led me to the greatest discovery ever.
On one of my trips into the forest I came upon a large rock and decided to take a break from all the hiking. As usual, I began to day dream about what it would be like to be the one who discovered a living hominid outside of our own species. I realized in my day-dreaming that if H. Floresiensis hadn’t been found yet then they probably didn’t want to be found. How do you find someone who doesn’t want to be found? I realized that if they were still around that the Ebu Gogo would be hunter/gathers and most likely scavengers. On a whim I dug into my backpack and pulled out my extra canteen. I placed it on the rock and left it with the intent to come back and see if it was missing. Now that I had made my shot in the dark, I headed back to civilization.
Two weeks passed before I could make it back to the rock. When I did make it back ,much to my surprise, the canteen was gone. I ran through the possibilities. Someone from the village might have come by and picked it up. However, the villagers tended to stay away from the deep forest. Legend held that the spirits of the slaughtered Ebu Gogo haunted the forest and expressed ill will and bad luck towards any who ventured too deep. An animal might have carried it off but that too was unlikely as Flores is one of the few islands in the south pacific without monkeys. Lastly, the most unlikely scenario and the one that I dared not let get my hopes up -- a member of H. Floresiensis had acquired it.
Really I had only one option: to carry on with the experiment. Thus, out of my pack I pulled the hatchet I had brought with me. I placed it on the rock with the determination that I would return in exactly the same amount of time that it had taken me to return the first time. As I hiked out of the forest, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. To be honest, it excited me.
When I returned to the village I ordered a motion sensing camera from Jakarta and set about documenting what I had done so far. I was after all, a scientist. Now that the excitement had bled out, I hit the second phase commonly associated with discovery, doubt. I began to wonder why I had just spent much of the meager salary I received on the camera. Even more so, I began to ask myself what if? What if my wildest dreams were true and I had begun to make contact? I had broken a cardinal rule of first contact. I had introduced them to tools and workmanship far beyond their capacity to make. I wondered if I should call it off, but the schoolboy in me refused to do so. I knew I would take flak for the mistake if I had truly made contact. Nonetheless, the damage was done and there was nothing I could do about it.
The next two weeks passed with excruciating slowness, but finally it was time for me to return to the forest. My camera had arrived only the day before. This had caused me no shortage of worry that it wouldn't arrive in time for this trip. Further, I would have wait another two weeks to find out what happened to the item that I left on the rock; if anything had. When I reached the rock my heart skipped a beat; the hatchet was gone! Turning to the first order of business, I installed the camera on a nearby tree with a good vantage of the rock. I then placed the mirror I had brought with me onto the rock. I was trying to stick to items that I knew would keep who or whatever coming back. As I left the forest this time, I again had the gut feeling that I was being watched. It was no wonder the villagers thought the forest was haunted.
I didn't think it was possible but the next two weeks went by even slower than the previous two. As I approached the rock, I noticed that -- as I now expected -- the mirror was gone. I took the straight edged knife I had brought with me and placed it on the rock and turned to retrieve the camera. As I looked at the tree where I had placed it, my heart jumped into my throat. The camera that would have given me an answer. The camera that would have dashed or exceed what I hoped for, was no longer attached to the tree, but instead lay on the ground in pieces. I walked over to the remains of my expensive camera and shook my head. I bent down to examined the remains and promptly began thanking god for the small miracle he had sent me. The film canister was intact! I had pictures!
I rushed back to the dark lab which I had built in my house to develop the pictures. I was too excited to notice whether or not I had the feeling of being watched. Back at home the couple of hours it took to develop the film felt longer than the entire previous month had. When I saw the first picture I started crying. Before me -- the pictures told the story quite clear. An approximately three and a half foot tall naked hairy man with a stance somewhere between us and a chimpanzee picked up the mirror and played with it! He then noticed the camera and started pulling on it. After about ten frames he apparently got frustrated and smashed it with a large stick.
Now I had to decide what my next step would be. The first thought that came to mind was publishing what I had in a journal like Nature. However, I then realized if I did that the first contact would be taken out of my hands and given to others more experienced than I. I decided that I would keep my discovery to myself and make contact on my own. I loaded up on more hatchets, knives and other things I thought might appeal to a primitive culture and prepared to head once again to the rock. My plan was to sit on the rock and surround myself with the "gifts" I brought.
After five painful hours of sitting on the rock, I had to get up and relieve myself. I walked over to the very tree that I had placed the camera on to do so. I finished and turned to return to my place on the rock and found myself face to face with three small but very intimidating stone spearheads.
My reaction was probably not the best.
I threw my hands up and shouted in English "I come in peace!"
There appeared to be some indecision from behind the spears as to what to do now that they had confronted me. The three spear holders chattered between themselves in a clickish language for a few minutes until one of the spears came down and the man holding it began to collect the items I had laid around the rock. I felt my chance to make contact sliding away from me, I decided to put all the chips on the table.
Bringing one of my arms down I pointed to myself and said, "Me Thomas."
This caused another bout of chattering before I again pointed to myself and repeated, "Me Thomas."
It must have sunk in that time because one of the men holding a spear on me then tapped himself and said, "Me Ullu."
He then tapped the other man holding a spear on me and said, "Me Nuah."
I laughed and tapping myself on the chest said, "Me Thomas." I then pointed at Ullu and said, "You Ullu." Finally, I pointed at Nuah and said, "Him Nuah."
Ullu thought for a second and then pointing at each as he said "Me Ullu, you Thomas, him Nuah!"
I smiled, nodded my head and said "Yes!"
The third member of their group came over then and Ullu pointed and said, "Him Ohgo."
He then gestured that we would begin walking. After a good hours hike we stopped at a large rock formation, Ullu and Nuah put their shoulders into it. After a bit of effort they shoved it to the side. Behind the rock lay a huge, naturally lit cave. Insider were about three hundred members of the Ebu Gogo inside working at various tasks. I was led inside, and the rock was once again rolled into place of the mouth of the cave. Once inside Ullu and I set to the task of learning to communicate with each other.
So began the two years I spent in the forest with the Ebu Gogo, learning their language, teaching them English and about the outside world.
It was almost exactly two years later that Ullu and I set out for Jakarta so that the Ebu Gogo could announce their existence to the world. The months following the press conference held by myself and Ullu are a blur in my memory. The United Nations dispatched the premier members of the scientific and medical community to confirm my claim that the Ebu Gogo were in fact H. Floresiensis. After the claim was substantiated the government of Indonesia was, after much financial persuasion by the governments of America and Europe, convinced to relocate the H. Sapiens off of the island of Flores. Thus giving the island to the Ebu Gogo as their homeland. With typical Ebu humor, Ullu and Ohgo convinced every member of the tribe to rename the island. Flores would forever be referred to as The Shire. The population of Ebu Gogo began to increase greatly. Further, Ullu served as their ambassador to the outside world. As a continuation of his joke, he took the last name Baggins.
The discovery of the Ebu Gogo brought new horizons and questions to many members of our own species. The Pope welcomed them as brothers in Christ. They also caused fear and hatred in others. The various Neo-Nazi groups labeled them as even more inferior than Jews. Above all, they caused wonder and excitement as they opened a new chapter in human history.
As for me, I drew the criticism I expected for doing what I did. Nonetheless, with the exception of the few death threats from the crazies, I was widely celebrated for my role in the discovery. The only question that remained was what I was going to do with the rest of my life. After searching for a while, all I could find was one answer. A few islands over in Sumatra there was widely believed to be an undiscovered great ape -- The Orang Pendak.
Author's Note: The discovery of H. Floresiensis, The Nage Tribe and the legends of the Ebu Gogo and Orang Pendak are all factual.