Stalking the wild ebu gogo

6 minute read

In the current issue of Anthropology Today, there is a great article by Greg Forth (University of Alberta), covering the ebu gogo legend, and the impact of the Liang Bua discoveries on the local peoples of Flores. Many thanks to reader Rob Kruszynski for the reference.

Forth is an ethnographer who has worked on Flores, and so is uniquely positioned to examine the non-scientific impacts of the archaeological work there. The best parts of the article are the descriptions of the author's own research into the legend, possessed widely by the people of Flores. He provides an autobiographical sketch of the way he first encountered the ebu gogo myth and how it featured in his earlier work, before the Liang Bua excavations. He also details how he became aware of the fossil discoveries and the role he has played in the public exposition of the ebu gogo story.

Is the ebu gogo actually a preserved memory of relict populations of Homo floresiensis? Forth balances the aspects of the legend that are shared with other legendary creatures, such as "bigfoot", with the fact that such stories are often too quickly dismissed as mere fantasy:

However much ebu gogo might recall Homo floresiensis (or vice versa), it is therefore clear that the first figure equally resembles characters that are generally considered to belong to myth and fantasy. (Another fantastic attribute of ebu gogo is their reputed proclivity to swallow things whole, including rice mortars, puppy dogs and piglets.) ... Certainly there are problems in interpreting ebu gogo as directly reflecting local memories of Homo floresiensis. Yet whatever the derivation of the Nage representation, ebu gogo really do seem different from the various categories of spirits that Nage describe with equal credulity -- and to that extent, I believe the possibility [that they represent a real animal] should be taken seriously. As noted, Nage themselves distinguish ebu gogo from "spirits" (a general category contextually designated as nitu) and they do so explicitly with reference to the hairy creature's lack of extraordinary powers -- for example, the ability to disappear, change shape, transform into animals, and so on (Forth 2005:15).

For Forth, the assumption that ebu gogo is "just another myth" is tantamount to assuming that "small-scale, non-Western societies are incapable of distinguishing empirical categories, the objects of ordinary intuition, from fantastic images dictated by religious tradition" (ibid.).

As for myself, I'm not sure I would go so far. Speaking as a native Midwesterner, there are a lot of stories that people tell about the old days that clearly are not literally true, but also lack supernatural elements. It is one thing to tell stories about Pecos Bill, who clearly had superhuman powers (harnessing a tornado, for example), and another to tell stories about how distant relatives interacted with the Indians during pioneer days. Clearly the latter happened, but the details can't be assumed to be true representations of the facts, even if they are accepted as valid family (or community) history. This is for stories that are scarcely 120 years old, and have passed through 3 or 4 sets of ears. The recovery of events from a longer time period in Flores may well retain a quality of truth. But the picking and choosing by anthropologists of those parts that correspond to a skeleton, and the discarding of parts that do not correspond (e.g., breasts so long that they are slung over the shoulders, lack of tool use) or the disregard to elements in conflict in differen accounts (e.g., some versions have "long arms and fingers", others do not) is not a valid way to approach the study of folklore. Forth does an excellent job of pointing out these consistencies and contradictions, and makes the ebu gogo story a very interesting one as a result.

On the topic of the effects of the discovery on local peoples, Forth relates the story of a Daily Mail reporter who arrived on Flores a week after the October 2004 announcement. He reports stories from local people of recent encounters with small hairy people, including the story of a man who claimed to have had the physical remains of such a creature at one time, now lost.

Among other things, the Daily Mail's man showed villagers an illustration of the reconstructed hominid that has appeared in numerous publications. And of course, what they claimed to have witnessed (or, in one case, obtained) looked exactly like this! One therefore wonders what chance there may now be of distinguishing indigenous representations from palaeoanthropological interpretations, especially in the Manggarai region where popular interest in Homo floresiensis is naturally most intense... (Forth 2005:17).
Not long after the discovery was announced, tour operators began offering packages on the internet, advertising five-day expeditions to the site from Bali.... If it hasn't happened already, one can also foresee the imminent opening of a "Hotel Hobbit." Just as ebu gogo was ultimately a victim of Nage expansion, Homo floresiensis is rapidly becoming a commodity of modern capitalism (ibid.).

Despite the rapid commercialization, Forth is doubtful that local peoples will benefit much from economic development, drawing upon the recent experience of development related to Komodo National Park, with the featured Komodo dragons.

The final section of the paper, titled "What if Homo floresiensis really did still exist?" raises the question of what domain of science would get to study them if they were found:

But one is immediately led to ask: how equipped would social or cultural anthropologists (as distinct from, say, primatologists or biological anthropologists) be to repond to this challenge? Some might not be particularly interested -- tending perhaps to an extreme constructionist view not just of cultures but of species, and then denying that there is very much new here at all. Largely because I don't really know the answer (nor, if it proved to be negative, why exactly it should be so), I would leave the question open. There is, however, a less hypothetical and more immediate question, namely, whether other anthropological disciplines (such as palaeoanthropology) -- and for that matter the media -- recognize a relevance for social or cultural anthropology in all this? Indications so far are that they probably do not (Forth 2005:17).

My guess is that social and cultural anthropologists have taken themselves out of the game. The emergence of humanity has not been a primary concern of cultural anthropologists. Few of them have written about the evolution of culture. Indeed, many of them have questioned the relevance of the culture concept itself, or have discarded it entirely.

I think this is a mistake. I think that economic and political anthropologists would have much to offer to the study of social interactions in Neandertals or other archaic humans. For people, ecology is not merely a matter of environmental contact but also of social negotiation, and the initiation of this process in early humans would be a ripe subject for the ecological anthropologist. And needless to say, the construction of incipient symbolic systems would provide a very interesting subject for the cognitive anthropologist. I study these things, and I use the insights of cultural anthropology regularly. But then I was trained as a four-fielder, which is a vanishing tribe in American anthropology.

It's a great article, but it isn't available online to non-members of the Royal Anthropological Institute, so look for it from your library if you want more.