Vedda legend has preserved for us a recollection of a lost race known as the Nittevo. There has been much
controversy as to the identity of this folk. Some hold that the Nittevo are a lost tribe of Negritoes while
others believe them to have been some kind of ape-man.
|The skull of Pithecanthropus|
Yet others identify them with an extinct species of
bear known as rahu valaha. We will hereunder examine the various theories propounded by scholars who
have delved on the subject and make an attempt to arrive at a tenable conclusion based on the available evidence.
The Nittevo are said to have been a dwarfish race of men who lived in the Mahalenama region now within the Yala
East Intermediate Zone and the Tamankaduva area. These folk are believed to have been exterminated by the Veddas about 250 years ago.
Hugh Nevill (The Nittaewo of Ceylon, The Taprobanian 1886) has recorded some interesting information relating
to this legendary race obtained from Vedda sources. Says Nevill: "The Nittaewo were a cruel and savage race of
men, rather dark, living in small communities at Lenama."
Andaman islanders (Adamanese) who some believe may be related to Sri Lanka's 'lost race,' the Nittevo
These islanders were hit hard by the Christmas 2004 tsunami, whole tribes perished,
among them any remnant links to the Nittaewo People on the island of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon.
They built platforms in trees, covered with a thatch of leaves, and in these they lived. They could neither
speak Vaedda, Sinhalese or Tamil, but their language sounded like the Telegu of pilgrims to Kattragam.
attacked any intruding Vaeddas, and no Vaedda dare enter their district to hunt or collect honey. Many years
ago the ancestors of the informants fought with these Nittaewo and finally drove the remnant of them, men,
women and children into a cavern. Before this they piled firewood, and kept up the fire for three days, after
which the race became extinct, and their district a hunting ground for the Vaeddas.
According to the Veddah tradition recorded by Frederick Lewis (Notes on an exploration in Eastern Uva and Southern
Panama Pattu. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon. 1914), the Nittevo were about three feet tall, the
females being much shorter than the males.
They are said to have walked erect, had no tails and were completely naked, dark skinned aboriginals.
Their arms were short and their talon-like nails long and powerful. They lived in trees, caves and crevices while
their prey consisted of small animals like the hare, squirrel and tortoise. They lived in groupings of 10 or 20 or
more and their speech was like the twittering of birds. The Nittevo are said to have lived two generations
earlier, so that the extermination of this race if they ever did exist may have to be assigned to
about the late eighteenth century.
Many are the theories that have been propounded to explain the legend. Nevill for instance believed this
folk to be related to the Niadis of Cochin "a wandering outcast, abject race, so impure that hardly a
slave will touch them." The Niadis have been described as roving about in small companies and their dwellings
as being perched like baskets or birds' nests on jungle trees. They are said to have consumed large tortoises and
crocodiles and worshipped a female deity to whom they sacrificed a cock once a year. Nevill has evidently
sought to connect the Nittevo to the Niadis on the basis of their food habits, arboreal dwellings and roving
lifestyle. As to their origins, he suggests that they were serfs belonging to the Sinhalese Lambakanna dynasty
who had survived the destruction or migration of their masters. Nevill's hypothesis is however highly conjectural
and has not found much favor in academic circles.
Anthropologist William Charles Osman-Hill (Nittaewo - An unsolved problem of Ceylon. Loris.1945) has propounded the
theory that the Nittevo may have been an isolated species of pithecanthropus or Java man. This species
of ape-man, he believes, were left isolated in Sri Lanka and developed into a pygmoid race, as isolated
species often do. Some of them expressed low foreheads from interbreeding with other tribes and were more Neanderthal-looking than the base Nittaewo were.
Frequent rogue waves and tsunamis devistated the aboriginal inhabitants of low lying islands in this region, wiping out the hunters who were not in raised huts when the waves struck. Whole colonies of the little people sometimes went missing as a result.
Captain A. T. Rambukwella (The Nittaewo - The Legendary Pygmies of Ceylon. Journal of
the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon.1963) who has elaborated on the ape-man theory, believes that the
Nittevo may have been a species of Australopithecus, a type of man-like ape whose remains have been found
in South Africa, but who are also known to have spread out to the eastern parts of Asia. These people
have been described as small, man-like beings who stood erect and had a bipedal gait.
They are also said to have had human dentition and were characterized by an absence of ridges on
the cranium. These individuals have been further described as a cave-dwelling, plains-frequenting, birds' nest-rifling
and bone-cracking hunters who employed destructive implements in the chase. His carnivorous diet is said to have
included tortoises, lizards, crabs and bird eggs. Says Capt. Rambukwella; "It is possible that these small,
sub-human little people, which roamed throughout Asia and Africa pursued a parallel evolution with early man in the
lower pleistocene, and in their competition for survival, were driven and isolated in marginal and peripheral
areas at the extremities of continents.
Therefore it is suggestive that a sub-human ape akin to the Australopithecus roamed the sub-continent of
India during the lower pleistocene period and in their struggle for existence migrated towards the South
and into Ceylon (Sri Lanka) which was part of the sub-continent.
These far-fetched ape-man theories have been subject
to much criticism and not unreasonably. Pithecanthropus and Australopithecus are believed to have lived
500,000 years ago and appear to have died out long before modern man or homo sapiens came into existence.
The famous explorer, Dr. R. L. Spittel in his criticism of Rambukwella's theory (JRAS.CB.1963) has this to say: "In equating a legend of yesterday with half human creatures of remote antiquity, we are bridging an
immeasurable gap of time and indulging in a fancy rather than sober reasoning. To surmise that a small
group of long-vanished ape-men could have survived to legendary times in some fastness of this little
island, like Lenama, is a more fantastic conception than Conan Doyle's romance of the 'Lost World' for
the setting of which he chose a portion of a vast continent isolated for countless centuries by an
abysmal rift." Spittel's hypothesis as to the identity of the Nittevo is however also not very
convincing. He simply identifies them with an extinct species of red-haired brown bear known as rahu valaha (ursus inornatus).
Spittel has based his contentions on a Sinhalese islanders account of a Nittevo legend obtained by Nevill (1886)
from the inhabitants of Panama Pattu. Most of these small island colonies have no bear populations.
The legend is similar to the one preserved by the Veddas, save
that it also held that the Nittevo had shaggy red hair and long claws or unkempt fingernails. Vedda tradition however did
not support this description as Nevill found out when he put it before the Veddas. Says Nevill: "At the account of their shaggy red hair and long claws, the Veddas were much amused. They at once
said the Sinhalese islanders were confusing with the Nittaewo the rare sun bear, or Rahu Walas, now extinct
at Lenama, and unknown to the Sinhalese little people, except by vague gossip." This species of bear evidently
lived until fairly recent times. Nevill has recorded in the Taprobanian of 1885 that the rahu valas
was found, but rarely in the wild district lying between the Kumbukan river, and the Maenik Ganga.
In spite of the record left to us by Nevill that the Vedda tradition (which we may suppose to be
truer to the original legend than the later variants propagated by their Sinhalese neighbors) did
not uphold the view that the Nittewo possessed shaggy red hair and long claws, Spittel thinks
He contends that it is the rest of the legend that has been subject to "variants and
embellishments," and on this assumption postulates that the Nittevo legend originated from the
particularly aggressive species of bear known as the rahu valaha. Says Spittel:"They inhabit caves,
and what more likely that the Veddas should have suffocated them there."
The 'monkey chatter' and 'brutish noises' said to be made by the Nittevo suggest the monotonous
twittering the sloth bears indulge in when nibbling their forepaws, or the suction sounds they
make when extracting larvae from ant-hills. That they often go in groups, especially a she-bear
and her cubs, or a female in heat followed by males is well-known. That the sloth bears are not
averse to flesh, particularly when putrid, I have been told by Veddas. They are also great tree
climbers when in quest of fruit and honey combs". Spittel seeks to explain the tradition that the
Nittevo walked like men as follows: "Though their usual mode of progression is on all fours, they
do assume the erect posture when reconnoitering the tree tops from the ground, for honey combs;
and when attacking a human being, slashing his face with their powerful clawed forepaws, and
savaging him with their fangs when fallen". Although this is a most ingenious explanation, it
nevertheless suffers from the fact that it is based on a faulty assumption, namely that the
Nittewo possessed shaggy red hair and long claws, neither is true.
The original Nittevo legend, as seen earlier, does not support this view.
Who then were the Nittevo?
Probably simple negrito stock, upright walking fierce hunting island aborigines.
Nandadeva Wijesekera in his 1964 work, Veddas in Transition, suggested a similar & more likely theory
that the Nittevo may have been tiny Negrito people. Although Wijesekera did not go on to elaborate
on his theory, it is nevertheless a convincing one, and certainly more tenable than the earlier
theories. The Negritoes who appear to have been once dispersed throughout South and South East
Asia are still to be found in the Andaman islands to the South of the Bay of Bengal, or were prior to the great tsunami. Those who didn't read the retreating tidal basins as ominous are missing.
[Update 2004: The Andaman Islands were decimated and 99% of the inhabitants drowned or went missing after the tsunami of Christmas Boxing Day, 2004... Other members
of this race of people include the bamboo-thatch hut living Semang natives of the Malayan peninsula and the Toala people of central eastern Sulawesi. [Not far from Sulawesi is the island of Flores where the discovery of skeletons of a tiny race of people were uncovered in the Liang Bua Grotto in 2004. Nicknamed "hobbit" or Homo Floresiensis, these little people were fierce hunter gatherers and I cannot help but wonder what, if anything, their connection might be to the Nittaewo?]
A Negrito strain has also been found among some aboriginal South Indian tribes such as the Kadars
and Pulaiyans. The type is characterized by an extremely dark complexion, woolly hair, broad head,
flat nose and short stature. Adult males are known to average about four feet six inches in height
while the females are much shorter.
Given their proximity to Sri Lanka, it is not impossible that
a wandering band of Negritoes found their way into Sri Lanka during some remote period. It may
however be validly asked why it is that no skeletal remains of theirs have turned up. This may be
because the supposed habitat of the Nittevo, the Lenama and Tamankaduva regions, are largely unexplored areas. Some tribes also had the habit of setting their dead on rafts, pushing them out to sea on fire like a floating crematorium piled high with burning wood, an East Indian influence of burning their dead perhaps?
It is however interesting to point out that Capt. Rambukwella who led an expedition to the Mahalenama
area in search of the Nittevo in May 1963 has recorded that during the course of the expedition, an
excavation of a cave at Kudimbegala revealed at a depth of eight to ten inches, the vertabrae of a
talagoya (monitor lizard) and a segment of a carapace of a star tortoise. This is an interesting
discovery since according to tradition, these creatures constituted part of the Nittaewo's diet.
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