1990 Field Report:
An Investigation of the Orang Pendek,
The Short Man of Sumatra
By Deborah Martyr
It was not until my return to Britain that I learned that reports of an as yet unrecognized bipedal primate have persisted throughout this century in the mountainous central spine of Malaysia and the high rain forests of northeastern Borneo. However, nowhere do these reports seem more firmly anchored in reality than in the montane rain forests of the remote Kerinci region of southwestern Sumatra.
The Kerinci region
lines in the central southern part of the Barisan Mountains of western
Sumatra. The area takes its name from a 12,500-foot (3,800 m)-high active
volcano. The rain forests there are among the richest surviving in Southeast
Asia; they contain large mammals, including the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran
rhinoceros, the Malayan tapir, the sun bear, and the siamang ape.
Many more millions of acres of rain forest remain as yet untouched by commercial interests--although a French gold mining consortium is pressing for exploration licenses in the area. Away from the densely populated Sungai Penuh valley, it is possible to trek for up to a week in dense, high altitude rain forest without encountering either a village or a road.
I arrived in Kerinci in July 1989, spending three weeks in the area. I returned in September for a further two weeks. My introduction to the Short Man came one July day at dusk on the slopes of Mt. Kerinci, although I had already come across the name orang-pendek in a guide book; it described the animal as a "legendary hairy hominid which terrifies the local population.''
From our campsite at 11,150 feet (3,400 m), we could see the Indian Ocean--perhaps 100 miles (160 km) to the west--and my guide, Jamruddin ("Din"), pointed out areas where rhinoceros and tiger are commonly found. He then indicated, quite casually, that, in the densely forested mountains east of the crater lake of Mt. Tujuh, one could sometimes see orang pendeks. I commented that one never seems to meet anybody who had actually seen such mythical beasts first-hand. He seemed a little surprised, but then admitted, apologetically, that he had "only" seen an orang-pendek twice. Din then went on to give a detailed description of the animal. It was, he said, still common, although becoming rare in the Mt. Kerinci area-possibly due to incursions by local farmers.
Over the next weeks, I became increasingly intrigued as I visited settlement after settlement seeking further information. In the increasingly densely populated region around the foothills of Mt. Kerinci, villagers reported no local sightings of orang-pendeks in more than three years, although hunters reported seeing them on rattan-gathering forays into the forest. In the lower lying Sungai Penuh valley, the animal seems quite unknown. Only in the more remote villages, high in the hills, are recent sightings of the animal reported.
After two weeks, it seemed that the most likely area in which to find proof of the animal was an untracked wilderness east of Mt. Kerinci and south towards the market town of Bangko, which lies on the Trans-Sumatran highway. Despite offering well over the normal guide price, I did not succeed in finding a guide willing to take me into this region.
The people of villages such as Palompet and Kersiktua insist this area is the habitat of a big cat they call cigau. Described as being slightly smaller-but apparently more heavily built--than the Sumatran tiger, the cigau appears to prompt real fear among the hunters of Kerinci--the only animal to produce such a reaction. They claimed the cigau attacks without provocation. "Cigau hates man," I was repeatedly told.
Despite this setback,
I was able to gather a detailed description of the orang-pendek by talking
to headmen in villages up to 60 miles (100 km) apart. The older men were
more helpful. The younger village men appear reluctant to enter the forest,
and on the two occasions that I hired young guides, they succeeded in
getting lost--a not very pleasant experience. The orang-pendek is described
by these older witnesses as ranging from 3 to S feet (1-1.5 m) in height.
The forehead is high, and the ears are more prominent than those of the
siamang. All reports included the information that the animal has a large
and prominent belly--something not mentioned in previous literature on
the subject. The animal was described as heavily built, not the slender
little creature I was later to see illustrated in a book by Bernard Heuvelmans
(1958, On the Track of Unknown
A number of native people remarked that, although the Short Man normally boasts a long, black mane of hair extending almost to the base of the spine, in some cases this mane may be dark yellow or tan. The body is covered in a light coating of black or dark-grey hair, thicker on the limbs than the body. Villagers initially insisted that the animal has arms the same length as in humans. However, when questioned further, it became plain that the index finger extends to, or just below, the knee.
One witness, an elderly dukun or traditional doctor living in a settlement near Muara Amat, provided the additional comment that, when running, the Short Man may hold out his arms (for balance?). All witnesses insisted that orang-pendeks are bipedal, although some sources claimed that they walk with their weight placed on the outer edge of the foot. Not one person suggested that orang-pendeks have reversed feet. I placed least credence in reports in which hunters claimed to have seen orang-pendeks in the forest; since it is possible they may have seen sun bears or siamangs.
The most reliable sightings -- five -- were from villagers who had seen an orang-pendek in their ladang fields at the edge of the rain forest. One of these sightings came from the Mt. Kerinci area, near the village of Palompet. The remainder came from settlements in the area around the small town of Lempur, 33 miles (54 km)--two hours by bus--southeast of Sungai Penuh. All these sightings appear to have been made before 7 a.m. and after 3 p.m. In all but one reported sighting, the animal had been feeding on sugar cane; another report involved feeding on bananas. Villagers said they thought that the orang-pendek lives on the forest floor, although it clearly does utilize the trees.
One 32-year-old man, from near Palompet, described his sighting thus: "I was in my grandfather's house [a bamboo hut] in his fields, and looked out and saw two orang-pendeks. One was bigger than the other. They were eating sugar cane; I went out to look at them more closely. The big one saw me. Then they both ran away. They ran away like a man. Quite fast." Upon further questioning, the witness stated that the orang-pendek looked like a small, hairy human. He also stated that the animal is not a human, but also insisted that it is not a monkey. He became offended, as were other villagers, when I suggested that it might be either a sun bear or a siamang. Witnesses also dismissed the suggestion that their sightings were of members of the primitive aboriginal Kubu tribe.
The presence of a second orang-pendek appears in a number of reports. However, no villagers informed me of having observed an infant or juvenile.
As time passed, I changed my method of questioning-- quite shamelessly --- in a bid to prompt certain answers. "He is the same as orang-utan, isn't he?" I would suggest. Such suggestions were greeted with a degree of outrage.
There are no recorded sightings of orang-utans in southwestern Sumatra. That ape species, so far as is known, is restricted to just one area of northeastern Sumatra. Villagers also firmly denied that they could have mistakenly identified a sun bear or a siamang. Both animals are common in Kerinci, and my witnesses insisted they knew the difference between an orang-pendek and a siamang or a sun bear.
One elderly resident
of Palompet insisted on demonstrating the difference between a siamang--caught
rifling his sugar canes--and an orang-pendek: "orang-pendek, walks
like a man; orang-pendek is not a monkey ibu [Lady],"
There appear to be no mystical properties attached to the orang-pendek of Kerinci. Also, I had one villager tell me that the orang-pendek kidnapped women or curdled milk, I would probably have dropped my investigation.
At the end of July, I left Kerinci and traveled south first to Bengkulu Province, where I spent some time in the region of Curup and the Bukit Kaba Volcano. Virtually no rain forest survives in that area, and villagers appeared to know nothing of orang-pendeks. It was only later that I learned that Bukit Kaba was the site of one of the most famous European accounts of an orang-pendek (Heuvelmans, 1958).
From there, I traveled north to Padang, and then to Bukitinggi, in the Minangkabau, some 155 miles (250 kms) north of Sungai Penuh. Once again, orang-pendeks appeared quite unknown--although, upon my return to Britain, I was to learn, again, that the animal had been reported there in the early years of this century.
At the beginning of September, I traveled south to Kerinci once more, where I met the headman of Selempaing village (see Fig. 2). He claimed that a female orang-pendek had been seen twice in his village fields within recent weeks. With the rains fast approaching, and my Indonesian visa expiring at equal if not greater speed, I made my way to Selempaing, in the mountains, some 30 miles (50 km) southwest of Sungai Penuh -- via possibly the worst road in Sumatra. The village is located at around 3,600 feet (1,100 m) above sea level, on the edge of virgin rain forest. There are few trails of any description, and reaching the village involves not only climbing steep ridges, but fording fast-flowing rivers and suffering the constant attentions of leeches. A parang (machete) is essential.
There are a number of Sumatran rhinos in the area. I was also told, on my first evening in the village that a local man had been taken by a tiger two years earlier. Since our protection consisted of the village headman's small air rifle, this did little for my self-confidence.
My guides, the Selempaing headman and a former rhino poacher named Musih, had warned me that it could be weeks before I might see an orang pendek. I reassured them that all I wanted was some evidence of the animal's existence. They were disbelieving when I explained that orang-sarjana-scientist man--did not know about orang-pendek. Musih said he believed it would be possible to catch an orang-pendek using a snare or a net, but said no local people would cooperate if any harm came to the animal. He also insisted that, if an orang-pendek were caught, it should be released, and not removed from the forest. I concluded that there is some sort of taboo against killing or injuring this animal.
A full day of trekking
south, deep into the mountains, took us to a heavily forested river valley
at an altitude, which I estimated to be at around 4,600 feet (1,400 m).
At one point, I followed the tracks up a steep, muddy bank above a fast flowing stream for almost 40 yards (36 m) before losing them in a drier area. I concentrated on one particular set of tracks. Each print was clearly delineated, the big toe and four smaller toes easily visible. The big toe was placed, as it would be in a human foot. The foot had a clearly defined high, curved instep. It measured just less than 6 inches (15.2 cm) in length, and fractionally less than 4 inches (10.1 cm) at the widest point of the ball of the foot. The heel was narrow and well rounded. If we had been reasonably close to a village, I might have momentarily thought the prints to be those of a healthy seven year-old child.
The ball of the foot was, however, too broad even for a people who habitually wear no shoes, and I also dismissed the possibility of the tracks having been made by Kubu tribes people.
I am 5 feet, 3 inches
(1.6 m) tall, and my left foot is almost exactly 9 inches (23 cm) long.
Following this relationship, I calculated that the source of these tracks
had therefore been rather smaller--a little over 4 feet (1.2 m) tall.
That would make it smaller than the orang-pendek described both by the
villagers I questioned, and, as I later discovered, by Heuvelmans. However,
orang-pendek means "Short Man" in Malay, and there are few Kerinci
people who are more than 5 feet, 7 inches (1.7 in) in height. It seems
therefore reasonable to assume that the native people would not describe
an animal as "short" unless it was noticeably smaller than they.
The animal's reported broad shoulders and large stomach would increase
its appearance of bulk.
We agreed that the cast should be sent for further examination to the headquarters of the Indonesian National Parks Department, in Bogor. Unfortunately, despite a number of requests, their conclusions have not been forthcoming. Regrettably, I had mistakenly assumed that, since I myself had been able to find a number of tracks of orang-pendek, there would be a considerable volume of writings on the subject, and that there would be plaster casts available. Had I realized at the time that this was not the case, I would have retained the surviving cast, and I also would have taken more care in photographing the actual tracks.
After a total of seven weeks in Sumatra investigating this animal, I established that it appears to be restricted to the Kerinci region of Sumatra, although it seems likely that a similar form is also found in northeast Borneo.
In reviewing all my evidence, as well as the historical evidence, I assign a probability of about 80 percent to there being au unknown bipedal primate surviving in the high rain forests of southwestern Sumatra. If it is ground dwelling and elusive, as it is reported to be, this could explain how it has escaped zoological notice, and is known only to the native people. I do not believe that it is more than distantly related to the orang-utan.
I plan to continue my investigation of the orang-pendek in Sumatra, and I hope to return to Kerinci for this purpose before long, possibly in 1991. I would welcome any specific advice from ISC members on the next phase of my investigation.
© Debbie Martyr
for Cryptozoology, 9, 1990, 57--65
Portions of this website are reprinted and sometimes edited to fit the standards of this website under the Fair Use Doctrine of International Copyright Law