Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Hominoid (Excerpt)

Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Hominoid • by Gregory Forth • Pegasus Books • 9781639361434 • Hardcover • $27.95 • 288 pages • 8-page color insert • Science • May 3rd, 2022

Everyone was extremely frightened by what they saw—Noko recalled how he began sweating profusely—and for this reason they did not observe the creature for long. Noko called off the dog, initially getting its attention by pelting it with a stone, and they all quickly fled homeward, with the two females screaming and crying in distress. That evening, the little girl developed a high fever and her hair began to fall out, growing back only after a month or more. Both Noko and Dhiki told a number of people of the incident but, according to Noko, no one was bold enough to venture near the spot for a long time afterward. Neither the creature nor anything like it was ever seen again, either by the eyewitnesses or by fellow villagers.

When I met them, Noko and Dhiki were living in different villages. I questioned them about the incident separately on two occasions in 2015, and again in 2016. I have no evidence that the cousins had any opportunity to coordinate their reports. Nor, indeed, was there any reason they should have wanted to do so. What they described was similar, as regards both the circumstances of the encounter and the physical appearance of the creature, and where they varied, their accounts were mostly complementary rather than contradictory. Independently, the two eyewitnesses described a hominoid about the size of a child of six or seven years. Although it remained sitting in the same spot throughout the encounter, it appeared bipedal and generally humanlike. In fact, Noko consistently represented it as some sort of “human being,” though not a “human like us” but something essentially different. For one thing, the naked body was covered in hair. Had it stood up, Noko said, its full height would have been either about 85 centimeters or one meter (2 feet, 9 inches or 3 feet, 3 inches). This he inferred by comparing the creature to two young village boys, the taller of whom had a sitting height of over 50 centimeters (20 inches). Similarly, in 2015 and 2016, Dhiki compared the creature’s height to those of different local children I was able to measure. One stood 86.5 centimeters (2 feet, 10 inches), and the other 1.02 meters (3 feet, 4 inches). In both instances, estimates of the head size corresponded with the estimates of height. Thus Noko thought this was about the same size as the head of a young boy who stood 1.27 meters (4 feet, 2 inches; see figure 2.1), while Dhiki compared the head to that of a nearby girl of six or more years (see figure 7.3).

According to both observers, therefore, the hominoid was much larger than a local macaque. Responding to my question, neither Noko nor Dhiki said they had seen a tail. How old the thing might have been neither could say. But both thought it was mature, with Noko basing his interpretation on the gaunt appearance of the face and rather sunken cheeks. At the same time, Noko mentioned that because the head and body hair was dark rather than “white” or “light,” it did not appear elderly. Remarking how it appeared to be female—or an ata fai (the Lio phrase for a human female)—Dhiki claimed she’d seen small breasts and nipples. Noko too initially identified it as female, but what distinguished the creature’s sex he could not say, and when we spoke again in 2016, he seemed uncertain about the sex.

Gregory Forth. (CREDIT: Sandy McRory)

The body hair was thicker than a human’s but sparse in comparison to a monkey’s. Both Noko and Dhiki initially described the color of the body and head hair as brown or reddish brown, whereas later, in 2016, they both gave the color as “black” or “dark.” While Noko simply characterized the body as hairy, Dhiki was more specific, describing only the chest and belly as free of hair. (When questioned again later, Noko thought there was no difference between the chest hair and hair on the rest of the body.)

How the head hair differed from the body hair was unclear. At one point, Noko said it was not particularly long, though somewhat longer than the body hair. In the subsequent year, he estimated the length as perhaps 15 centimeters (6 inches), adding that it appeared disheveled and untidy. Dhiki spoke of a “medium” length and, with her hand, indicated that it grew to the shoulders. Noko could not confirm this because, he said, the creature consistently faced toward him. Like the dead hominoid found by Tegu, both eyewitnesses said the hair was straight—that is, not kinky or curly—and that it fell over the forehead. Dhiki seemed to describe the hair as entirely covering the forehead and even the eyes. But it later transpired that she had referred to an occasion when the hominoid bowed its head in the direction of the woman and her daughter, after one or both screamed upon seeing it. Noko similarly stated that the only motion the creature made (besides throwing stones at the dog) was when it craned its neck forward, and he imitated it, bending over as if to bow. Remarkably, this detail recalls the action attributed to the hominoid observed by Jata, and perhaps her husband as well, in another place and on a far more recent occasion.

Responding to my question, Dhiki said the creature’s skin was “black” or “dark” like that of local people. She also compared its complexion to that of a particular girl, whose skin, however, struck me as possibly lighter than the local norm. Noko, by contrast, seemed to characterize the hominoid’s color as darker than local people. But as he also mentioned, the skin looked dirty, and he further characterized it as “not in good condition,” possibly meaning rough or blemished.

The two observers gave quite similar accounts of the creature’s face. Dhiki described a “long” face that appeared intermediate between a human’s and a monkey’s. Noko characterized it as humanlike and about the size of a small child’s but “ugly, unattractive” and “not good.” According to Dhiki, the cheeks were “fat” or “full” like those of people, thus contrasting to the sunken cheeks of a monkey. This may seem to contradict Noko’s aforementioned description of a gaunt face and sunken cheeks, but in this connection Noko was contrasting adults and children rather than humans and monkeys. Answering my question, Noko had also described the arms as “thin,” but this was the only specific mention by either eyewitness of the hominoid’s limbs or general build.

Both Noko and Dhiki indicated that the forehead was “small,” sloped backward, and partly covered in hair. Dhiki also spoke of a relatively “prominent” forehead, but as with the cheeks, this implied a contrast with macaques rather than a complete resemblance to modern humans. As for other facial features, only Dhiki described the mouth or lower face as “protruding,” like a monkey’s, whereas Noko simply characterized it as humanlike. Both described the nose as like a human’s—more prominent than a monkey’s and, in Dhiki’s estimation, not flat but “well-formed” (“mancung,” the same word used by Tegu for the dead hominoid he found). Neither could comment on the teeth. As both remarked, they never saw the thing open its mouth, and it never made any vocal sound. Dhiki had rather more to say than Noko about the ears and eyes. Whereas Noko described these simply as humanlike but smaller than an adult human’s, Dhiki spoke of ears that were relatively large and stuck out, like the ears of a human and unlike those of a monkey. Also, during our second interview in 2016, she remarked that the outer ears appeared to be turned or folded forward—a condition which, in humans, Lio call bongo, meaning something like a cauliflower ear.

Dhiki seemed to have been particularly drawn to the eyes. In 2015 she’d spontaneously remarked that these were “clear” like a human’s (and thus unlike a monkey’s). In 2016 she added that they appeared large and wide, features she said made her especially afraid of the creature. Also, later in our conversation, she described the eyes as “opened wide”—a phrase that, in humans, describes a sign of surprise, shock, or fear. If accurate, this detail could suggest that the hominoid was as scared of its human observers as they were of it, or became so after the females began screaming. Both in 2015 and 2016 Dhiki offered other details of the creature’s eyes. The eyebrow hair was dense and long—so long, she later claimed, that it seemed to partly cover the hominoid’s eyes. The lashes, too, may have been long, though she was rather unclear on this point. When I later questioned him, Noko was unable to confirm these particulars, mentioning that, after seeing the creature, he had not stuck around long enough to observe such details.

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