The Orang Pendek (“wild short man”) or sedepa of Sumatra is a small, unknown primate that some cryptozoologists say may be related to the orangutan. Others, such as W. C. Osman Hill, have pointed to a possible link to the fossils of the Java man, Homo erectus.
Sightings of the Orang Pendek have been logged for decades. The definitive incident for Westerners took place in October 1923, on the island of Poleloe Rimau in Sumatra. The witness, a Dutch explorer named Van Herwaarden, had been hunting for wild pig when he was startled to see a slight movement in a lone tree. When he investigated, he spotted a creature clinging motionless to the tree. In Tropical Nature 13 (1924), Van Herwaarden gave one of the most detailed descriptions of these creatures ever, noting that the unknown primate
… was also hairy on the front of its body; the color there was a little lighter than on the back. The very dark hair on its head fell to just below the shoulder blades or even almost to the waist. It was fairly thick and very shaggy. The lower part of its face seemed to end in more of a point than a man’s; this brown face was almost hairless, whilst its forehead seemed to be high rather than low. Its eyebrows were frankly moving; they were of the darkest color, very lively, and like human eyes. The nose was broad with fairly large nostrils, but in no way clumsy… Its lips were quite ordinary, but the width of its mouth was strikingly wide when open. Its canines showed clearly from time to time as its mouth twitched nervously. They seemed fairly large to me; at all events they were more developed than a man’s. The incisors were regular. The color of the teeth was yellowish-white. Its chin was somewhat receding. For a moment, during a quick movement, I was able to see its right ear, which was exactly like a little human ear. Its hands were slightly hairy on the back. Had it been standing, its arms would have reached to a little above its knees; they were therefore long, but its legs seemed to me rather short. I did not see its feet, but I did see some toes which were shaped in a very normal manner. The specimen was of the female sex and about five feet high. There was nothing repulsive or ugly about its face, nor was it at all ape-like…
Van Herwaarden put his gun down again and climbed the tree. This caused the Orang Pendek to run out on to a branch, which dropped some nine feet to the ground. Van Herwaarden dashed back to the ground, but as he raised his gun to shoot the creature, he found himself unable to fire. Watching the flowing hair from the fleeing Orang Pendek, he realized he would feel like a murderer if he killed so human-like a creature. Like so many before him, Van Herwaarden was to return to Europe with a good sighting but no proof. One museum curator even rejected Van Herwaarden’s account on the grounds that it was “too exact.”
Reports of the Orang Pendek have continued. Since the 1980s, British travel writer Deborah Martyr has led various expeditions into the Kerinci region of southwestern Sumatra. According to reports, the Orang Pendek of that region has a large potbelly and various colors (dark gray or black in some cases, yellow or tan in others). Martyr’s success and funding from British flora and fauna society created a wave of media attention. Reporters were expecting a discovery any day.
Early in October 1997, newspapers from London to Melbourne related the following sensational story, supposedly about the Orang Pendek:
The creature stumbled across the wire, triggering the camera shutter, capturing its image on film… This was a picture of an ape walking almost erect, a creature with a long red mane that could be man’s nearest cousin, a new’ species of primate that could re-write the books on evolutionary theory. As the pictures filtered out to the world’s zoologists and anthropologists, the debate began.
Unfortunately, the newspapers got the story wrong. Expedition members informed Loren Coleman that they had seen and cast footprints, but they had no clear photograph. Indeed, the two earlier fuzzy pictures referred to in other press reports were suspect from the beginning, though expedition members had to investigate for months to confirm that they were fakes. An Orang Pendek had not walked through a camera trap.
Other researchers have been conducting inquiries in Sumatra for years, and their under-publicized efforts should be noted. Claude Petit, professor and biologist, has been looking into the reports since 1980. As the personal friend of Kerinci National Park director Kurnia Rauf, Petit was able to examine the plaster casts that were held by the national park office before it was burned. This unfortunate fire was the result of arson, and status of the “Orang Pendek footcast collection” is now uncertain. Petit says that this cast was “about thirty centimeters [one foot] long, six to seven centimeters [2.5 inches] broad, the toes were not noticeable and no arch of the foot was evident.” Petit was skeptical of its authenticity, suspecting it was something concocted “for the tourists.” On die positive side, he collected a fair amount of compelling and consistent testimony from witnesses, who agreed that the creature of the forests east of Lake Kerinci is four feet tall and bipedal. Additionally, south of Lampung, in the area of Liwa, a huge earthquake in 1995 caused some disruptions in the wildlife population. According to Petit, the local people reported that animals looking like Orang Pendek came out of die forest briefly, frightened by the seismic activity.
Meanwhile, in the more believable “discovery” reports of October 1997, Martyr stated she found footprints she considers valid, apparently made by the same individual Orang Pendek. Various people showing off “footprints” of the Orang Pendek, Martyr cautions, may, in fact, be looking at “hand-prints.” In 1998, back into the same area, she and one of her expedition members saw a large primate in a tree. Her effort, supported by grants from Fauna and Flora International, is the most well established and respected by cryptozoologists.
Another researcher, French botanist Yves Laumonier, has also collected convincing reports from the area during the 1990s.
Martyr, Petit, and Laumonier are continuing their respective quests, hoping all the while for a physical discovery or clear-cut photographs that will end the controversy. The Orang Pendek might become the next “official” large primate discovery during the coming decade, and the unfolding drama deserves cryptozoology’s ongoing
The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark