The folktales of all Southasian countries have legends concerning ‘beast-men’, and Sri Lanka is no exception. From the island’s dimly illuminated past come curious jungle tales of the Nittaewo, a supposedly beastlike race characterised by hairy bodies and extremely long nails. It has been postulated by some that the Nittaewo were confused with a species of monkey or bear, while others are convinced that they must have been early hominids or ape-men. In the absence of skeletal remains, however, no precise identification can be made. And so, the Nittaewo continues to be one of the great enigmas associated with Sri Lanka.
The first person to write in detail about the ‘little men’ who inhabited the island then known as Taprobane was Ctesias, a Greek physician at the Persian court during the fourth century BC. Ctesias also wrote of cynocephali, dog-faced men or apes “whose clothes are the skins of wild beasts. They have no language; they bark like dogs … Their teeth are larger than those of dogs; their nails are like those of animals, but longer and more curved.” Subsequently, during the first century AD, Pliny the Elder mentioned the occurrence of ‘beast-men’ in the region. The mystery surrounding their identity appeared to be solved in 400 AD, when one Bishop Palladius described a race of primitive people to be found on the island. But Palladius was referring to the Veddah, an aboriginal tribe, racially mixed remnants of which exist to this day – Sri Lanka’s last link with its prehistory. The belief in the existence of Taprobanese beast-men was revived during the 14th century after the Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta visited the island. “These animals are very numerous in the mountains,” he wrote, probably referring to the purple-faced leaf monkey (Trachypithecus vetulus), which today is known to the Sinhalese as kalu-wanderoo.
Over five centuries later, new clues emerged that seemed to lend weight to the ancient reports, and gave reason to believe that the Veddah were unlikely to be Pliny’s beast-men after all. In 1886, a British civil servant named Hugh Nevill reported in his journal, the Taprobanian, that he had gathered tantalising fragments of information concerning a strange race called the Nittaewo. Nevill’s first informant was a district headman A de Zylva of Batticaloa, who claimed to have heard many accounts of the Nittaewo, which he said inhabited the almost inaccessible mountains in the southeast corner of the island.
The Nittaewo were reported to resemble orang-utans or gorillas, and were expert at climbing trees. They had some human traits, such as the ability to walk upright; and they were covered with reddish hair, with claws of great length and strength. Nevill learned that the Nittaewo used to descend from the rocks in gangs to steal meat that had been spread out in the sun to dry by Veddah hunters – who hid in fear of attack from the Nittaewo’s fearsome claws. Eventually he met a primary source: a hunter who had known an old Veddah man named Koraliya, who had said that the Nittaewo lived in small social groups, sleeping in caves or on platforms of branches in trees.
Legend has it that, driven to desperation by the mischief and cruelty displayed by the ‘little men’, the remaining group was rounded up by the Veddah and driven into a cave. The Veddah then heaped wood in front of the entrance and set fire to it, creating a bonfire that burned for three days – suffocating the trapped Nittaewo. According to Veddah tradition, thus ended the race of Nittaewo. Ironically, though, the Veddah themselves died out a few generations later (through intermarriage with the local population, etc), and with them was lost the location of the cave.
Although much of Nevill’s report was based on third-hand information, it was corroborated by an adventurer named Frederick Lewis in 1914. During an exploration of the area, Lewis learned from a family of Veddah lineage that the Nittaewo had been exterminated no more than four generations earlier – around 1775 – and that a relative of this family had taken an active part in burning their last encampments. The information that Lewis gleaned about the Nittaewo tallied very closely with Nevill’s, and supplemented it. According to Lewis, the Nittaewo were about a metre tall, with hairy legs like a monkey. But their upper body was more humanlike, and they walked erect. Their arms were short and powerful, with large hands and long, hooked nails similar to the talons of an eagle. They used these claws to tear apart the animals they caught, such as mouse deer, hares, squirrels, monitor lizards, tortoises and even crocodiles. They could not capture large animals except by surrounding them, and for this reason they lived in small troops. Purportedly, the Nittaewo never ventured near the sea, instead restricting themselves to the forest-clad, cave-ridden slopes and ridges of the inner mountains. Their shouts were said to sound like the twittering of birds, a means of communication understood by the Veddah. The only creatures the Nittaewo were afraid of were dogs and the ill-natured buffalo, the former because the Veddah used them to hunt in packs.
Initially sceptical of the stories regarding the Nittaewo, Lewis took particular care to make inquiries at a distant village on the opposite side of the creature’s supposed range. To his surprise, the eldest inhabitant there was able to duplicate the information in detail. The research carried out by Nevill and Lewis thus indicated that accounts of the Nittaewo by the Veddah may have given rise to the ancient legends. Yet the information collected by Nevill and Lewis, together with the body of ancient writings, were not subjected to serious scientific analysis until a visit to Ceylon in 1945 by Professor W C Osman Hill of Edinburgh University. An expert on primates, Hill, although he could not obtain any tangible data from his visit, was able to write a diligent examination of the somewhat flimsy evidence.
It was, Hill admitted, one of the most difficult tasks he had tackled, but in “Nittaewo, an Unsolved Problem of Ceylon” he brought to the subject the vital perspective of the comparative zoologist. After careful research, he came to the conclusion that Pithecanthropus of Java, a speechless hominid intermediate between modern man and the anthropoid apes, accords best with the tradition of the Nittaewo. Furthermore, Hill speculated that Pithecanthropus might also be responsible for the stories of the Orang-pendek, the Nittaewo’s similar-sounding and better-known counterpart from Sumatra. To support this hypothesis, he traced in detail the natural affinities that link Sumatra with Sri Lanka – including certain animals that are not found in intervening areas, as well as sharing other very similar though not exact species.
The unsolved identity of the Nittaewo was again raised in 1958 with the publication of the scientist-explorer Bernard Heuvelmans’s monumental book on such mysteries worldwide, On the Track of Unknown Animals. “Asia may still hide unknown apes whose mental development is higher than that of the anthropoid apes,” he wrote. “Or it may be inhabited by men more primitive than the Australian Aborigines, the Veddah or the African Bushmen, and still at the Neanderthal stage.” Meanwhile, debate on the Nittaewo was revived locally in 1963 with a lecture delivered by Captain A T Rambukwella, who reported the findings of an expedition he made to examine caves for remains of the Nittaewo. Test trenches had been cut, and one revealed the vertebrae of a monitor lizard, some mollusc shells, and the carapace of a tortoise – all animals thought to be major components of the Nittaewo diet.
Although he was unable to find any skeletal remains, Rambukwella was of the opinion that the Nittaewo were a species of Australopithecus, an evidently savage hominid that nonetheless is thought to have possessed ultra-simian ability and cunning. “It is possible,” surmised Rambukwella, “that these small, sub-human apes, which roamed throughout Asia, pursued a parallel evolution with early man in the lower Pleistocene era, and in their competition for survival were driven and isolated in marginal and peripheral areas at the extremities of continents.” Perhaps Rambukwella’s most convincing speculation on the Nittaewo concerned the origin and meaning of their name. He thought that it was derived from the Veddah-language niyapothu-aya – ‘long-nailed creatures’ – abbreviated to niya-atha and modified to nittaewo. It is indeed a word the Veddah might have used, as the names of animals in their language are based on physical features or peculiarities. For instance, the elephant is known as ‘big trunk’, and the monitor lizard as ‘the one who rubs his belly on the ground’.
More wanderoo than man
Commenting on Rambukwella’s lecture, R L Spittel revised an earlier opinion, supported by ambukwella’s derivation of their name, that the Nittaewo were a species of sloth bear. He reasoned that the Veddah gave the name to a particularly aggressive species of sloth bear, which itself became extinct a little later than the Nittaewo lineage died out. Indeed, Nevill described the animal as “half the size of the sloth-bear, with reddish-brown fur on the back but of a tawny yellow beneath and on the chest. It is very savage, far more so than the sloth-bear; and invariably tries to attack a man however far-off.” The existence of this species was established by Jacques Pucheran of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, who in 1855 described the remains of such a bear found near Trincomalee.
Lewis’s informant had also compared the Nittaewo to the grey langur (Semnopithecus priam thersites), the wanderoo of the Sinhalese; and Heuvelmans and others had mentioned this species as a possible candidate for anthropological confusion. That the wanderoo has a vaguely human facial appearance was attested to by the son of an East India Company captain named Robert Knox in his An Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681): “There are an abundance in the Woods, and of divers sorts, of darkish gray colour, and black faces, with great white beards round from ear to ear, which makes them shew just like old men.” Nevertheless, while the wanderoo has a striking tail, reports of the Nittaewo speak of a tailless creature.
Judging from a collection of miniature stone implements – microliths – in the Colombo Museum, it is quite probable that a race of pygmies inhabited Sri Lanka during the prehistoric era. In 1907, two cousins, the archaeologists Paul and Fritz Sarasin, discovered microliths in the Uva and Eastern provinces, which they believed were used “by small hands and therefore by a small-sized type of mankind”. There has recently been a significant uptick in international interest in the possibility of such ‘small hands’. With the discovery in October 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores of the skeleton of an entirely new and very small human species, Homo floresiensis, has come a reawakened interest in the Nittaewo. This new species, which quickly acquired the nickname The Hobbit, lived as recently as 18,000 years ago.
As is the case with islands elsewhere, the fauna of Flores evolved on its own way, producing creatures larger or smaller than their mainland relatives – including its human inhabitants. The Hobbit was no more than a metre tall, and had a brain about a third the size of a modern adult human. Henry Gee, the editor of the journal Nature speculated: “Could the existence of Homo floresiensis rehabilitate persistent rumours of undiscovered human-like species elsewhere, notably the Orang-pendek of Malay folklore?” And, perhaps, of the Nittaewo?
~ Richard Bolye is a Contributing Editor to this magazine.