Sunday, 27 February 2011


Greg Forth at work
I had a stimulating lunch last week with Gregory Forth, Professor of Anthropology in the University of Alberta in Canada. Greg's regional specialisation is Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago in particular, where he's undertaken long-term ethnographic research on the islands of Sumba and Flores. He's written extensively about indigenous religion and ritual, and more recently ethnozoology and cryptozoology, as the following passage outlines:

In addition to numerous journal articles, this research has resulted in a monograph on folk ornithology (Nage birds, 2004) and has contributed substantially to another book entitled Images of the wildman in Southeast Asia (2008). [...] A major focus of the latter work is indigenous representations, found on Flores island and elsewhere, of hominoid creatures bearing a remarkable resemblance to palaeoanthropological reconstructions of pre-sapiens hominins. While conducting fieldwork on Flores in the 1980s, Professor Forth recorded information concerning a putative beings, now reputedly extinct but surviving in historical memory of local people; these have since been hypothetically linked with the fossil hominin, interpreted as a new species, Homo floresiensis, discovered by palaeoanthropologists working in western Flores in 2003. (University of Alberta Field Research Office: links added)

In more ways than one this is a fantastic subject, and Images of the Wildman a fascinating study (for an informed assessment see Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart's review in Anthropos 105 (2) (2010)). A significant part of the book is devoted to a survey of wildman rumours and traditions outside Southeast Asia, including a section on East Africa. I was fortunate to be one of the scholars Greg consulted when he was writing this, though we hadn't met until he visited Cambridge last week. With his blessing this section is copied in full below.

East Africa and the 'little furry men'

[from Gregory Forth, Images of the Wildman in Southeast Asia: An Anthropological Perspective (Routledge, 2008), pp. 217-220 (main text), p. 307 (footnotes).]

Besides Southeast Asia, Africa is the only region of the world that is home to great apes, including chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pygmy chimpanzees, Pan paniscus) and Lowland and Highland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei). The continent is also the site of possible early or ancient encounters of European and circum-Mediterranean peoples with large primates, perhaps most famously exemplified by Hanno's periplus (Yerkes and Yerkes 1929: 2-3; Reynolds 1967: 29-31). If apes are a significant source of wildman images, therefore, one might expect Africa to provide numerous exemplars. And if surviving or remembered pre-sapiens hominins were their hypothetical origin, then Africa, as the major locus of human evolution, should be prominent for this reason as well.

Unabridged English translation (1958)
Recorded both in areas where apes are attested and in regions where they are not, reports of African hominoids have been comprehensively reviewed by Bernard Heuvelmans (1980). One source is a report by Captain William Hichens, an Englishman and former civil servant, who in the 1920s, while hunting lions in the Wembere region of west central Tanzania, observed two creatures emerging from dense forest. Resembling 'little men', the creatures were tailless, covered in 'russet' hair, stood about 1.2 metres tall and walked erect (Hichens 1937: 373). Evidently familiar with local primate life, Hichens remarks that the creatures may have been monkeys, but 'were no ordinary monkeys, nor baboons, nor colobus, nor Sykes, nor any other kind found in Tanganyika' (ibid.). Wembere, it should be noted , lies east of the normal range of chimpanzees and gorillas. Hichens' efforts to follow the hominoids were in vain. Reacting with 'mingled fear and amazement', a native hunter accompanying the Englishman also saw the creatures. He identified them as 'agogwe', rarely encountered beings which, according to what villagers later told Captain Hichens, will weed and hoe people's gardens at night in exchange for food and millet beer.

These particulars suggest that the 'little furry men' are a category recognized by local Tanzanians. Yet available ethnography does not confirm that East Africans maintain a representation labelled 'agogwe' which substantially accords with the physical image reported by Hichens. Nor is it entirely clear from which language the name 'agogwe' derives. Hichens briefly mentioned his sighting in an earlier article, where he writes the name as 'ngogwe'. He appears to gloss this term as 'little men of the trees' and to identify it as a usage of the Iramba (or Nilamba) people (1928: 176). It is also in this article that Hichens specifies the creatures as tailless. Evidently drawing on Iramba lore, he further describes the 'ngogwe' as 'wailing a strange chant' as they travel (ibid.).[13]

Heuvelmans compares Hichens' report to two other accouts of East African hominoids. One refers briefly to 'little red men' inhabiting the eastern Kenyan region of Embu. According to an African who claimed to have seen 'scores' of these beings, they will pelt human intruders with small stones (S.V. Cook 1924: 25); but noticeably missing from this account is any explicit reference to body hair. The same omission characterizes a later report from Mozambique. Writing in response to Hichens' article, another Briton described how, from the deck of a cargo boat in 1937 and with the aid of a telescope, he was able to observe two 'little brown men' between 1.2 and 1.5 metres tall walking on a beach among a troop of baboons (Burgoyne 1938: 51).[14] The baboons appeared undisturbed by their presence. Referring to a similar sighting by an unnamed friend, the author vaguely refers to a native injunction on shooting the little men.

Mt. Longonot crater
A somewhat more detailed sketch of putative hominoids is offered by a professional big-game hunter, Roger Courtney (1940: 37-49) and concerns apelike creatures called 'mau men'. Found in the vicinity of Mount Longenot [Longonot] in Kenya, the beings were described to Courtney by his guide, a Muslim of mixed Boran and Mkamba descent named Ali (1940: 37-49). Ali had heard the story from his then deceased father, who claimed to have been struck over the head and abducted by a group of mau men while tending sheep on the slopes of the mountain, described as an old volcano full of caves. In this account, the mau are characterized as small, apparently tailless creatures resembling 'monkeys' more than humans. While their skin was 'white', their bodies were covered in long 'black' hair. Hair also hung over the eyes. The reputed eyewitness encountered the mau sitting on ledges inside a cave, around a central fire. Characterized as forest dwellers, the creatures are further described as reaching their caves by way of long underground passages. Apart from the fire and sticks and stones which they employed as weapons, the mau appeared to possess no technology; as Ali points out, they may even have obtained the fire from a natural volcanic source. Chattering like monkeys, they also seem to have lacked an intelligible language. The only indication of their diet is the sheep stolen from Ali's father.

Ali's father explicitly distinguished the mau from less 'wild' pygmies residing in the forests to the west of Lake Victoria, whom he had encountered in his travels. Indeed, in all respects except the use of fire and occupation of caves, the beings sound very much like chimpanzees, which can be similarly light-skinned and with which the shepherd may also have been familiar from his westward journeys. Although caution is always required in translating local colour terms, the long 'black' hair of the mau contrasts with that of the russet-haired agogwe. Even so, since normally dark-haired chimpanzees occasionally possess brown or reddish pelage, wayward chimps, straying some 200 kilometres beyond the eastern limit of their normal range in western Kenya, could conceivably explain Hichen's experience as well. Less readily accounted for is the hair hanging over the eyes of the mau. However, it is a point of interest that exactly the same feature is attributed to hominoidal beings reported from Central Africa.

Maasai X-files
Different from other East African images are hominoids - most of them apparently quite human (see Heuvelmans 1990a) - that numerous Maasai and other Kenyan tribesmen described in the 1970s to the French anthropologist Jacqueline Roumeguère-Eberhardt (1990). Among these is a figure Roumeguère designates anonymously as 'XI' (there are five Xs altogether) and describes as hairy-bodied, possessing long head hair and huge feet, heavy set and extremely strong. The head hair is dark; the body hair is reddish-brown or fawn among younger specimens (who could conceivably be of a size comparable to Hichens' agogwe) but darker or sometimes grey in adults. Standing as tall as a human (1.3-1.85 metres) and occasionally taller, the creatures are further depicted as wielding huge clubs, killing buffalo and carrying away the carcasses, consuming raw flesh and possibly employing a language. Despite their size and strength, they are not aggressive towards humans. These reports, Roumeguère suggests, could reflect a surviving non-sapiens hominin such as Homo habilis or Homo erectus. In his Preface to Roumeguère's book, Heuvelmans (1990a: 26-34), on the other hand, suggests a robust Australopithecine (presumably a Paranthropus).

For a student of Florenese representations, probably the most remarkable feature of Roumeguère's book is a Maasai report of one sort of Kenyan hominoid (distinguished as 'X4') being offered milk in a gourd container and, 'perhaps mistaking it for a fruit', attempting to eat the gourd. It is perhaps curious that, unlike the agogwe and similarly small creatures, nothing like Roumeguère's anonymous hominoid was reported during the colonial period in East Africa. On the other hand, there is arguably some resemblance to the 'Nandi bear', an early twentieth-century British term for a mysterious creature named 'chimoset' by the Nandi of Kenya and sometimes described by European eyewitnesses as a 'big hairy biped' or 'an enormous baboon' (Heuvelmans 1995: 490).[15]


[13] I am grateful to [x1] of Cambridge University for alerting me to Hichens' 1928 article. As is general in Bantu languages, the initial /a/ in 'agogwe' would appear to be the general noun class prefix for humans or humanlike beings. But since this is also applied to animals in some Bantu languages, it is not certain that the word denotes something locally classified as human, or even hominoid (Walsh, pers. comm., September 2006). On the other hand, the initial /n/ in 'ngogwe' is the usual Bantu prefix for nouns denoting animals; and in this connection, Walsh has suggested that, if 'agogwe' is not a misprint, Hichens may have substituted this for 'ngogwe', perhaps by way of correctio, in his 1937 piece. Referring to the Tanzanian Ihanzu people, Todd Sanders of the University of Toronto mentions as a possible comparison the term 'ahing'wi', denoting aboriginal but now invisible 'bush-dwelling creatures' that Ihanzu describe as having bodies divided laterally between a human half and a wooden half consisting of a log. The figure thus suggests the widespread image of the 'half-man' (see Needham 1980) and the partly vegetal 'green man', often considered a variant of the European wildman. Sanders further remarks that, as the Ihanzu word for 'log' is 'igogo', this image could conceivably be the source of Hichens' 'agogwe'. Another peculiarity of ahing'wi is their ability to produce porridge, milk, or meat from rocks, which they then leave in the bush for humans they favour (Sanders, pres. comm., September 2006) - an idea that suggests an inversion of the agogwe practice of receiving beer from people for whom they perform agricultural labours.

[14] Although Burgoyne entitles his article 'little furry men', this simply replicates Hichens' usage and Burgoyne does not actually describe the figures he saw as hairy.

[15] As the English name should suggst, other colonials likened the animal to a bear (no species of which is found in Africa). Heuvelmans reviews evidence suggesting that the Nandi Bear may indeed be a member of the Cynocephala (baboons and allies) of an unknown species (1995: 473-75); but in the end he favours an old and rather large ratel, or 'honey badger' (family Mustelidae), as the main source of the representation.


Burgoyne, Cuthberet 1938. Little furry men. Discovery 19: 51.

Cook, S. V. 1924. The leprachauns of Kwa Ngombe. Journal of the East [Africa and Uganda Natural] History Society 20: 24.

Courtney, Roger 1940. A Greenhorn in Africa. London: Herbert Jenkins Limited.

[Forth, Gregory. 2004. Nage Birds: Classification and Symbolism among an Eastern Indonesian People. London and New York: Routledge.]

[Forth, Gregory. 2008. Images of the Wildman in Southeast Asia: An Anthropological Perspective. London and New York: Routledge.]

Heuvelmans, Bernard 1980. Les bêtes humaines d'Afrique. Paris: Plon.

Heuvelmans, Bernard 1990a. Preface to Roumeguère-Eberhardt.

Heuvelmans, Bernard 1995. On the Track of Unknown Animals. Revised third English edition. London and New York: Kegan Paul International.

Hichens, William 1928. Africa's mystery beasts. The World Wide Magazine 62 (no. 369): 171-76.

Hichens, William 1937. African mystery beasts. Discovery 18: 369-73.

Reynolds, Vernon 1967. The Apes: The Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Orangutan and Gibbon - their History and their World. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.

Roumeguère-Eberhardt, Jacqueline 1990. Le dossier X: les hominidés non identifiés des forêts d'Afrique. Paris: Editions Robert Laffont.

[Strathern, Andrew J. and Pamela J. Stewart. Review of Forth 2008. Anthropos 105 (2): 636-637.]

Yerkes, Robert M. and Ada W. Yerkes 1929. The Great Apes: A Study of Anthropoid Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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