Book Excerpt from Between Ape and Human

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Tegu’s Discovery

Like Wolo’s story, the following account concerns a dead specimen, in fact two dead specimens. What’s more, the bodies were found at widely separate times by the roadside near the village of Ndu’a Ri’a, in the same vicinity where Wolo’s accident had occurred.

In 2015 I was lodging temporarily in another highland village, following up reports of villagers who claimed to possess ape-man relics. Among these was a man whose daughter-in-law, an outgoing and rather garrulous young woman named Wea, derived from Ndu’a Ri’a. After I’d finished speaking with her father-in-law, Wea approached me with several stories about ape-men. Although they varied in credibility, one especially caught my attention. It concerned a Ndu’a Ri’a man named Tegu, who a few years previously had been alerted to the presence of a dead ape-man on his land. The corpse, she said, had first been discovered by a number of people returning from church, herself included. After finding the corpse, Tegu and a friend whose Christian name was Fanus (short for Stefanus) buried it somewhere. However, as Wea further claimed, later that evening the creature’s relatives disinterred the body and took it away.

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Although I’m still unsure whether Wea actually saw the creature, she mentioned several quite specific physical details. Found lying facedown, the creature’s head was “almost the same as a human’s” and the body was covered in fairly sparse, light-grayish hair. The face resembled a monkey’s, and the nose was “like a skull,” which she explained to mean covered in scabs or mange. Information subsequently given by Tegu himself included neither of these details. Nevertheless, Wea described the location of Tegu’s house, and I was easily able to find it the next day. Tegu was not home, but his wife was. When I mentioned how I’d heard that her husband had found a dead creature of a strange kind some years previously, she seemed not to know what I was talking about. But I left my cell phone number and asked her to have her husband contact me.

Since similar requests for people to call me had previously gone unheeded, and because Tegu didn’t know me from Adam, I was rather surprised to receive his call early the following morning. Tegu, it turned out, was a man of fifty years who held a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Bandung in Jawa, and who cultivated his own land mostly to provide vegetables for sale in the market at Ndu’a Ri’a. Friendly and enthusiastic in answering my inquiries, he was clearly intelligent, though his knowledge of indigenous culture appeared limited—perhaps not surprisingly for a man who had spent years away from Flores. I had several phone conversations with Tegu that year, but it was not until my subsequent visit the following year (2016) that I was able to meet him in person. What he told me on all occasions was remarkably consistent. Some years previously, probably in 2010 and on a Pentecost Monday (May 24th, if 2010 was the year), Tegu and others had attended church. Afterward he returned home and was taking a nap when his wife and her sister—a woman from the Ende region who had been working as a nurse in Ndu’a Ri’a—awakened him. In a state of alarm, the women reported they had found a corpse or carcass (both English words are covered by a single local term) and urged Tegu to go inspect it. The spot was on the other side of the road from Tegu’s house and a short distance to the west, atop a bank and near a path Ndu’a Ri’a villagers used to walk down to the main road, including when they traveled to and from the church.

What Tegu found there, lying in undergrowth and not far from a large tree, was the corpse of what appeared to be an elderly female hominoid with a “human face,” whose naked body was covered in short, fine hair. It was lying facedown with legs bent in a kneeling position and arms drawn toward the chest, thus in what is commonly called the child’s pose. Interestingly, I had heard elsewhere that this is the pose adopted by sleeping ape-men. Another source had described it as a position assumed by both ape-men and monkeys when they die. And Tegu suggested that the hominoid, after traveling from a place unknown, had become exhausted and had fallen asleep on the spot and subsequently expired.

Tegu did not identify the creature as a “lai ho’a” (ape-man) but as an “earth spirit” (tana watu)—contrary to the usual representation of these beings as entirely supernatural and invisible. Lai ho’a, he said, were “bad things,” whereas he expressed sympathy for the elderly hominoid. Feeling obligated because the pathetic creature had died on his land, Tegu quickly wrapped the body in a woman’s garment. With the assistance of a friend—the man named Fanus—he hastily constructed a plywood coffin and put the corpse inside. Tying the box to his motorbike, Tegu later traveled, alone, to a spot on Flores’s south coast, where he deposited the makeshift coffin in the water and let it drift out to sea. Contrary to what Wea had told me, he assured me that he did not bury the body.

At the time of the discovery, Tegu said, his wife had suggested that the hominoid may have been savaged by dogs. But he immediately rejected this, pointing out that he saw no wounds or blood on the corpse. He also denied that it could have been struck by a vehicle, as the body was found too far from the roadside, on top of a raised bank. Tegu provided more details of the creature’s physical appearance during our meeting in 2016. Though he viewed the body only briefly—because, as he noted, he wanted to dispose of it quickly—the face resembled that of a “small woman” with a “well-formed” (Indonesian “mancung”) nose. It could not, he confirmed, have possibly been a monkey, but he was equally sure it couldn’t have been a human. (Indeed, if he’d thought it was human, his course of action would certainly have been very different.) Looking extremely old, the creature’s head and body hair were “white (or light-colored),” while the skin was dark, like local people’s, or more specifically “dark brownish, like the skin of an elderly person.” Tegu further described the body hair as “fine but quite dense,” and as “dense as a puppy dog’s.” (Wea, by contrast, had characterized the hair as rather sparse.)

The deceased’s head hair was straight, thus not curly or kinky like the hair of many Lio, and was longer than the body hair. At one point Tegu spoke of the hair as growing to the shoulders, but I could get no more exact indication of the length. During our 2015 conversations Tegu mentioned the length of the head hair as the sole reason he thought the dead hominoid was female. Hair length has been an indicator of sex difference in Lio for less than a century, since the advent of Western-style short haircuts for men. However, in 2016, Tegu said he knew it was female from the breasts, which resembled those of an old woman. But, curiously, he said he never noticed whether the chest was hairy.

The hands and fingers were “very small,” as were the feet, which were arranged with the soles turned upward (as in the previously mentioned child’s pose). Recalling a more specific detail, Tegu added that the small toe on one foot was bent over the next toe. In response to my question, he suggested that the hominoid would have stood about 65 centimeters tall (2 feet, 2 inches). However, he also estimated the length of the body from the head to the base of the spine as 50 centimeters (20 inches). So unless the legs were inordinately short, the creature would have been much taller, perhaps approaching a meter. As always when investigating reputed sightings, I asked whether the deceased hominoid had a tail. Tegu said it did, a very short one less than 4 centimeters (1.6 inches). But he added that the tail was covered in hair, like the rest of the body, so it is unclear whether he actually saw it. Similarly, at one point Tegu suggested that the hominoid had four rather than five digits on each hand (though apparently a full complement on each foot), whereas later he revealed that the fingers on both hands had been clenched into fists and that he’d never actually been able to see the digits. Indeed, earlier he had described the arms as being held against the chest. As mentioned earlier, digits numbering more or less than five is a feature occasionally attributed to some fully supernatural beings as well as to ape-men. So it may well be that in this respect, as with regard to the hidden tail, Tegu—who, as noted, interpreted the corpse as belonging to an “earth spirit”—was drawing on more widely reported images of certain spirits.

Before leaving Tegu’s house in 2016, I also spoke to his wife. Named Keo, she hailed from the Ende district, specifically from Ndao, which lies immediately southwest of the Lio region. Our interview was not particularly successful. She was shy, nervous, and reluctant to speak, and I was unable to question her when her husband was not in earshot. Keo confirmed that she had come across the body with her sister, but I couldn’t clarify who had spotted it first. At one point Tegu had spoken as though this had been his wife’s sister. As she repeated several times, the experience had severely frightened both women, so they hurried away. When I asked for details of the body, Keo said she couldn’t say, as they had not gotten close enough. She added that it “is not usual to see such things, so I was afraid.”

It seems, then, that the women did see the corpse, if only very briefly and from a distance. As Keo volunteered, they had first become alerted to its presence by the smell of something rotting, which they thought might be a dead pig or dog. At this point Tegu interjected that he never detected any smell, adding that bodies only begin to smell two or three nights after death—a remark suggesting that he thought the creature had died more recently. He did, however, say there was a cow tied up nearby, straining at its tether as though frightened and trying to get away. Perhaps illuminating the disagreement over the smell, the tree near where Tegu found the body was a species of fig (Ficus variegata; Lio ara). In Southeast Asia, orangutans and gibbons, as well as humans, regularly eat the tree’s sweet, edible fruit, but when they fall to the ground and rot, they give off a very disagreeable smell. Possibly, then, it was this odor that the two women mistook for a rotting carcass. Or, alternatively, Tegu did detect a smell but attributed this not to the dead hominoid but to rotting figs.

For reasons I explain in a moment, I never got to meet Keo’s sister. Nor was I able to locate Fanus, the man who’d helped Tegu construct the coffin; he lived elsewhere and, it seems, just happened to be visiting at the time. In any case, Tegu thought Fanus, whom he knew only by his Christian name, had probably not seen much of the body, as Tegu was alone when he wrapped it up, thus concealing its face and other features.

When I departed from Tegu’s house in 2016, I was thus left with several questions. Tegu seemed open to speaking again. But, in fact, this was to be our last meeting. About a week later, I phoned Tegu, but he was far from home on some business. He said he didn’t know when we could next meet, and—contrasting noticeably with his previous attitude—he seemed unenthusiastic about the prospect. Subsequent phone calls went unanswered. Then, over a week later, I happened to be passing through Ndu’a Ri’a and made a stop at Tegu’s house. Only his wife was there. She was visibly distressed at my appearance, stating that she and her husband were busy and had no time to talk to me. They’d already told me everything I wanted to know, she added. And when I said I still wished to talk to her sister, she refused to provide information on where exactly the woman (who had long since moved back to Ende) was living or how I might contact her. Needless to say, I was taken aback by this reception—as were two Lio men I was traveling with. And compounding my surprise was the fact that during our meeting in his house, Tegu had telephoned his wife’s sister to ask what she remembered of the dead ape-man, but she was unavailable at the time. Having thought about it over the last several years, I’m now quite sure that resistance to my meeting Tegu again stemmed mainly from his wife, and that this was because she remained fearful about what she and her husband had discovered and therefore did not wish to discuss it any further.

Excerpted from Between Ape and Human, by Gregory Forth. Copyright © 2022 by Gregory Forth. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, Pegasus Books. 

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