Nittaewo – Is it a bear, a monkey or Sri Lanka’s own Hobbit?

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Published on SundayTimes on 31.03.2019 http://www.sundaytimes.lk/190331/news/is-it-a-bear-a-monkey-or-sri-lankas-own-hobbit-343247.html

Purported encounters with Nittaewo, the legendary dwarf men of Sri Lanka, have emerged from different parts of the country over the past few weeks but experts say these sightings are dubious.

The latest incident was reported from Thotamuna, Matara on March 18, with a villager claiming he had been assaulted by a group of dwarf men. Others also claimed to have seen these men, one describing them as having long claws, long ears and hairy bodies.

Similar accounts have come from Ampara, Kuliyapitiya, Anuradhapura and Walasmulla. In the Anuradhapura incident, a woman in Mahavilachchiya said she had been attacked by a dwarf man early morning on her doorstep. Her neighbour too came forward, sharing a similar incident that had allegedly taken place a few days previously.

A chain effect of Nittaewo sightings was triggered by chena farmers in Ampara. One farmer in Ampara said he had seen a mysterious dwarf man squatting in his chena. When he hurriedly called to the neighbouring farmer the dwarf had run away. It had a reddish mouth and hairy body, the farmer said. After TV stations aired the story, Nittaewo stories went viral on social media and more sightings emerged.

”Imaginary drawing of hairy hominids eviscerating a fallen Veddah with their hands”. By P.E.P. Deraniyagala, from Loris, June 1964

According to legend, Nittaewo are an extinct race of man-like beings in dwarf form, the male being about three feet tall, covered with fur and having talon-like nails. Nittaewo lived in small tribes and were said to steal meat from  veddahs and to attack solitary veddahs.

It is said the Nittaewo’s last refuge was in the Lenama mountains in Ampara in the Eastern Province, where angry veddahs chased them into a cave and lit a fire that blocked the cave’s entrance, resulting in their extermination. A team from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura probed the recent claims. “We investigated a few cases where people claimed to have seen Nittaewo recently but none of these were actual sightings of Nittaewo,” Professor Yasanjali Jayathilaka said.

“Even though the Nittaewo legend is real, it is unlikely that such a primitive creature could survive this long, hiding from humans, especially in populated areas,” she added.

The Nittaewo was first reported by British civil servant Hugh Nevill in 1886. He could not find anyone who had actually seen a Nittaewo but gathered stories from Mudaliar de Zylva and veddahs of the area for an article published in the journal the Taprobanian.

The name, Nittaewo, probably came from Niya-athi or Niyapothu-aya – those having long nails. There is no hard evidence such as fossil remains or skeletons to establish the existence of Nittaewo.

Zoo-archaeologist Kelum Manamendra-Arachchi, suggests that those reported at Lenama could be actually men who had gone wild. “In those days, villagers were isolated in jungles, so there could be inbreeding that could result in genetic mutated children. Such odd-looking ones were often cast out from villages and could have formed alliances with other similar outcasts, developing savage behaviour,” Mr. Manamendra-Arachchi said.

“However, recently in 2004 a very small human species classified as Homo floreseinsis – dubbed The Hobbit – was discovered, so we cannot completely rule out the Nittaewo as pure legend,” he pointed out.

Homo floresiensis lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until as recently as 54,000 years ago, according to scientists.

[Pradeep A. Jayatunga is another scholar who studied Nittaewo legend in details. He compiled the findings to a booklet titled ‘Nittaewo – the Hobbits of Sri Lanka’’ that was published in 2010. In his book, he describes the possibilities of what could given life to the Nittaewo legend and listed different theories. In most of the tales the Nittaewo appear as mysterious creatures with a combination of human and animal characteristics. This combination has given rise to a variety of vastly different candidates (from stump-tailed monkeys to an outcaste clan of humans) for the origin of the legend, Mr.Jayatunga wrote.

Some explorers like Dr.R.L.Spittle claims that Nittaewo could be infact a more savaged race of brown bear that believed to be lived in these areas of Sri Lanka. “Taking in to consideration the Nittaewo’s two supposedly outstanding characteristics of hairy bodies and long nails along with the ‘monkey chatter’ and ‘brutish noises’ of the original legend, Spittel rejects the Negritos or hominids (having no long nails or hairy bodies) and apes (having no long nails) as contenders, and suggests the sloth bear (or perhaps the extinct brown bear- Rahu walaha) as the best candidate” Mr.Jayatunga record what Spittle suggested in his book.

The rocky jungles of Lenama was an ideal area for bear that was having the habit of taking shelter in caves. The ‘monkey chatter’ and ‘brutish noises’ suggest the twittering the bears make while nibbling fore paws and the suction sound emitted while extricating larvae from anthills. They often go in groups- female carrying the young on her back, they are not averse to flesh and are great tree climbers.

According to Jayatunga, the early writer Hugh Nevill received his information from Ampara Mudaliar de Zylva who had given the most prevalent story of Nittaewo today. But when he queried it from one of his informant veddah, the veddah too said the Sinhalese got confused and it could be a misidentity of bear known as Rahu Walaha.

However, the legend of Nittaewo had been originated by Veddah, who are very good at identifying animals in jungle. So could they make a mistaken identity failing to separate a bear from a human form – others argue. So the Nittaewo legend still remains a mystery. Mr.Jayatunga concludes that the legend of the Nittaewo, though limited in sources and lacking eye-witnesses, still has qualities which make it worthy of research. However, careless attributing of anything unexplained to Nittaewo would not make any justification to the legend, experts say urging people to act more logically.]

Further reads http://serendib.btoptions.lk/article.php?issue=70&id=1716

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