There are probably more than a hundred TV channels here in UK and we do need to read a TV guide to determine what to watch or what to record every night. I hardly see Sky3 but for some reason I found the title “Myths, Monsters, and Hobbits” intriguing, so I set the box to tape the show.
I thought the documentary will bring me to some fantasy land in England, a secret town where hobbits used to live, where Middle-Earth existed hundreds of years a go, where elves with sharp ears and glimmering heads singing, and gollum hissed behind the greens.
Instead, Dr. Lawrence Blair, the adventurer, explorer and anthropologist, with wild white hair and cool eye patch, took me to a rather familiar place he claimed to be the source of all the myths existed in the world: INDONESIA.
Blair first came to Indonesia more than 30 years a go, and found that, “the environment astounded me, the people fascinated me, and I embarked on a three-decade journey of discovery throughout the islands. I encountered the extraordinary of plants and animals as well as legends of barely-believable beasts. It dawned on me that many of mythological creatures which have haunted our fairy tales may well have derived from here.” He added that over the years he has seen a lot of strange things in Indonesia and heard even stranger stories, and experienced many phenomena which rattle our preconceptions of how life ought to behave.
So Blair is going on a quest for the real animals which may have inspired the legends of fire-breathing dragons, of fire-dwelling phoenixes, unicorns, goblins and hobbits, our smallest and most mysterious relatives.
What sort of truth might hide behind these legendary creatures?
Blair believes that hantu is the mythical ancestor of goblins and elves, and the inspiration of Yoda of Star Wars, and he sailed to a remote island of Siau, off Manado (North Sulawesi), where there is an American scientist exploring the species.
Apparently, the mysterious goblin, the elf of the forest, was inspired by none other than tarsier, a creature that is closely related to us, but is eaten on a regular basis by the locals. In Kalimantan (Borneo), the animal is referred to as hantu (ghost or ancestral spirit), and the head-hunting tribes consider it as a bad omen to spot one because of its ability to swivel its head round 180 degrees and look directly back at you over its shoulder, implicating that you might be losing your own head. Blair and the team managed to catch the new species of baby tarsier which looked terrified by the giant hands which held it. But even though it is so tiny, the little creature is a carnivore which eats only live flesh like large insects, snakes, lizards, birds, and bats.
Cendrawasih, or the red bird of paradise, is entwined in the phoenix myth. In the 19th century their feathers were such in demand for ladies’ hats in Europe the birds were almost extinguished. I remember my father once went home with the dead bird and put it on display, and for months I admired its smooth feathers and bright colours, before Indonesian government announced its extinction and threatened to fine whoever brought or possessed the bird from Irian Jaya, dead or alive. Several species have fire-like tail feathers and can look like flames streaking through the forest.
There is also maleo bird, the kinds that only live in Sulawesi, which is probably another source of the phoenix myth. As Sulawesi is full of volcanic fumaroles and hot springs, the geothermal energy is used by maleo birds to incubate their giant eggs. They nest between the areas, and the first European explorers who came there saw the steam and assumed it was smoke; the smoke of the fire which phoenix birds emerged. The bird lays its eggs in deep pits, buried three feet of steaming earth, and the hatching have to burrow to the surface in full working order, and fly off as if born from fire.
Tales of the unicorn reached the West via Persia from India and China. Their horn was powerful magic and aphrodisiac. Only the pure heart could tame a unicorn, and it would surrender to a virgin and lay its head into her lap. It has been noted that the 13th century traveller Marco Polo claimed to have seen a unicorn in Java or Sumatera. The source of the myth? None other than Sumateran rhinoceros or Javan Rhinoceros. And I thought unicorn was a horse, before I read about the myth more in wikipedia!
Where else you would find the source of the myth if not in Komodo Island with its komodo dragon. Dr Blair has been visiting the island for years, and once was stalked and charged by two of those nasty creatures, treed for five hours until they got bored and cleared off.
The dragon myth probably came to Europe by the Chinese who had been trading in the island for millenia, but only in 1911 these enormous lizards came to the attention of the outside world. Blair, who could speak Indonesian very well, also said that, “In 1926 the young American cameramen called Willies O’Brian arrived in the island. He was so impressed by Komodo’s haunting, prehistoric vibes, and the village that barricaded itself against marauding dragons, that it inspired his set designs for a movie called… King Kong“.
Today’s komodo dragons, which have survived for God knows how long, are probably the mini version of from a much larger species of Varanus which haunted the island not so along a go. The creatures are nasty carnivore which will be more than happy to hunt and eat deer, horse, pig, or goat, or even man, if they can get one. The villagers carry their animals and pets up the steps into their homes which are built on stilts on the night time, because when the dark comes, the dragons prowl the village. And only in Komodo islands do the villagers seal their graves with slabs of rock and concrete to prevent scavenging dragons from digging up the corpses and eating them.
A 12-ft lizard might not look big to us, but it would have caught the attention of 3-ft hobbits!
Blair went to Flores island to find the source of legend, based on the discovery of the remains of real hobbits, or Homo Floresiensis. From the fossil evidences, it is believed that hobbits shared their world with giant rats, (hunted and ate them, to be precise), and Blair managed to capture one, which with it’s 3-ft long is as big as the legendary hobbit – the comparison is equivalent to modern man facing off against a Sumatran leopard.
And the little elves really existed for at least 30,000 years in the cave of Liang Bua (cold cave), preyed on by great lizards and phytons, and probably by larger men, Sapiens. The evidence of 7 individual hobbits were discovered in the cave, and this particular discovery of the skull in 2003 ignited a bombshell of controversy, which “makes a major dent in our assumptions of who we can be.” Based on the brain size (less than a third the size of ours, smaller than a chimpanzee’s), teeth (completely human), tools (meticulously flaked and sharpened), cooking hearths (charred with controlled fire), and hunting habits (required collaborative social behaviour and language), despite its tiny brain size, the skull is definitely a human’s. Most anthropologist are arguing that he was a different parallel species of a man, Homo Floresiensis. Others insist that he was marvellously miniaturised Homo Sapiens.
So Blair went to the remote village in the Flores hill, which is not far from the Liang Bua cave, where he discovered the men are only about 4-ft (1.20 meter) tall, and the gene is only passed down to men only – women are of regular size. Science has yet to discover whether they are descendants of stretched Homo Floresiensis or shrunken Homo Sapiens.
I am surprised that Blair took me back to Indonesia, but then I was sad because it took an outsider, a foreign anthropologist, a tan Keith Richard lookalike with his posh English accent, to make me understand my own home country better….