, , , , ,

“Most evolving lineages, human or otherwise, when threatened with extinction, don’t do anything special to avoid it” – George C. Williams


Can’t we all just get along?

Nobody seems all that put out by the fact that Homo sapiens probably wiped out the Neanderthals 40,000 years ago.  We shared the Earth for a few hundred thousand years, were about 99.5% genetically similar, and although estimates are that we split off the same evolutionary branch only about 600,000 years in the past and may have interbred, odds are that disease and violent conflict with our ancestors led to their eventual extinction.  We give it a nice spin and say we “outcompeted” them, which is a little like saying I outcompeted you by shooting you in the head and taking all the money from your wallet.  Now, we have all this evolutionary baggage and are not that original in the aggregate, so suffice it to say, what we did to one closely related species probably represents a pattern we repeated a few times.  You probably think those lemurs’ wide-eyes are a nocturnal adaptation.  I’m guessing they’re just traumatized and waiting for the other shoe to drop.  By the 3rd Millennium B.C. when the Sumerians invented the concept of good penmanship, we’d been kings of the castle for a good 30+ millennia.  We also know that there were lots of alternate branches on the pre-human, but nonetheless sapient, tree.  Is it so hard to believe that there would be pockets here and there of evolutionary remnants that were just trying to hold on to their forty acres and a mule?  We just can’t abide that kind of pretense in other species, so it’s no wonder that an occasional bit of folklore across the last two millennia suggests that when we happened across some uppity tribe of hominids, we did what we do best.  End them, that is.

Since the 5th Century B.C., the literary set have been collecting stories from explorers and adventurers that noted the presence of a strange set of vaguely organized primates loitering about Sri Lanka (Ceylon).  As early as when Ctesias of Cnidus, a 5th Century B.C. Greek historian and physician, accompanied Artaxerxes Mnemon in his campaign against Persia’s Cyrus the Younger, and jotted down some notes on what the Persians knew about India, we’ve wondered about similar creatures somewhere in the vicinity of India.  We can forgive him for a little geographical ignorance since he was gathering reports second-hand, but he notes the presence of a puzzling pygmy population somewhere in the subcontinent.  He might have said more, but we’ve lost all except a few fragments of Ctesias’ work that are referenced by later scholars.  Freaking barbarians are always burning the cool libraries.  Nobody ever accounts for that in their acquisitions plans.

In the middle of India there are black men, called Pygmies, who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full grown they leave off wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind far below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. They are snub-nosed and ugly (Ctesias, Indica, fragment quoted by Photius).

Those crazy Greeks.  Pliny cribbed some notes from Ctesias and lumped these Sri Lankan cryptids in with his general discussion of pygmies.  We could write this off as yet another in a long string of exaggerations that filtered their way down to medieval bestiaries as gospel truth, but we’re not that reckless.  In the 14th Century A.D., Morrocan scholar and adventurer Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 A.D) set off on a grand tour of North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China, an account of which he published in his work Rihla (“Journey”).  The guy wasn’t good with titles.  Making his way to China, Ibn Battuta hopped a ship in Calcutta and made a stop in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.  He related both his own experiences and the local common knowledge regarding a bizarre group of semi-humans.  He wasn’t entirely convinced they weren’t just some unknown species of monkey, but he scratches his head over certain anthropomorphic behaviors attributed to them.

These animals are very numerous in the mountains: they are of a black colour, and have long tails. Those of the male sex have beards like men. The Shaikh ‘Olhmdn, his son and other persons, have related to me that the monkeys have a Chief whom they obey like a Sovereign. He binds round his head a wreath, of the leaves of trees, and supports himself with a staff. Four monkeys, bearing staves, march on his right and left, and, when the chief is seated, they stand behind him. His wife and little ones come and sit before him every day. The other monkeys come and squat at some distance from him: then one of the four above-mentioned gives them the word and they withdraw; after which, each brings a banana, or a lime, or some such fruit. The King of the monkeys, his little ones, and the four chief monkeys then eat. A certain djugui related to me that he had seen these four monkeys before their Chief, occupied in beating another monkey with a stick, after which they plucked his hair. Trustworthy persons have reported to me that when one of these monkeys has got possession of a young girl, she is unable to escape his lust. An inhabitant of the island of Ceylon has told me that he had a monkey, and when one of his daughters entered the house, the animal followed her. She cried him off, but he did her violence. “We ran to her aid,” continued the speaker, “and seeing the monkey embracing her, we killed him” (Defremery trans.,1884, p6-47).

Hugh Nevill(1848–1897) was a British civil servant, and pioneering scholar of Sri Lanka, arriving in Ceylon about 1865, where he commenced documenting the Sinhalese language, including rapidly disappearing dialects such as Veddas, the language of one of the earliest aboriginal inhabitants of Sri Lanka that does not bear a resemblance to the greater Indo-Aryan language families.  Veddas is so odd that it is considered a language isolate, suggesting both the Veddas people and their language have been around for quite some time.  When Nevill began mucking about in Veddas culture, he started hearing stories of the Nittaewo, long-time antagonists of the Veddas who had been summarily exterminated in a genocidal war.  The victors of course, had the last say.  It’s interesting to note that when questioned about whether they were mistaking some sort of orangutan for a more advanced hominid, they were dismissive, since having lived with both they were fairly sure they could tell the difference.

The Nittaewo were a cruel and savage race of men, rather dark, living in small communities at Lenama. They built platforms in trees, covered with a thatch of leaves, and in these they lived. They could neither speak Vaedda, Sinhalese or Tamil, but their language sounded like the Telegu of pilgrims to Kattragam. They attacked any intruding Vaeddas, and no Vaedda dare enter their district to hunt or collect honey. Many years ago the ancestors of the informants fought with these Nittaewo, and finally drove the remnant of them, men, women and children into a cavern. Before this they piled firewood, and kept up the fire for three days, after which the race became extinct, and their district a hunting ground of these Vaeddas…At the account of their shaggy red hair and long claws, the Vaeddas were much amused. They at once said the Sinhalese were confusing with the Nittaewo the rare sun bear, or Rahu walas, now extinct at Lenama, and unknown to the Sinhalese, except by vague gossip (Nevill, 1886, p66-68).

Not nice.  They basically drove a remnant population of a different species into a cave and suffocated them through smoke inhalation.  In short, we pulled a Neanderthal.  A few years after Nevill, Frederick Lewis, who to the best I’ve been able to determine was likely the Ceylon Assistant Conservator of Forests around 1893, took a rather pointed interest in the mysterious Nittaewo and started to methodically collect information on them.

I now come to a point that I venture to consider is of great interest, and I beg it to be understood that I am only recording the evidence of persons whom I questioned, quite independently of each other, and at places long distances apart. I refer to the evidence of a once existing race of pygmy people, called the Nittawo. I am indebted to Mr. Codrington for my first hearing the name, and on doing so, I communicated with several gentlemen who are learned in matters relating to Ceylon, but no one of these could supply me with any information, except Mr. Codrington himself. I next questioned a headman near Siyambala Anduwa about the Nittawo, and was surprised to hear him say that he had heard his father allege that there was once a race of little people of this name, who lived in the country near Mandagala that was called Lenama. Except that they were very short, and very dangerous, he knew no more. I next inquired from Dissan Hamy if he knew anything about them, and he promptly replied in the affirmative, adding that his grandfather took part in turning out a troop of these people, who were living in the Lenama country, about a day’s journey north-west of Bargurey. I then asked him for a description of these creatures, and I took down the following statement:—“They were a little people about so high (here the witness indicated a height of about 3 feet) who lived in small gangs of 10 or 20 or more. The legs of these people were hairy like wanduros (‘wanduro-wagé’), but the upper part of the body was human-like, while they walked erect. They had no tails, and were completely naked. Their arms were short, with strong hands and long, powerful nails (witness described the talon of an eagle, bending his finger into the form of a hook, to illustrate his description) with which they tore to pieces the animals that they caught. These consisted of small animals, such as the mouse deer, the bare, squirrel, iguana and tortoise. They could only capture animals by surrounding them, and for that reason they lived in small troops. They lived in caves, hollow trees, and crevices. The females were shorter than the males. They spoke a language that was not loud-like the twittering of birds—but was understood by some of the Veddas. The Nittawo were very much afraid of dogs, because they knew the Veddas used them and also bows and arrows, against which they could not compete. They were also afraid of the buffalo. They never came near the sea, but confined themselves to the forest country. If they came on a sleeping Vedda, they fell on him in a mass and disemboweled him at once with their “talons”, and for that reason the Veddas spared them not, though they feared them”…Later on, unknown to any of my earlier informants, I questioned the Korala of the Buttala Weddi Rata as to his knowledge of these people, and he admitted that he had also heard of their existence and that about four generations ago, they lived in a country now called the Deyane Kelle and that they were a short people with hairy legs. There were none now (Lewis, 1914, p288-290).

Note that Lewis’ informants said that the Nattaewo had been wiped out roughly four generations before.  Let’s call that 400 years.  Recollect that Ibn Battuta had noted the presence of something vaguely resembling descriptions of the Nattaewo in the 15th Century A.D.  This is why you should have paid attention in math class.  If the Nattaewo were exterminated around 1400, and by the 1800’s, locals were telling inquiring Europeans that four generations had passed since the last Nattaewo had been dispatched to meet his proto-human maker, the timeline seems suspiciously accurate.

Considering that these days we’re arbitrarily driving countless less threatening species into extinction at an astounding pace, would it be of any real surprise that our forefathers would feel it was necessary to eliminate the competition when faced with something that might actually be able to compete through force of will?  We truly want to be the only smart kids on the block.  I suppose there is some consolation if you’re a Homo sapiens, although I’ve started to worry less that the next stage of human evolution is lurking just around the corner and plotting our ultimate destruction.  I’m still worried, just not as much.  Seems like we have more to fear from ourselves anyway, or as Eliezer Yudkowsky said, “If our extinction proceeds slowly enough to allow a moment of horrified realization, the doers of the deed will likely be quite taken aback on realizing that they have actually destroyed the world. Therefore I suggest that if the Earth is destroyed, it will probably be by mistake”.

Hussein, Asiff.  Zeylanica: A Study of the Peoples and Languages of Sri Lanka, Neptune Publications Colombo, 2009.
Lewis, Frederick.  “Notes on an Exploration in Eastern Uva and Southern Panama Pattu”.  Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Ceylon Branch. The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland v23. Colombo: The Branch, 1914.
Nevill, Hugh.  “The Nittaweo of Ceylon”.  The Taprobanian v1, pt. 3, 1886.
Defremery, M.M. trans. “Ibn Batuta in the Maldives and Ceylon”. Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Ceylon Branch. The Journal of the Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland v7:25. Colombo: The Branch, 1884.