Meet Orang Pendek, The Rumored Hobbit-Like Creature Known As The ‘Bigfoot’ Of Sumatra

Published December 19, 2023
Updated December 20, 2023

For centuries, locals have reported seeing a strange apelike beast called the orang pendek stalking the remote forests of Indonesia — and some believe it’s related to a species of early human called Homo floresiensis.

Orang Pendek

Ant Wallis/Centre for Fortean ZoologyThe orang pendek, the mysterious “Bigfoot” of Indonesian folklore.

Indonesian legends speak of a small, hobbit-like cryptid said to reside deep in the mountainous forests of Sumatra. Known as the orang pendek, which literally means “short person,” this hairy creature is believed to stand on two legs and measure between just 30 and 60 inches tall.

People who claim to have seen the orang pendek say it has broad shoulders and powerful arms strong enough to uproot small trees and break rattan vines. And while tales of this creature bear some resemblance to reports of Bigfoot, some believe that it’s actually related to an extinct species of early human.

But despite centuries of legends and eyewitness accounts, no one has been able to capture verifiable photos of the orang pendek — or produce any definitive evidence that it exists at all.

Anecdotal Accounts Of The Orang Pendek

Orang Pendek Skeleton

Public DomainA man in Indonesia holding a fake orang pendek skeleton, c. 1932.

While there is little concrete evidence that the orang pendek exists, there have been countless reports of sightings over the years. And those who have claimed to have seen this creature have helped create a generally consistent description of it.

According to The Guardian, one local eyewitness described an orang pendek he saw as being “around three feet tall but with massive shoulders and chest.” Its hair was a tan color, it walked upright on two feet, and it had “an ape-like face.”

Locals say this creature eats mostly fruits, vegetables, tubers, and occasionally insects. While it’s described as being very strong, it’s not known to be aggressive. Rather, it runs away from any humans it sees.

Orang pendek sightings go back hundreds of years. In the early 20th century, a number of Dutch settlers claimed to have seen a strange creature resembling a small, hairy man in Sumatra. In 1923, one Dutch colonist named J. van Herwaarden described it as having “very dark hair” that “fell to just below the shoulder-blades or even almost to the waist.”

“Had it been standing,” van Herwaarden wrote, according to Ancient Origins, “its arms would have reached to a little above its knees.” In contrast to other accounts, he claimed “there was nothing repulsive or ugly about its face, nor was it at all apelike.”

A More Definitive Description Emerges

In the 1990s, cryptozoologists Debbie Martyr and Jeremy Holden began a 15-year effort to find the orang pendek in Sumatra. While they never managed to snap a photo of the mysterious creature, they do claim to have seen it.

“When I saw it I saw an animal that didn’t look like anything in any of the books I had read, films I had seen, or zoos I had seen. It did indeed walk rather like a person and that was a shock,” Martyr wrote, according to The Guardian. “It doesn’t look like an orang-utan. Their proportions are very different. It is built like a boxer, with immense upper body strength… It was a gorgeous colour, moving bipedally and trying to avoid being seen.”

And after speaking to hundreds of Sumatran locals, Martyr and Holden came up with the following description, as reported by Skeptoid:

“[It is] usually no more than 85 or 90cm in height — although occasionally as large as 120cm. The body is covered in a coat of dark grey or black flecked with grey hair… The animal is so strong, the villagers would whisper that it can uproot small trees and even break rattan vines. The legs, in comparison, are short and slim, the feet neat and small, usually turned out at an angle of up to 45 degrees.

The head slopes back to a distinct crest — similar to the gorilla — and there appears to be a bony ridge above the eyes. But the mouth is small and neat, the eyes are set wide apart and the nose is distinctly humanoid. When frightened, the animal exposes its teeth — revealing oddly broad incisors and prominent, long canine teeth.”

The Quest To Find The Orang Pendek

When cryptozoologist Richard Freeman learned about the legends of the orang pendek in Sumatra, he decided to track it down. In 2011, he put together a team and traveled to the mountainous Indonesian island.

Previously, locals had reported seeing orang pendeks feeding off of grubs in rotten logs. So when the team came across a strange print next to one such log during one of their treks, they believed they had something. They made a cast of the print using quick-drying dental plaster.

Orang Pendek Cast

Andrew SandersonThe cast of a print that was allegedly made by the orang pendek.

“The palm was rounded, the thumb short and almost triangular, and the fingers were thick and sausage-shaped,” Freeman wrote of the print. “The structure was quite unlike that of the Sumatran orangutan with its long thin fingers and almost vestigial thumb. It was more like the handprint of a small gorilla, but with a somewhat rounder palm.”

Later, a biologist at Cambridge examined the cast and found that it “did not match any known primate species.”

The team had also found several hairs in the area. According to Freeman, DNA analysis conducted by mammal hair expert Hans Brunner purportedly revealed that they had come from “a previously undocumented species of primate.”

But it seems no comprehensive scientific study or peer review has been published to verify these findings. Indeed, in a 2014 study, a team of scientists determined that hairs previously attributed to the orang pendek had in fact come from a tapir.

For his part, Freeman concluded that this creature was likely an undiscovered bipedal ape related to the orangutan. Other researchers believe that, because Sumatra is also home to orangutans, people who report seeing orang pendeks may simply be mistaking orangutans for something stranger.

Between 2005 and 2009, National Geographic also funded a project to obtain photographic evidence of the orang pendek, but failed to find it. Still, Alex Schlegel, who worked on the project, said this doesn’t mean it’s not out there.

“I would say that it’s going to be as bizarre or more bizarre for it not to exist than for it to exist,” Schlegel said. “As hard as it might be to believe that something like this exists and lives still and has not been documented by Western science in the Sumatran rainforest, my experience has been that I would be as or more shocked if it ended up being nothing other than stories.”

A Species Of Early Human?

Homo Floresiensis Skull

Wikimedia CommonsA Homo floresiensis skull. Some believe the orang pendek is related to this species of early, “hobbit-like” human.

In 2003, scientists discovered a previously unknown human species on the Indonesian island of Flores, just a couple islands down from Sumatra. Named Homo floresiensis, the species has been compared to a “hobbit” because of its small size.

Based on fossil evidence, the Homo floresiensis measured about three to four feet tall with prominent shoulders and short legs — much like the orang pendek.

Homo floresiensis were determined to have lived within the last 50,000 years. This suggests they overlapped with Homo sapiens. But over the years, dozens of Flores residents have claimed to have seen a hobbit-like creature on the island in their lifetimes, leading some researchers to speculate that the species may still be alive, or else went extinct in the last 100 years or so. However, these theories are highly controversial.

Still, because of the fossils’ size and proximity to Sumatra, some have theorized that the orang pendeks seen in Sumatra may actually be related to the Homo floresiensis.

The Mystery Of The Orang Pendek Continues

In 2017, an Indonesian YouTuber released a grainy video of what appeared to be a small apelike man on a dirtbike trail, sprinting away from the camera at alarming speed:

The video quickly went viral, eventually accumulating more than 17 million views. But while some have claimed it offers the first concrete photographic evidence of the orang pendek, its authenticity has not been corroborated or confirmed. It’s possible that the creature was digitally inserted into the video as a prank, or was simply a human in a costume.

To this day, no one has been able to produce verifiable physical or photographic evidence that the orang pendek exists. Still, some still fervently believe it’s out there, whether it’s an early human relative, an orangutan, or some other unidentified beast.

“If I were going to put a probability on the existence of it – I would say 99 percent,” said Jonathan Downes, a cryptid researcher, in an interview with the Daily Express. “There is no doubt in my mind that this animal exists and I think it is probably a fourth species of Orangutan.”

If it does exist, anecdotal evidence suggests this elusive cryptid would prefer not to be found. It seems that the orang pendek, at least for now, will be categorized alongside fellow mythical creatures like Bigfoot and the Yeti.

After reading about the legend of the orang pendek, read about the Yowie, Australia’s version of Bigfoot. Or, read about the 20th-century hoax that claimed to solve the “missing link” between primates and humans.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.