October 2015


The Nittaewo: Legendary Little People With Long Claws
October 2015




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

From the Island's dimly illuminated past come curious jungle tales of the Nittaewo, an allegedly pygmy-type race with red fur and extremely long nails. Unfortunately no skeletal remains have been discovered so identification is impossible. Thus the Nittaewo continue to be one of the greatest enigmas associated with Sri Lanka.


Words Richard Boyle


In the fourth Century BC a Greek physician, Ctesias, first wrote about "little people" who inhabited the Island then known as Taprobane. Their identity appeared to be solved in 400AD when Bishop Palladius described the Veddahs, an aboriginal tribe, racially-mixed remnants of which exist today.


But in 1886, British civil servant Hugh Nevill reported in his journal the Taprobanian that he had gathered fragments of information concerning the Nittaewo. These challenged the Veddah theory. The Nittaewo were a race of pygmies that inhabited the almost inaccessible mountains of the Leanama region in the southeast corner of the island, and extended from Bagura to the Kataragama hills. Similar creatures were said to be found at Tamankaduwa near Polonnaruwa, as well as in the forests around Pomparippu and Tantrimalai on the northwest coast.


The Nittaewo were reported to resemble the orangutan as they were covered with reddish hair. They had the ability to walk upright with a bipedal gait. They were skilled at climbing trees, possessing claws of great length and strength. They lived in small social groups, sleeping in caves or on platforms of tree-branches covered with a thatch of leaves.

The Nittaewo were reported to resemble the orangutan as they were covered with reddish hair. They had the ability to walk upright with a bipedal gait


These competing races shared a common territory, so it was inevitable that the Nittaewo became the Veddahs' constant enemy. Apparently the Nittaewo used to steal meat spread out in the sun to dry by Veddah hunters. During such raids the Veddahs always hid in fear of attack from the Nittaewo and being disemboweled by the creature's fearsome claws.


Legend has it that, driven to desperation by the cruelty displayed by the Nittaewo - including the kidnap of Veddah children - they were rounded up by the Veddahs and driven into a cave. The Veddahs blocked the entrance with wood and set it alight. The ensuing fire burned for three days; the trapped Nittaewo all suffocated. This seems to have occurred as comparatively recently as the late 18th Century. Ironically the Veddahs of Leanama died out a few generations later - and with them was lost the cave's location.


Nevill's report was corroborated by forest officer Frederick Lewis' research in 1914. The Nittaewo were about a metre in height - females slightly shorter - with powerful arms, large hands and long, hooked nails similar to the talons of an eagle. They had no knives or spears, so the claws were used to slash the animals they caught, such as mouse deer, hares, squirrels, monitor lizards, tortoises, and even crocodiles. They could only capture large animals by surrounding them, and for this reason they lived in small independent troops numbering 10 or 20.


The Nittaewo never ventured near the sea; instead they restricted themselves to the forest-clad, cave-ridden slopes and ridges of the mountains. Their vocal powers comprised a sound like the twittering of birds, a means of communication partly understood by the Veddahs. The only creatures they were afraid of were buffaloes, and dogs - the latter because the Veddahs used them to hunt in packs.

They believed they were used “by small hands . . . by a small-sized type of mankind”. However, proof that the Nittaewo did exist can only come with the discovery in some jungle cave of odd bones or teeth.


The information collected by Nevill and Lewis, together with the ancient writings, was not subjected to scientific analysis until a visit to the Island in 1945 by Professor W. C. Osman Hill of Edinburgh University. In Nittaewo, an Unsolved Problem of Ceylon, he concluded that Pithecanthropus of Java, also known as the Java Man (since renamed Homo erectus) matched the traditions and descriptions of the Nittaewo. Furthermore, Hill speculated that Pithecanthropus might be responsible for the stories of the Orang-pendek, the Nittaewo's similar-sounding counterpart from Sumatra.


The identity of the Nittaewo was pursued again in 1958 with the publication of the Belgian-French scientist Bernard Heuvelmans' subsequent best-seller on such mysteries worldwide, On the Track of Unknown Animals. In the chapter Nittaewo, The Lost People of Ceylon, he declares "Asia may still hide unknown apes whose mental development is higher than that of the anthropoid apes. Or it may be inhabited by men more primitive than the Australian Aborigines, the Veddahs or the African Bushmen, and still at the Neanderthal stage."


In 1963 Capt. A.T. Rambukwella of the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) mounted an expedition into the still-remote Leanama area to investigate its rock caves for Nittaewo remains. One cave revealed the vertebrae of a monitor lizard, some mollusc shells, and the carapace of a tortoise - animals said to be the major part of the Nittaewo diet. He also found what he thought was a Nittaewo ‘altar'.


Rambukwella believed the name Nittaewo was derived from Niyapothu-Aya - "long-nailed creatures" - abbreviated toNiya-Atha and modified to Nittaewo. The Veddahs could have used such a phrase, as their names for animals are based on characteristics: for instance, the elephant is known as "big trunk".


Miniature stone implements - microliths - in the National Museum, Colombo, suggest that a race of pygmies once inhabited Sri Lanka. In 1907, Drs Paul and Fritz Sarasin discovered these microliths in the Uva and Eastern Provinces. They believed they were used "by small hands . . . by a small-sized type of mankind". However, proof that the Nittaewo did exist can only come with the discovery in some jungle cave of odd bones or teeth.


The discovery in 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores of the skeleton of an entirely new and very small human species, Homo floreseinsis - dubbed The Hobbit - has reawakened interest in the Nittaewo. This new species lived as recently as 17,000 years ago. One newspaper speculated: "Could the existence of Homo floreseinsis rehabilitate persistent rumours of undiscovered human-like species elsewhere, notably the Orang-pendek of Malay folklore?"

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    'Nittaewo Altar' discovered by Capt. Rambukwella in 1968

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    Imaginary sketch of a Nittaewo

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    The Orang Pendek: the Nittaewo's Sumatran cousin? From On the Track of Unknown Animals, by Bernard Heuvelmans

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    Imaginary sketch of a Nittaewo. By Philippe Coudray

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    Another imaginary sketch of a Nittaewo. By Philippe Coudray

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    The Veddahs feared being attacked by the Nittaewo

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    An artist's impression of Homo floreseinsis, ''The Hobbit''. Photograph: Peter Schouten/National Geographic

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    Veddahs: great enmity existed between them and the Nittaewo. From 19th Century Engravings of Ceylon by R. K. de Silva

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