From Sri Lanka’s little known past of folklore and jungle tales comes a story of hairy bodied, short and dagger clawed people known to many as Nittaewo, but did the country being an island nature a different type of hominid, who lived side by side with the Veddas in the jungles of the East?
Although some claims that Nittaewo is confusion with a species of monkey or sloth bear, others are convinced that they must have been an early species of hominids or ape-men in and around Mahalenama, of the Eastern Province. However in the absence of skeletal remains, the Nittaewo continues to be one of the great mysteries associated with Eastern Sri Lanka.
During the first century AD, Pliny the Elder mentioned the existence of a ‘beast-men’ in Ceylon. But the mystery surrounding their identity appeared to be solved in 400 AD, when one Bishop Palladius described a race of primitive people to be found on the island.
But Palladius was referring to the Veddah, Sri Lanka’s last link with its prehistory while Nittaewo lived in the same environment fighting Veddas for generation.
The news of the existence of beast men in Ceylon was revived by Moroccan traveller IbnBatuta in the fourteenth Century when he mistook Purple faced leaf monkeys for the much debated Nittaewo.
More credible information on Nittaewo unearthed in 1886, when a British civil servant named Hugh Nevill reported in his journal, the Taprobanian, that he had gathered information on a strange race called the Nittaewo, which he claimed, inhabited the then inaccessible mountains of the southeast Sri Lanka.
The Nittaewo were reported to resemble orangutans or gorillas and were expert climbers of nearly one meter height. They had the ability to walk upright and were covered with reddish hair with claws of great length and strength.
Nevill also learned that the Nittaewo used to descend from the rocks in gangs to steal meat that had been spread out in the sun to dry by Veddah hunters, who feared Nittaewo’s fearsome claws. Eventually he had met a hunter who knew an old Veddahnamed Koraliya, who had said that the Nittaewo lived in small social groups, sleeping in caves or on platforms of branches in trees.
He had also related the end of the Nittaewo tribe in the hands of the Veddas, where driven to desperation by the cruelty of these ‘little men’, the remaining group was rounded up by the Vedda and driven into a cave. Then the Veddas had heaped wood in front of the entrance and set fire to it, creating a bonfire that burned for three days and suffocating the trapped Nittaewo.
Nevill’s report was supported by an adventurer named Frederick Lewis in 1914. During an exploration of the area, Lewis learned from a family of Veddah lineage that the Nittaewo had been exterminated four generations earlier, around 1775, and that a relative of this family had taken an active part in burning their last encampments.
However the first scientific investigation into the being of Nittaewo was made in 1945 by Professor W.C. Osman Hill of Edinburgh University, an expert on primates.
Based on the flimsiest of evidence he came to the conclusion that Pithecanthropus of Java, a speechless hominid intermediate between modern man and the anthropoid apes, accords best with the tradition of the Nittaewo.
Captain A.T.Rambukwella theorised that the Nittaewo may have been a species of Australopithecus, described as small, man-like apes that stood erect and had a bipedal gait.
He led an expedition to the Mahalenama area in search of the Nittaewo in May 1963. During an excavation of a cave at Kudimbegala they discovered, at a depth of 25 cm, the vertebrae of a monitor lizard and a piece of a carapace of a star tortoise both said to be part of the diet of the Nittaewo.
Meanwhile the discovery of the fossils of a proposed new species of the genus Homo, Homo Floresiensis, from the Indonesian island of Flores in October 2004 and the discovery of microliths in the Uva and Eastern provinces, which were believed to have been used ‘by small hands and therefore by a small-sized type of mankind’, the legend of the Nittaewo is kept alive many a minds in and out of Sri Lanka.