Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Wednesday, 24 November 2010

ORANG PENDEK - AN APE-HAIRED HOMINID?


Orang pendek, based upon eyewitness descriptions (Tim Morris)


A few days ago, Danish zoologist Lars Thomas announced on the CFZ bloggo the long-awaited outcome of his analyses of the putative orang pendek hairs collected by the CFZ team during its 2009 expedition to Sumatra. In summary, Lars revealed that whereas the hairs' DNA was most similar to that of humans (as demonstrated via DNA studies by his Copenhagen University colleague Tom Gilbert), their structure compared more closely with that of apes (specifically, the orang utans). These intriguing, unexpected findings have since elicited a degree of controversy, with some readers speculating that the CFZ team's findings are inconclusive, as the two sets of results appear to contradict one another and surely must be mutually exclusive, i.e. only one set can be correct, not both.

However, this may not be the case at all. On the contrary, I agree entirely with team member Richard Freeman, who has suggested that BOTH sets of results could be correct - IF the orang pendek is in fact a hominid with ape-structured hair (Tom Gilbert has categorically denied, incidentally, that there might have been contamination of ape DNA with human DNA or vice-versa). On first sight, such a suggestion might seem unlikely, but in reality I documented a very notable, fully-confirmed, yet equally surprising precedent to this situation many years ago.

Before I come to that, however, I'd like to quote here the concise consideration of possible orang pendek identities on offer that I wrote in an orang pendek article of mine that was published in Paranormal Magazine just a few months before the 2009 CFZ Sumatra Expedition set off, and which, in the light of that expedition's subsequent findings, remains relevant:

"If the orang pendek truly exists, what could it be? Always assuming that it is indeed something more than a misidentified familiar species already known to exist within the areas of Sumatra from which it is reported, such as a gibbon or the sun bear Helarctos malayanus (which can rear up onto its hind legs and can leave deceptively humanoid footprints), three principal contenders are on offer.

"The first of these is an unrecorded population of the Sumatran orang utan Pongo abelii. Although this species of great ape once existed throughout Sumatra, it has long since become extinct in all but this island’s northern extent, so any orang utans discovered in the orang pendek’s Kerinci Seblat heartland would be a major zoological find. Having said that, however, the orang pendek’s morphology, habitually bipedal mode of locomotion, and semi-carnivorous behaviour provide scant similarity with those of the orang utan, and Kerinci locals shown pictures of the latter ape by cryptozoologists readily differentiate between it and the mysterious orang pendek.

"Identity #2 for the orang pendek is a completely separate species of ape presently unrecorded by science, at least in the living state. This identity is favoured by Adam Davies among others. Suggestions include a giant gibbon or an unknown specialised species of orang utan, adapted for bipedal, terrestrial activity. Richard Freeman has opined that it may be a descendant of the Miocene ape Sivapithecus (also ancestral to the orang utan).

"The third, and, if correct, most exciting, revolutionary identity on offer for the orang pendek is a primitive species of hominid, separate from Homo sapiens. Traditionally, the most popular option within this category of identity is our own ancestral species Homo erectus, inspired at least in part by the famous ‘Java Man’ discoveries on Sumatra’s neighbouring island. However, a fundamental morphological flaw with any theory involving a surviving hominid has always been the much smaller size of the orang pendek – until, that is, the discovery of Flores Man was revealed in 2004. Coupled with reports of orang pendek-like entities called the ebu gogu said to have existed on Flores until very recently, some cryptozoologists (myself included) now look towards a living representative of Flores Man as a convincing explanation of the hitherto-bemusing riddle of the orang pendek’s identity."

And now, the precedent that I mentioned earlier (and first documented over 20 years ago!) for a creature whose DNA corresponds most closely to one taxon whereas its hair structure is more similar to a quite different taxon. I refer, of course, to the king cheetah. Genetically, it has been fully confirmed to be nothing more than a genetic freak variety of the normal spotted cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, and hence is referred to scientifically as Acinonyx jubatus var. rex. Its ornate coat patterning of stripes, swirls, and blotches is merely a phenotypic expression of a mutant allele of a gene homologous to the gene responsible for blotched tabby coat patterning in domestic cats.

Consequently, it came as a huge surprise when, as I documented in my very first book, Mystery Cats of the World (1989), the structure of its hair was examined:

"Hair samples which they [king cheetah researchers Paul and Lena Bottriell] had submitted to the Institute of Medical Research in Johannesburg revealed that the cuticular scale pattern of king cheetah guard hair compared much more closely with that of leopards than with that of spotted cheetahs."

Cheetahs and leopards not only belong to separate feline genera but also are only very distantly related. Suddenly, an unknown hominid whose hair structure is more similar to that of apes is not so unlikely after all, is it?

4 comments:

  1. Could the Orang pendak be a pygmy Orangutan?

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  2. Thanks so much for using my picture in this post!

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  3. @Anonymous - It's a possibility, yes. However, many reports suggest an entity more hominid-like than ape-like. Having said that, Debbie Martyr has recently revealed that locals claim a tribe of very small hominids sufficiently advanced to make and use tools exists in Sumatra, undiscovered by science. So perhaps the orang pendek is really a composite of two different cryptids - a small primitive bipedal hominid (the true orang pendek) and a large, semi-arboreal semi-terrestrial ape, whose descriptions have been intermingled.

    @Tim - My pleasure! I'm a massive fan of your wonderful artwork, so I am only too happy for the chance to incorporate it in my writings, and thanks for always kindly permitting me to do so, and also for preparing artwork for me whenever I've requested you.

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  4. I'd suggest that a swift application of Occam's Razor is in order here. What we are presented with are two sets of facts: firstly the hair analysis resembles an Orang, and secondly the DNA resembles a human.

    Hair analysis relies on quite a lot of sampling, and it is therefore most unlikely that Lars got his analysis wrong; if he says it looked rather orang-like and not human-like, then he will be correct. Furthermore hair analysis of humans has been quite extensive due to forensic requirements prior to DNA (which is quite a young science), so we can be fairly sure that the entire spread of variation that human hair is capable of is known, and any racial sub-type which looked extremely ape-like would be known in the literature. Lars, therefore, must be correct.

    DNA sampling, especially sampling of small amounts of source material, relies heavily on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of the initial sample to give a large enough amount of DNA on which to work. This process is usually reliable, but ONLY if the sample is uncontaminated with DNA from other sources, and ONLY if the target DNA in the sample amplifies as well as does any external contamination. Old, degraded DNA doesn't amplify up as well as fresh DNA, and the fresh stuff can be as small as just a few epithelial cells.

    So, it is quite possible that the hairs were indeed from an orang pendek and that DNA from this ape was indeed present, but that much fresher contamination from a human was also present and that this fresher contamination was what was amplified by the PCR technique, not the older, more degraded Orang Pendek sample.

    My opinion therefore remains unaltered: the DNA evidence is a possible red herring, and the hair analysis conducted by Lars must be seen as the truer account of things. The team found hair from something that is very like, if not almost identical to an Orang Utan on the trip. If Richard Freeman is correct and the Orang Utan is extinct in that locality (and I have no reason to doubt his word), then we're looking at something other than an Orang, but which is very similar to one.

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