On Flores

Coincidentally, I was on my way to Flores when the announcement was made of the hominid remains, called Homo floresiensis, found at Liang Bua. There's, of course, a heap of information out there on the web about this, but I have a few things to add which come from local knowledge, or local gossip. The site is near Ruteng, a town in western Flores, about four or five hours by bus from where I stayed at Labuanbajo, on the extreme western end of the island. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Liang Bua because I couldn't face another bus journey, having already crossed Lombok and Sumbawa in this manner in the previous few days; besides, I didn't find out where the site was until I was leaving the island, by plane - the man sitting next to me, Adam, who was from Ruteng, told me.

However, while at Labuanbajo, I did visit another cave where, the guide, Sebastian, told me a Dutch pastor by the name of van Houven had unearthed a human skeleton in 1945; this, too, was of a small person and these remains are now in the museum at Maumere on Flores. This cave affected me strangely. We climbed down into it by ladder then crawled through a passage in the limestone, past great thick stalagmites and stalagtites, into a vast interior space, quite dark, yet pierced from above by the roots of banyan trees running down the walls and across the floor like electrical cables or water pipes. As I stood up in here, breathing the dry, faintly ammoniac air, I felt a strange dizziness or vertigo. There was a deep humming sound resonating through the cavern, from the bees which made their hives high up on the rocks in the blinding sunlight outside. Where did they find the human? I asked Sebastian. Just there, he said, pointing to a nearby rock floor. Later he showed me a complete turtle, fossilised, upside down, in the roof of the next cave; and a fish, likewise turned to stone, in a wall.

According to Adam, a trained anthropologist, van Houven had also worked at Liang Bua ... but I have not yet been able to find out more about this man who was, incidentally, a Catholic not a protestant, because the Dutch sent only Catholics to Flores, where Portuguese Dominicans had been before, while reserving nearby Sumba and western Timor for the protestants. Adam also told me that the local Manggarai people who live in villages near the site of the find are renowned for their tiny stature. How big? I asked. He held his hand out into the aisle of the plane, about a metre and half from the floor. There was a sense in his conversation of, not exactly scepticism, but rather a kind of amusement that the whole world was talking of something that he and others already knew a bit about. I asked him if he'd heard that the Dutch in the 17th century gathered reports of little people living on Flores, which they dismissed as folktales. He smiled. The Dutch, he explained, did not really come to rule Flores until the early 20th century.

The traditional houses of the Manggarai people are conical and arranged in concentric circles around a round, walled, sacrificial arena. Their rice paddies, too, are round, divided up in sections like a spider's web, with each clan receiving a slice - amazing to look at. They wear black sarongs, breed droopy stomached black-haired pigs and beautiful miniature horses. Two brothers, they say, came out of the west to found their kingdoms; their original houses have turned to stone. In a Manggarai village two houses face the altar stone: the one on the right is the Mbaru Gendrang, the chief’s, all ceremonies begin here, and here the open-ended gendrang drums are hung; the one opposite is the Mbaru Tambur, where the two skinned tambur drums are hung. Here ceremonies end.

1 comment:

Juergen said...

Hi this is Juergen, a German, living in Jakarta. Your article is interested! I've been several times in Flores since 2008. The name of the missionar you wrote about is THEODOR VERHOEVEN. He came to Flores in 1949 until 1967. Verhoeven is the pioneer-archeologist in Flores. He was a teacher at the catholic university there and use his holidays for his archeologic work. Yes, he was also digging middle of the sixties in Liang Bua but at another corner and not so deep like the team that found later the Hobbits. Well, I'm not sure which cave you mean, but he start his activities in West-Flores around 1950. I'm really interested in this matter. You remember the name from the cave you've visited? You have still contact to the man from Ruteng, Adam, maybe a phone number or email, the place where he works or his postal adress?? If you want to know more please contact me under
Regards Juergen