Truth is relative, according to Anthropology professor Gregory Forth. He’s interested in the comparative study of human knowledge, or “how people living in different parts of the world come to know things, how they become convinced of the truth of certain things,” he says. He’s particularly interested in how people reconcile spiritual beliefs and symbolic ideas with ordinary experiences that seem to contradict them.
Much of Forth’s fieldwork centres around the Indonesian island of Flores, where he has studied everything from animal categories to kinship and indigenous religions over the past 30 years.
Flores is ideal for ethnographic fieldwork because it is made up of local societies with different languages and cultures, many of which had yet to be studied when Forth started his research. The topography of the island makes it difficult to get around and cuts off local groups from one another, resulting in related but unique cultures and languages. He visits the island, on average, every two years, which has allowed him to become familiar to the residents.
In particular, Forth is known for his research on the Nage (pronounced “Na-gay”), a tribe of indigenous people living on Flores. “Nage was, at the time, a blank sheet, a big gap in our knowledge of the different groups found in that part of Indonesia,” he explains.
His study of the Nage dovetailed with his research on indigenous animal categories and ideas about supernatural beings. Among the Nage, he came across a category named “ebu gogo.” “People regarded the ebu gogo not as one of their spirit categories, but as something that had existed several hundred years ago but had become extinct. It apparently wasn’t some kind of animal either, as it looked too much like a human being,” explains Forth.
“They described it quite consistently as a small hominoid, so it was bipedal, culturally very impoverished, no tools or clothes, and it lived in caves.” Forth was interested in the descriptions of these beings because they seemed to resemble early hominids, and revealed parallels to legendary creatures elsewhere such as the Yeti or Sasquatch (Big Foot).
Interestingly enough, Flores was also the site of the 2013 discovery of a new hominid, Homo floresiensis. A common media-coined nickname for the hominid is “Hobbit” because of their very small size (just over a metre in height).
The similarities between ebu gogo and Homo floresiensis were striking. Forth concluded “that there was a possibility that floresiensis had survived long enough on Flores to make an impact on local cultural memory” as the ebu gogo. And Forth’s conclusion that Homo floresiensis and ebu gogo may be one and the same has been accepted by the paleoanthropologists and archaeologists who discovered the new hominid.
However, Forth is not a fan of the “Hobbit” nickname, which was created by the media around the time the Lord of the Rings movies were gaining popularity: “The Hobbit is an imaginary creature created by Tolkien, whereas I’m pretty sure and the paleos think that Homo floresiensis is real and is a natural species, just as we’re a species.”