Nguoi Rung: mythical or missing ape


In 1982 Professor Tran Hong Viet, now at the Pedagogic University of Hanoi, found and made a cast of a footprint measuring 28 by 16 centimeters. The footprint is as long as that of many people but it is much wider. It is said that the toes of this footprint were much longer than those of a human. The footprint was found on the slopes of Chu Mo Ray (Mom Ray mountain) in the centre of the above picture. Chu Mo Ray is near the Cambodian Border in Sa Thay District of Kontum Province.

Professor Viet only recently returned to his research on this subject, through the instigation of Japanese Television which aired a show on the wildman question in March, 1996. Fortean News of the World (Japan Fortean Information Society) recently published an image of this footprint, shown during a recent conference in Hanoi.

Professor Viet and some other Vietnamese scientists believe that this region, the so called 'three borders' region where the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos converge, is the centre of reports of the Vietnamese 'wildman'. So common were reports that in 1974, during the height of war, General Hoang Minh Thao commander of Northern forces in the Central Highlands, requested a scientific survey of the region north of Kontum for 'Nguoi Rung'. Scientists who were part of this dangerous expedition included Professors Vo Quy and Le Vu Khoi from Hanoi University and Professor Hoang Xuan Chinh from the Institute of Archaeology in Hanoi. No Nguoi Rung were found - though the expedition returned North with a couple new elephants for the circus.

Reports of 'wildman' vary from large to small, with body hair from grey to brown or black and may be alone or with others. But always they are said to walk bipedally. They go by many names among highlands minority people, most are terms of respect. The Vietnamese name is Nguoi Rung - "Forest People". This is the direct equivalent of the name for an ape we do know from Indonesia, the Orang Utan. The minority people of Kontum are certain that the forest people existed in their forests in the very recent past. They differentiate their forest people from forest spirits or genies, some of which they also describe as hairy bipeds. Mr Vu Ngoc Thanh visiting areas near the Laotian border, discovered another local term 'Khi Trau, literally 'buffalo monkey' or 'big monkey'.

Anthropologist, Professor Dang Nghiem Van, Director of Hanoi's Institute for Religious Studies, has collected many stories of Nguoi Rung from northern Vietnam to the central highlands. These include myths of small but very strong beings knowing the use of fire and eating forest molluscs. There are also stories of a different, much larger being.

Professor Van says that at night Nguoi Rung come to places where people have fires. They sit beside men but do not speak, or speak unintelligable words. There are stories of couples of Nguoi Rung moving rapidly, easily climbing trees, shaking trees for insects, sleeping in grottos on mountain slopes. Professor Van's detailed notes, some of them from locations in near Sa Thay, have yet to be published.

But if Nguoi Rung exist, are they really apes or hominids? Some scientists like Bernard Heuvelmans, a well-known cryptozoologist, and Dr Helmut Loofs-Wissowa of the Australian National University, think that at least some forms may be remnants of an early human population.

The figure to the right is from Bernard Heuvelmans' 1969 description of a controversial specimen called the 'ice man', which he calledHomo pongoides. The specimen was examined in a block of ice and has since disappeared. This has led some commentators to disbelieve the comprehensive study Heuvelmans published in 1974. Dr Loofs-Wissowa suggests that few detractors have studied Heuvelmans' original publications.

So there remain many questions. And so far no specimens have been recovered. There have been several reports in the last 15 years in the region of Kontum - Sa Thay alone. Those we recently began investigating are shown on this satellite map (160k).

But perhaps these questions go well-beyond the veracity of the 'Minnesota ice man' to the nature of scientific research. Some scientists are reticent even to consider the possibility of the existence of an undiscovered hominoid. It is an uncomfortable subject for us, since we lack incontrovertable evidence. We could be seen to have fallen in with the unscrupulous and gullible.

Zoologist John Mackinnon (in McNeely and Sochaezowski, 1995) once described finding short, broad, human-like but definitely non-human footprints of a creature locals call the batutut in the forests of Sabah. MacKinnon recounts seeing these footprints. "I was uneasy when I found them, and I didn't want to follow them and find out what was at the end of the trail. I knew that no animal we know about could make those tracks. Without deliberately avoiding the area I realize I never went back to that place in the following months of my studies."

Perhaps we are limited in the end by our own 'scientific mythologies'. Mackinnon went on to head expeditions into Vu Quang forest reserve in central Vietnam. He and his colleagues found two new species: a goat like animal, dubbed the saola from its long spindle-shaped horns and a robust muntjac deer. In early 1997, a new, small muntjac species was discovered in the forests of Quang Tri province, an region which suffered heavy bombing during the uears of war. These are the first new large mammals discovered by science since early this century. Learned opinion was that no new mammals could possibly have avoided detection so long. Yet, learned opinion was wrong. Science is about keeping an open mind, not about fitting the world into one's scientific or fantastic preconceptions.

Quang Tri is not far at all from Kontum Province and Chu Mo Ray.