The Nittevo

by Asiff Hussein

The skull of Pithecanthropus

Vedda legend has preserved for us a recollection of a lost race known as the Nittevo. There has been much controversy as to the identity of this folk. Some hold that the Nittevo are a lost tribe of Negritoes while others believe them to have been some kind of ape-man. Yet others identify them with an extinct species of bear known as rahu valaha. We will hereunder examine the various theories propounded by scholars who have delved on the subject and make an attempt to arrive at a tenable conclusion based on the available evidence.

The Nittevo are said to have been a dwarfish race of men who lived in the Mahalenama region now within the Yala East Intermediate Zone and the Tamankaduva area. These folk are believed to have been exterminated by the Veddas about 250 years ago.

Hugh Nevill (The Nittaewo of Ceylon. The Taprobanian.> 1886) has recorded some interesting information relating to this legendary race obtained from Vedda sources. Says Nevill: "The Nittaewo were a cruel and savage race of men, rather dark, living in small communities at Lenama."

Andaman islanders who some believe may be related to Sri Lanka's 'lost race,' the Nittevo

"They built platforms in trees, covered with a thatch of leaves, and in these they lived. They could neither speak Vaedda, Sinhalese or Tamil, but their language sounded like the Telegu of pilgrims to Kattragam. They attacked any intruding Vaeddas, and no Vaedda dare enter their district to hunt or collect honey. Many years ago the ancestors of the informants fought with these Nittaewo and finally drove the remnant of them, men, women and children into a cavern. Before this they piled firewood, and kept up the fire for three days, after which the race became extinct, and their district a hunting ground of these Vaeddas."quot;

According to the Vedda tradition recorded by Frederick Lewis (Notes on an exploration in Eastern Uva and Southern Panama Pattu. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon. 1914), the Nittevo were about three feet tall, the females being shorter than the males. They are said to have walked erect, had no tails and were completely naked. Their arms were short and their talon-like nails long and powerful. They lived in trees, caves and crevices while their prey consisted of small animals like the hare,squirrel and tortoise. They lived in gangs of 10 or 20 or more and their speech was like the twittering of birds. The Nittevo are said to have lived two generations earlier, so that the extermination of this race - if they ever did exist - may have to be assigned to about the late eighteenth century.


Many are the theories that have been propounded to explain the legend. Nevill for instance believed this folk to be related to the Niadis of Cochin "a wandering outcaste, abject race, so impure that hardly a slave will touch them." The Niadis have been described as roving about in small companies and their dwellings as being perched like baskets or birds' nests on jungle trees. They are said to have consumed tortoises and crocodiles and worshipped a female deity to whom they sacrificed a cock once a year. Nevill has evidently sought to connect the Nittevo to the Niadis on the basis of their food habits, arboreal dwellings and roving lifestyle. As to their origins, he suggests that they were serfs belonging to the Sinhalese Lambakanna dynasty who had survived the destruction or migration of their masters. Nevill's hypothesis is however highly conjectural and has not found much favour in academic circles.

Anthropologist Osman Hill (Nittaewo - An unsolved problem of Ceylon. Loris.1945) has propounded the theory that the Nittevo may have been an isolated species of pithecanthropus or Java man. This species of ape-man, he believes, were left isolated in Sri Lanka and developed into a pygmoid race, as isolated species often do. Captain A.T.Rambukwella (The Nittaewo - The Legendary Pygmies of Ceylon. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon.1963) who has elaborated on the ape-man theory, believes that the Nittevo may have been a species of Australopithecus, a type of man-like ape whose remains have been found in South Africa, but who are also known to have spread out to the eastern parts of Asia. These creatures have been described as small, man-like apes who stood erect and had a bipedal gait.

They are also said to have had a human-like dentition and were characterized by an absence of ridges on the cranium. The creature has been further described as a cave-dwelling, plains-frequenting, birds' nest-rifling and bone-cracking ape who employed destructive implements in the chase. His carnivorous diet is said to have included tortoises, lizards, crabs and bird eggs. Says Capt. Rambukwella; "It is possible that these small, sub-human apes which roamed throughout Asia and Africa pursued a parallel evolution with early man in the lower pleistocene, and in their competition for survival, were driven and isolated in marginal and peripheral areas at the extremities of continents.

Therefore it is suggestive that a sub-human ape akin to the Australopithecus roamed the sub-continent of India during the lower pleistocene period and in their struggle for existence migrated towards the South and into Ceylon which was part of the sub-continent."quot; These far-fetched ape-man theories have been subject to much criticism and not unreasonably. Pithecanthropus and Australopithecus are believed to have lived 500,000 years ago and appear to have died out long before modern man or homo sapiens came into existence.


The famous explorer,Dr.R.L.Spittel in his criticism of Rambukwella's theory (JRAS.CB.1963) has this to say: "In equating a legend of yesterday with half human creatures of remote antiquity, we are bridging an immeasurable gap of time and indulging in a fancy rather than sober reasoning. To surmise that a small group of long-vanished ape-men could have survived to legendary times in some fastness of this little island, like Lenama, is a more fantastic conception than Conan Doyle's romance of the 'Lost World' for the setting of which he chose a portion of a vast continent isolated for countless centuries by an abysmal rift". Spittel's hypothesis as to the identity of the Nittevo is however also not very convincing. He simply identifies them with an extinct species of red-haired brown bear known as rahu valaha (ursus inornatus).

Spittel has based his contentions on a Sinhalese account of a Nittevo legend obtained by Nevill (1886) from the inhabitants of Panama Pattu. The legend is similar to the one preserved by the Veddas, save that it also held that the Nittevo had shaggy red hair and long claws. Vedda tradition however did not support this description as Nevill found out when he put it before the Veddas. Says Nevill: "At the account of their shaggy red hair and long claws, the Veddas were much amused. They at once said the Sinhalese were confusing with the Nittaewo the rare sun bear, or Rahu Walas, now extinct at Lenama, and unknown to the Sinhalese, except by vague gossip." This species of bear evidently lived until fairly recent times. Nevill has recorded in the Taprobanian of 1885 that the rahu valas was found, but rarely in the wild district lying between the Kumbukan river, and the Maenik Ganga.":


In spite of the record left to us by Nevill that the Vedda tradition (which we may suppose to be truer to the original legend than the later variants propogated by their Sinhalese neighbours) did not uphold the view that the Nittevo possessed shaggy red hair and long claws, Spittel thinks otherwise. He contends that it is the rest of the legend that has been subject to "variants and embellishments," and on this assumption postulates that the Nittevo legend originated from the particularly aggressive species of bear known as the rahu valaha. Says Spittel:"They inhabit caves, and what more likely that the Veddas should have suffocated them there."

The 'monkey chatter' and 'brutish noises' said to be made by the Nittevo suggest the monotonous twittering the sloth bears indulge in when nibbling their forepaws, or the suction sounds they make when extracting larvae from ant-hills. That they often go in groups, especially a she-bear and her cubs, or a female in heat followed by males is well-known. That the sloth bears are not averse to flesh, particularly when putrid, I have been told by Veddas. They are also great tree climbers when in quest of fruit and honey combs". Spittel seeks to explain the tradition that the Nittevo walked like men as follows:"Though their usual mode of progression is on all fours, they do assume the erect posture when reconnoitering the tree tops from the ground, for honey combs; and when attacking a human being, slashing his face with their powerful clawed forepaws, and savaging him with their fangs when fallen". Although this is a most ingenious explanation, it nevertheless suffers from the fact that it is based on a faulty assumption, namely that the Nittewo possessed shaggy red hair and long claws.

The original Nittevo legend, as seen earlier, does not support this view.

Who then were the Nittevo? Nandadeva Wijesekera in his 1964 work, Veddas in Transition, suggested that the Nittevo may have been a Negrito people. Although Wijesekera did not go on to eloborate on his theory, it is nevertheless a convincing one, and certainly more tenable than the earlier theories. The Negritoes who appear to have been once dispersed throghout South and South East Asia are still to be found in the Andaman islands to the South of the Bay of Bengal. Other members of this race include the Semang of the Malayan peninsula and the Toala of Sulawesi.

A Negrito strain has also been found among some aboriginal South Indian tribes such as the Kadars and Pulaiyans. The type is characterized by an extremely dark complexion, woolly hair, broad head, flat nose and short stature. Adult males are known to average about four feet six inches in height while the females are much shorter. Given their proximity to Sri Lanka, it is not impossible that a wandering band of Negritoes found their way into Sri Lanka during some remote period. It may however be validly asked why it is that no skeletal remains of theirs have turned up. This may be because the supposed habitat of the Nittevo, the Lenama and Tamankaduva regions, are largely unexplored areas.

It is however interesting to point out that Capt. Rambukwella who led an expedition to the Mahalenama area in search of the Nittevo in May 1963 has recorded that during the course of the expedition, an excavation of a cave at Kudimbegala revealed at a depth of eight to ten inches, the vertabrae of a talagoya (monitor lizard) and a segment of a carapace of a star tortoise. This is an interesting discovery since according to tradition, these creatures constituted part of the Nittevo diet.