Indonesia's Many Human Physical Deformities: A Closer Look

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Tree Man courtesy of Jon Frank / Shutterstock Tree Man courtesy of Jon Frank / Shutterstock

Indonesian "Tree Man" Dede Koswara's wart-covered arms and legs lay as limp and lifeless as the shredded wood they so resembled. After many years on operating tables and in hospital beds, on Feb. 3 Koswara lost his battle with the rare "tree man illness," called Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia.

Just about 200 people share the late Koswara's tree-like bodily deformity. But even though they're rare, cases like Koswara's seem to be more common in Indonesia than in other parts of the world. Because in addition to the Tree Man, the country has also recently produced the huge-headed toddler Dilla Adilla and the "Bubble Skin Man" Chandra Wisnu.

Adilla suffers from hydrocephalus, a rare condition where the body produces excess spinal fluid that collects in the skull. This caused Adilla's head to grow to three times the size of the average human head, at 39 inches from ear to ear.

Wisnu suffers from Neurofibromatosis type I. Thousands of small red tumors cover his body, so that he resembles an alien-human bubble wrap sheet.

Less than one percent of the world suffer from these three diseases combined. So why does Indonesia seem to churn them out more than any other country?

The majority of rare diseases like these are genetic in origin. Kosawa's bark-like disorder was caused by a deficiency of white blood cells, while Wisnu's was caused by a mutation in the NF1 gene. The cause of Adilla's hydrocephalus is unknown.

A 2011 study found that G6PD deficiency (when red blood cells break down) and ovalocytosis (a hematologic disorder involving red blood cells) was widely distributed throughout Indonesia's village populations. Other studies prove the similar prevalence of gene mutation in Indonesia in comparison to the rest of the world. So what accounts for faulty Indonesian genetics?

Very few studies have given definitive answers. But the Indonesian population is perhaps the most genetically diverse worldwide. Older than Europe, Indonesia has a vast history of human migration. It's seen great population movements due to shifting sea levels and other factors, thus resulting in immense biological and cultural diversity.

Indonesia has seen more ancient human migration than just about any other country. These ancient humans had genetic problems not seen in the average modern man. So perhaps Indonesia has a greater prevalence of rare genetic disorders simply because its vast and diverse population has greater potential for it than the rest of the world.