Return of the Return of the Hobbit

A nice thing about being a blogging journalist is that it gives me a place to put selected juicy bits and ruminations that there?s no space for in the "real"

By | October 13, 2005

A nice thing about being a blogging journalist is that it gives me a place to put selected juicy bits and ruminations that there?s no space for in the "real" article. So here is some Supplementary Information on my most recent piece about the Hobbits, those minuscule possible-humans who seem to have survived on the Indonesian island of Flores nearly into the Holocene. Where did the Hobbits (officially designated Homo floresiensis) come from? All the answers so far have big problems. The discovery team has backed off its original idea that they are descended from Homo erectus and grew small because of an evolutionary phenomenon called island dwarfing, where creatures in a restricted ecosystem shrink because resources are scarce and predators few. But the authors have substituted an even farther-out idea: the Hobbits are remnants of something resembling an australopithecine. Teeth and skull seem human, but much of the other bone morphology--and the Hobbit's size--are startlingly Lucy-like. H. erectus was at least in the neighborhood, having gotten to Southeast Asia about a million years ago. But no australopithecine has been unearthed outside of Africa (and in any case the discovery team is carefully not claiming that the Hobbit is one.) So here's the problem, laid out for me by John Hawks: "Australopithecus fits anatomically better, but Homo erectus fits geographically and behaviorally better." Daniel Lieberman, author of a commentary accompanying the new paper, votes for Homo on the basis of teeth and skull. He told me, "Right now the authors are just sort of speculating that there's some kind of unknown thing out there that it might be more closely related to than Homo erectus. But I think they're grasping at straws." Which brings us to Hobbit technology and social life: There is plenty of evidence of tools and fire and even butchered dwarf elephants at the site. Whether these artefacts were Hobbit work is not at all clear. (Note that this is not a living or burial site. The bones and other stuff got into Liang Bua cave because they were washed there by rains and flooding. Where they truly came from is unknown. This point may figure prominently in future disputes.) As yet no one has found H. sapiens remains of comparable ages on Flores. So it's convenient to link the tools etc with the Hobbits--even though the tools are "sophisticated", similar to those Europeans were making and using 40K years ago. But it's also possible that this is our work. Plenty of us were in the neighborhood during Hobbit times, so it would not be shocking to learn that modern humans got to Flores a long time ago too. The big stumbling block to attributing these tools--and a complex, cooperative, hunting-based (and language-based?) social life--to the Hobbits is that darn tiny brain. Which is one reason it matters so much to figure out whether the only existing Hobbit skull is normal or not.

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