Sunday, November 29, 2009

Homo Floresiensis, the Little People

The previous article was about science fiction, and this is an article about actual science that sounds like science fiction. Really! People compared the discovery of Homo floresiensis to Hobbits, but to me they sound more like H. Beam Piper's "Little Fuzzies." Or really, really pissed off Ewoks.

The little people of the island of Flores, Indonesia were three-foot humanoids that used spears to hunt pygmy elephants and komodo dragons. I'm serious, there's actually evidence they hunted giant monitor lizards with poisonous bites! They had brains the size of chimpanzees, yet there is evidence of stone tool use (tiny, tiny stone tools!). Even more amazingly, they lived at least until 18,000 BC, far more recently than even Neanderthal. Homo sapiens arrived at Flores around 40,000 BC as a part of the island-hopping that gave us populations like Australian Aborigines. Which means that for thousands of years, modern humans and the Hobbits lived at the same time and possibly had contact.

Nothing about Homo floresiensis makes sense, everything is a mystery, and if several skeletons hadn't been found, I would have thought that it was just the skeleton of a particularly diseased individual, because something like it couldn't possibly exist. The time frame (up to 18,000 BC) is too recent. The idea of three foot tall people living on only one island is just too strange. And finally, if they have craniums the size of chimps, why would they use stone tools and hunt communally? It reminds me a little of how until the discovery of multiple skeletons, many more conservative scientists thought early discoveries of Neanderthal were just severely deformed individuals with rickets.

When I first acquired an interest in Paleoanthropology, the study of the evolution and descent of early human beings, I came on a field that had great mysteries but very little in the way of finding things that were truly outre and shocking. Paleoanthropology had entered into what the great Time-Life "Early Man" books called "an era of nitpicking," where we have the rough, basic outline of human descent and everything else is filling in details.

What astonished me is how even though Time-Life's "Early Man" was written in 1968, its chain of human origins is still mostly accepted as true today. A few questions have been definitively resolved thanks to genetic evidence...for instance, Neanderthal was not a human ancestor but a closely related cousin, but the weight of evidence was on that perspective even back then.

So here comes Homo floresiensis, a "Hobbit," who totally shakes up our entire idea of human evolution, and puts an end to the idea that there isn't really any huge mysteries left in paleoanthropology. For years and years, I learned to tune out news about human origins, because for the most part, it was usually a discovery of some new kind of ape that walked erect, a branch of the human family that included paranthropus, sivapithecus and other extremely unmemorable species of flatlined intelligence that died out, and did not result in either humans or modern apes.

And here's another thing I found shocking about the Flores little people discovery, namely, the press coverage. If there's one thing that is the plague of paleoanthropology, it is overly sensationalistic press coverage. But here, scientists were every bit as shocked as the press was. And let's face it, those diagrams comparing a modern man to Homo floresiensis made for pretty good newspaper copy.

And as of yet, here's the most exciting thing about the little men of Flores: we know so very little, and their appearance was so recent and such a sudden shock that science is still reeling from it like a body blow. What we know is overshadowed by what we don't know. Which means one thing is for sure: the paleoanthropology books written now will probably be out of date ten years down the road. And considering how long Time-Life's "Early Man" was mostly right, that's not bad at all.

And I wouldn't bet the farm on this...and nobody is more skeptical than me of the laughable claims of cryptozoologists...but there may be a distant, outside chance that a few hobbits survived. If they can last to 18,000 BC, it's at least possible they may have made it to today on a small, mostly unexplored island. Little furry people are a part of the native folklore, after all.


  1. This is very well written, I'm doing an essay about LB1, I think the whole study is interesting, I'm including the issues archaeologists have with whether or not the H. floresiensis is a distinct species.
    Good Job!!

  2. Looks like the homeless guy who tried to steal my sammich.