Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Homo Floresiensis - The Hobbit

photo by Barron Storey, New York Times

The New York Times reports on a fascinating discovery which has paleontologists scratching their heads.

Six years after their discovery, the extinct little people nicknamed hobbits who once occupied the Indonesian island of Flores remain mystifying anomalies in human evolution, out of place in time and geography, their ancestry unknown. Recent research has only widened their challenge to conventional thinking about the origins, transformations and migrations of the early human family.

Properly named Homo Floresiensis, scientists are not sure if they could have been primitive survivors of even earlier hominid migrations out of Africa, before Homo erectus migrated about 1.8 million years ago. This theory would mean that some of the earliest African toolmakers, around 2.5 million years ago, had made their way across Asia.

Another possible explanation is that they evolved into a new species in Asia, which moved back to Africa. Two-way traffic is not unheard of in other mammals.

Everything about them seems incredible. They were very small, not much more than three feet tall, yet do not resemble any modern pygmies. They walked upright on short legs, but might have had a peculiar gait obviating long-distance running. The single skull that has been found is no bigger than a grapefruit, suggesting a brain less than one-third the size of a human’s, yet they made stone tools similar to those produced by other hominids with larger brains. They appeared to live isolated on an island as recently as 17,000 years ago, well after humans had made it to Australia.

Some prominent paleoanthropologists are reserving judgment, among them Richard Leakey, the noted hominid fossil hunter who is chairman of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University. Like other undecided scientists, he cited the need to find more skeletons at other sites, especially a few more skulls.

What do you think about this story? Do you find these sciences fascinating? Why do you think some people are so against this stuff? Do you think that our having evolved from these primitive creatures, if that's true, in some way diminishes us? What do fundamental Christians think about this? Isn't this proof that The Bible and the other sacred texts need not be taken literally?

What's your opinion?


  1. Why do you think some people are so against this stuff?

    Well, creationists don't like it because they're sure, one way or another, that any amount of evidence for evolution--no matter how much or how strong--must be unreliable. Whether they think God or Satan put fossils on the Earth to test our faith, or that every human ancestor was just another species of ape that died in the Flood, they have one central precept (the account in Genesis is literally true and infallible) that all other evidence is judged against. If the two conflict, the evidsence is wrong.

    That said, a lot of good, reputable scientists are taking a skeptical tack here, too, and for a similar reason. We have a decent amount of evidence for one particular story of human evolution, and this evidence may be in conflict with it. That doesn't mean we reject or explain away the evidence like a creationist, but it doesn mean that we should investigate further before drawing too broad or certain a conclusion. There are other possibilities (like a congenital deformity, or the coincidental discovery of only juvenile fossils) that should be investigated first.

    suggesting a brain less than one-third the size of a human’s, yet they made stone tools similar to those produced by other hominids with larger brains.

    I don't actually find this so odd. The way I understand it, pre-human hominid populations probably learned the same way modern non-human primate populations do: by imitating the rare individual who figures out a new way of doing something (ignore the froo-froo stuff; the actual research project that spawned the legend is the interesting part), with long periods of technological "stasis" in between. Neanderthals used the same "toolbox" for tens of thousands of years before Homo sapiens came along and improved it, and I understand that later neanderthals are sometimes found with H. sapiens-made tools and jewelry. With populations that learn in such a random way, I don't find it too shocking that one isolated group could stumble on a more sophisticated toolbox than is typical for other hominids of their general type.

    It is fascinating stuff. It's wonderful how far we've been able to look into the past, and even more amazing how much there is left to learn. :)

  2. I love this stuff, but I think it is unfortunate that they use the term "hobbits" for these people. Too much of a LoTR vibe for me.