Dec 12 2012

The Hobbit

Published by under Evolution
Comments: 9

OK – I’m not talking about the upcoming release of the first movie in the next Peter Jackson Tolkien trilogy. I am, however, anxiously awaiting the film, because I love Tolkien, I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was incredible (the purists be damned), and I am also looking forward to seeing the 48 frames per second technology for myself. That is all a topic of a probable future post.

Today I am writing about Homo floresiensis – the hominid species native to the island of Flores in Indonesia that has been nicknamed the Hobbit because of its small stature. I have been following the story of H. floresiensis on this blog over the past few years. It has been an interesting controversy – whether or not the discovered fossils represent a distinct hominid species or rather represent modern humans suffering from a genetic disease. It seems the evidence, and the consensus of opinion, is leaning toward H. floresiensis being a real species, but there are holdouts.

H. floresiensis lived between 95 and 17 thousand years ago, stood about 3 1/2 feet tall, had small brains relative to modern humans, and had relatively large (hobbit-like) feet. It is not yet established whether or not they used fire, but they did have stone tools, and survived on an island with giant rodents and large komodo dragons.

The recent news story dealing with the Hobbit is not a new discovery, but an anthropological facial reconstruction of the Hobbit skull (LB1). The reconstruction was performed by Dr. Susan Hayes and recently presented at an archaeological conference. As you can see from the picture, it looks “surprisingly” human.

I’m not sure how surprising it is, really. Assuming H. floresiensis is a distinct species, it is not clear how closely related it is to Homo sapiens. The two theories are that it is distantly related, perhaps as far back as Australopithecus, and represents a remnant population of an independent migration out of African prior to later Homo migrations. The alternate theory is that the Hobbit is closely related to modern humans and the very small size represents the process of island dwarfism.

I don’t think the reconstruction affects this debate much. The resemblance to modern humans could be an artifact of the process, which is designed to reconstruct human faces, and not necessarily non-human ape faces. So there may be some assumptions in the process that bias the results toward looking like a modern human.

Further, the reconstruction does not alter scientists understanding of the underlying fossil anatomy. Those details stand on their own.

Still – people like pictures. I like to see artists conceptions of what hominid species, extinct animals, and prehistoric landscapes looked like, as long as you don’t confuse such imaging for scientific data.

 

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “The Hobbit”

  1. daedalus2uon 12 Dec 2012 at 11:06 am

    If they did not use fire, that would be excellent evidence that they are a different species.

    Humans require cooking to render food sufficiently digestible. There are no examples of human societies not using cooking and when modern humans try to survive on raw food by “hunting and gathering” in a supermarket they have difficulty maintaining weight and women become infertile.

  2. SARAon 12 Dec 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I have always been worried about ‘facial approximation’ based on limited fossils. It seems like too many assumptions are being built onto assumptions. Which leads me to wonder why they bother to use it at all. Once it is sitting in front of them, it’s going to inform all sorts of their future assumptions either consciously or unconsciously.

  3. jreon 12 Dec 2012 at 6:53 pm

    [T]hey … survived on an island with giant rodents …

    Hush, good Dr. N. The giant rodent of Flores is a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

  4. Kawarthajonon 12 Dec 2012 at 11:07 pm

    @daedalus2u

    Innuit used to eat a diet of largely uncooked meat. There was no fuel for cooking, other than the food they need to eat during the winter months (i.e. whale/seal blubber), so they evolved to eat raw meat and lots of it, with very little plant material or cooked meat.

  5. Myk Dowlingon 13 Dec 2012 at 12:38 am

    When they can use the same facial reconstruction process to reconstruct a chimpanzee, gorilla and human from their skulls, I’ll be interested. Until then, they’re just making morphed people.

  6. Jared Olsenon 13 Dec 2012 at 5:21 am

    I know this guy! I work with him. The bit about brain size is spot-on too…

  7. Mal Adaptedon 14 Dec 2012 at 9:37 pm

    jre:

    Hush, good Dr. N. The giant rodent of Flores is a story for which the world is not yet prepared.

    To live a rat must chew!

  8. jreon 17 Dec 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Gesundheit!

  9. sekaron 20 Dec 2012 at 1:59 am

    @daedalus2u

    Not true. The Sentinelese people supposedly do not use fire to cook. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentinelese_people On other sources I’ve read, they’ve been observed to have a fire, and manipulate fire, but only when the off chance occurs that it was created from natural causes. They have not been observed to have the knowledge of how to create their own fire.

    Also, the use of fire is not an indicator of speciation. Hypothetically, if indeed Homo sapiens need fire, the very first “human” to live required it to survive, but their nearly identical parent did not.

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