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 Рthe 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 Рwhether 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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