Fighting Over Hobbit

The Hobbit is a book by JRR Tolkien, a just released blockbuster movie, and a hominid from Indonesia. Here, we are speaking about the hominid from Indonesia.

A while back I wrote a review of a book by Dean Falk, for American Scientist. You can find that review here, and you can find a different review of the same book here on my blog.

Falk's book is about endocasts and brains her area of specialty and she goes into the study of two specific hominids in particular, Taung, and LB1. Taung (pronunced "Tah oong," roughly) is the type specimen of Australopithecus africanus, the first described Australopith and probably the first early hominid recovered in Africa, which by the way was in 1924. LB1 is one of the diminutive Homo found on the island of Flores, Indonesia, sometimes called "Hobbit" that shook things up a bit a few years back. Assuming this is what most experts say it is, this is a new species in the human family, Homo floresiensis. Go and read the reviews cites above to find more, or better yet, read the book. A cool feature of Dean's book is that she is a scientist writing about the research she knows about, but it is NOT a general "here's what happened in human evolution" book, but rather, focuses much more on a smaller subset of issues.

My old friend Maciej Henneberg and Robert Eckhardt have a very different opinion of this fossil than Dean Falk does, and as far as I know, different from the broader consensus. Henneberg and Eckhardt (and some others) view Homo floresiensis as a previously existing species (ie., Homo sapiens) but pathological. They may be right, but they probably aren't. And, the whole story of who has done what with these fossils, and to each other, is one of the more rollicking adventures in paleoanthropology. If this drama was playing out in the 18th century, there would have been a few duals by now.

Anyway, I just found out that Maciej and Robert wrote an extensive comment on my book review, and sent it to American Scientist who did not want to publish it because it was too long. Subsequently, the've published their original review on a blog and sent American Scientist a shorter version, which has been placed on the American Scientist web site. The blog post is: Response to American Scientist Review – Longer Version and the American Scientist version is A letter regarding Greg Laden's review of The Fossil Chronicles. I invite you to read them both, but I'd start with the American Scientist version because the longer one is very long.

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I always assume that any argument containing that many sly little ad hominems is wrong. We are dealing with multiple specimens here, right? If you found two specimens of a fossil canid, say, that were that much different from other known fossil canids, you would not hesitate to name it as a new species, would you? Would anyone go off shrieking and wailing that you shouldn't recognize them until you somehow ultimately disproved the possibility that they were all extreme mutants of some known canid species that somehow survived to adulthood despite severe defects and without any normal individuals apparently around to care for them? I wonder what these two have to say about the Denisovans or about the weird archaic-featured Australian skeletons. The more twigs there were on the human branch of the tree of life, the more genocides our ancestors had to commit to become the only twig. That in itself is adequate motivation for some people to undercount.

An inside account of the Flores discovery is given in a book by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee - The Discovery of the Hobbit”, Random House Australia 2007. I found it quite fascinating.

What would settle at least one part of the debate would be isolation of the hobbit's DNA; Morwood said at a seminar in Canberra a few years ago that efforts were being made about this, but I've heard nothing since. It's unfortunately possible that there's no DNA left to find, given the tropical location of the find.