Hobbits Alive?

hobbit head-lo.jpg
The feud over Homo floresiensis, the little people of Indonesia, centers on whether they were an extinct diminutive species that evolved from some ancient hominid, such as Homo erectus, or whether they were just pygmy humans, perhaps suffering from some disease. The leading skeptic, paleoanthropologist Teuku Jacob, has claimed that there are pygmies living not far from where the fossils were found, on the island of Flores. I came across a short item at Japan Today about a scientific expedition to study the pygmies, which was based on an article in Kompas, an Indonesian publication. The original article is here, and my intrepid brother Ben, expert on Indonesian anthropology (cultural, not paleo-), did an on-the-fly translation for me, which I'll run below. The team got back from Flores on April 25. While there, they went to a village called Rampasasa, made up of 77 families. About 80% of the people were pygmies. They measured 10 people who were a bit taller, with a height of 155 cm and 2 measuring 160 cm. Homo floresiensis was 130 cm. The researchers claim that these tall villagers got some extra height from having married non-pygmies from surrounding villages.

I imagine that we'll be hearing something more official about the grandly-named Rampasasa Pygmy Somatology Expedition in a couple months. I wonder if they'll have something more than height measurements to offer--just because living pygmies are close to H. floresiensis doesn't seem terribly compelling, since it's my impression that height changes can evolve relatively quickly in humans. (I can't find a paper to back up this recollection at the moment, I confess.)

Update at 3:50 PM: Apologies for the various typos, dead links, and missing facts in the first version of this post. I blame it on my Mac upgrade to Tiger today.

So here's the article...

The "Pygmy" Community of Flores

The existence of a community of pygmy people in the Manggarai Regency of  Flores, East Nusatenggara, is quite interesting but also quite mysterious.  In the context of the archaeological discovery of the prehistoric human skeleton from Liang Bua in Flores -- which has been published widely as belonging to the species named Homo floresiensis -- the existence of the pygmy community in the village of Rampasasa, Waemulu region, Waeriri subdistrict, could possibly shatter all previous arguments.

"The existence of the pygmy community there is quite interesting and also quite surprising. For many years, experts from various corners of the world have only had the chance to see their footprints, but it turns out we can now find them living in a society.  This means that for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years, this pygmy community has remained settled in that place without ever moving around," said Prof Teuku Jacob, emeritus professor at Gadjah Mada University.

Jacob, who also leads the Bio- and Paleo-Anthropology Laboratory at Gadjah Mada, further explained, "Pygmy people have indeed been reported as existing in the Andaman Islands and New Guinea, but only a few remain and it is difficult to find them because they live in dispersed conditions. Now we can find them living together in one village."

Since the 1920s, the East Nusatenggara region has been an object of interest for anthropologists, especially those from Holland, after seeing evidence that the residents there have rather short body height.  The results of the 1929 Biljmer study indicate that more than 50 percent of the residents of the region have body height of about 155 to 163 cm. Besides that, in Flores there have long circulated folk tales about short people with darkly colored skin (Negritos) who live in the hills, hiding in caves.

Dr. Theodore Verhoeven, pastor at the Ledalero Maumere Seminary, conjectured in 1958 that these short people were a Proto-Negrito community. This term refers to the Schebesta study in the Andamans, remote areas of Borneo (Kalimantan), and also the southern Philippines.

According to Teuku Jacob, if the height of the Negritos is roughly between 155 and 163 cm, they would be called pygmoid.  But if the Rampasasa people are true pygmies their height would have to be less than 145 cm for adult males and 135 cm for adult females.  The maximum weight would be 40 kg for males and 30 kg for females.

Pygmies are indeed different from dwarfs.  This is because the term dwarf indicates a small body with proportions that are out of order.  Pygmies, meanwhile, have small bodies that are proportional.

Since last year, the team working under the leadership of Prof. RP Soejono and Dr. MJ Morwood conducting an excavation in Liang Bua, Flores, has found human skeletons with an approximate height of 130 cm and with brains about a third of the size of modern humans. This discovery was later claimed to be a new species of humans called Homo floresiensis (Flores Man).

Worwood, an expert in cave paintings from Australia, in fact called the results of the discovery "hobbits" in a popular fashion, a group of pygmy people like those in the film Lord of the Rings.  The picture of miniature Flores Man then appeared as a major report in the April 2005 edition of National Geographic.

The above claim about the discovery of a new species was rejected by a number of experts.  Etty Indriati, a PhD from Gadjah Mada, called it a baseless tale.  How could there be a new species from the discovery of just one skeleton which in fact was misidentified?  They said it was a female while from the dental structure it was clear that it was a male, and also a modern one.

"What is more unreasonable, it is not possible that a brain that has already developed as Homo sapiens could then become small and develop into a new species, left behind as prehistoric remains," she explained.

Indeed, for mammals trapped in remote islands for hundreds of years -- and with insufficient food to eat -- bodies will become smaller as an adaptation to the environment. "But, for humans, their menu is not just one type of food.  Despite being isolated, they will try to find other types of food, so their bodies do not become small," she added.

Teuku Jacob explained, "The pygmy people of Flores are not a prehistoric race. Our team has successfully found a community of pygmies living in the modern world."  What is even more ironic, the community of pygmies mentioned by Jacob is only about 1 kilometer from Liang Bua, the dwelling place of the species given the name Homo floresiensis by Worwood.

Koeshardjono, an expert in biology who was the first to announce the existence of a pygmy community in Flores, stated, "This expedition was named the Rampasasa Pygmy Somatology Expedition.  This is because the pygmy community of about 77 families resides entirely in the village of Rampasasa, Waemulu region, Waeriri subdistrict, Manggarai regency, south Flores."

The results of the team of physical anthropologists led by Teuku Jacob recorded that 80 percent of the residents of Rampasasa are classified as pygmy.  The provisional findings indicate that there are 10 people with a height of 155 cm and two people with a height of 160 cm.  It turns out that their body size is relatively tall because of marriage with residents outside of the village.  The team of researchers from Gadjah Mada has been in Rampasasa since April 18 and returns to Yogya Sunday night (April 25).


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Absolutely amazing. This is either a great hoax or a truly amazing find. So what if they really are pygmies, does that really mean the Homo Florisis is not a unique species? How does the social context play into how we define "species"? Scientists, please forgive my layman language, but if they really are pygmies, then isn't there something broader in the problem of classifying "who" they are in terms of a genetic lineage?

Finally a story that makes sense. A slightly pathological modern from this or other similar village 13kya. Thanks, Teuku J!!

All this mentioning of negritos in the Philippines and the Andamanes just serves to muddy the waters as far as I can tell. They have been well studied, and if they had any similarity with Flores man, that would have been noticed already, wouldn't it?

The original article in Nature describes H.floresiensis as being 1m tall, not 1.3m. Regardless of the height, a more recent article by the excavation team found morphological differences between the Hobbit fossil brain cavity and that of various other hominids (and a chimp). So this pygmy village, if true, doesn't kill the H.foresiensis claim, though it does weaken it.

Dear Mr. Zimmer: I just read your interesting posting of April 29 titled "Hobbits Alive?" I'm not sure what you mean by the term "pygmies," but I have been studying Asian Negrito foragers for most of the last 43 years. (The term "Negrito" is less problematic than "pygmy," but perhaps not by much.) I have measured hundreds of adults in the Agta Negrito population in the Philippines, and male adults average 154.4 cm (weight 46.2 kg) and females 143.8 cm (weight 39.3 kg). If you "can't find a paper to back up [your] recollection at the moment" of a 'pygmy' population's height changes at different times, see John Early's and my 1998 book, p.118. You can compare Agta heights with those of African Pygmies and other 'primitive' and Asian Negrito populations at Table 4 of my 1989 article in the AMER J OF HUMAN BIOLOGY vol 1 p.67. (Ituri Pygmy male heights reportedly average 144 cm and CAR Pygmy males 153.) Homo floresiensis is a fascinating report. So far, I remain skeptical. Thomas N. Headland (www.sil.org/~headlandt/)

Great article.

The "Homo Floresiensis" was actually only 100cm tall, whereas most modern pygmies are 150cm or above. It's obvious that Floresiensis was a different more archaic form of human. Infact, they can hardly be considered human at all.

There were many different types of human-like beings in the prehistoric Indonesian past. Meganthropus and many large Erectine specimimens displayed a tendency towards giantism.They cannot be considered "modern humans" either, because their physical features are so outside the norm for modern humans. Likewise, Floresiensis was outside the norm of modern humans.

My conclusion is-They were not modern humans.

While the discussion of pygmies on flores is of great anthropological interest, it is critical to remember that Homo floresienses is based on not just a single skeleton but several remains dug up at the locality. It is also important to remember that H. floresienses has an extraordinarily small, but non-pathological brain - in fact it is very close to the smallest hominin brain ever discovered - and this includes australopithecines. Thus the species is not just a pygmy sized human - with a human sized brain perched on a small body as the "newly discovered" pygmies on Flores are, but a species showing very different relative cranial capacity (and morphology) from any known early or late hominin species. It is also important to note the contradictions in the arguments of the disputing scientists. Take for example the comment by Etty Indriati concerning human evolutionary adapative capacities "But, for humans, their menu is not just one type of food. Despite being isolated, they will try to find other types of food, so their bodies do not become small," Clearly not only does H. floresienses violate this rather ill founded comment but the very near pygmy-sized people on flores today violate this argument. My own work has shown that pre-humans can adapt in the oppossite direction - towards giantism - as readily as they adapt to smaller sizes under certain ecological conditions. At present - on morphological grounds - H. floresienses stands.

By Lee R. Berger (not verified) on 04 May 2005 #permalink

Great materials on H. floresensis! However, why keep using the name "Hobbits?" It really cheapens the significance of this find, and the name could lead astray less scientifically inclined minds. I realize that the discovering team used the term first, but isn't it just a bit too silly and whimsical?