Hobbit As Monkey?

Hobbit Cover NW&T nov 2005.jpgWell, here's an idea I haven't heard of before...

Last year scientists found the bones of what they recognized as a new species of hominid that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. They named it Homo floresiensis, and its three foot stature earned it the nickname the Hobbit. All of the reconstructions I've seen until now have shown the Hobbit standing upright--which you might expect of a hominid that descended from upright ancestors (perhaps Homo erectus or even the more primitive Australopithecus).

But in the November issue of the Dutch science magazine Natuurwetenschap & Techniek, paleontologist and Hobbit team-member Gert van den Bergh offers a new vision: the Hobbit on all fours.

Van den Bergh makes his case based on the long, strangely shaped arm bones of Homo floresiensis, which were recently described in the journal Nature. "The humerus of Homo sapiens (modern man) and Homo erectus (our ancestor) has a significant twist in the connection to the shoulder," van den Bergh said in a statement issued from the magazine. "In the Hobbit, however, the humerus is connected to the shoulder without twist. You don't see this in the even more ancient Australopithecus, nor in erectus or sapiens, nor in apes, but you do see it in gibbons and macaques! As a consequence, the Hobbit's shoulder is less mobile. Probably she could freely move her arms forward and backward, but had difficulty moving them sideways, like we can."

Van den Bergh speculates the Homo floresiensis might have adapted to climbing steep mountain slopes as well as trees, like macaques do. "This could be an adaptation to the inhospitable and rugged island of Flores, where the largest coastal plain is just fifteen kilometers wide. The larger part of the island consists of very steep mountain sides."

The article is all in Dutch, but I received an image of the reconstruction with a lot of captions in English. I've posted it here.

Normally I'd let such a reconstruction pass by, since I'm not a big fan of science-by-popular-magazine. But given Dr. van den Bergh's experience, I thought I'd post it--at least to get people's imaginations going. I wonder if other signatures of quadrupedalism can be found on the fossils. The hole at the bottom of the skull where the spinal cord exits, known as the foramen magnum, is one clue. I'm going to see if I can find out what other members of the Hobbit team think. If I get a response, I'll post it here.

UPDATE 10/27 5 PM: Well, Peter Brown, the anthropologist on the hobbit team, is not impressed. In an email reply, he wrote:

Absolute nonsense!

Completely inconsistent with the anatomy of the LB1 skeleton, which is consistent with that of an obligate biped. Simply no way the limbs could have functioned like this. Anatomy of the cranial base, pelvis, legs, feet, hands... all those of an obligate biped.

UPDATE 10/27 6:40 PM Another guffaw from Dan Lieberman, a Harvard anthropologist who has been a careful observer of H. floresiensis research:

Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I've seen regarding this odd skeleton. But I like the figure! Their idea its a monkey comes from the humeral torsion, but it really is clearly a biped in so many features that the idea is, well, silly.

Just goes to show that one can publish anything somewhere...

I suspect we've just reached the end of a very short, very weird side-story in the Hobbit's saga.

UPDATE: Friday 10/28/05 12:40 pm: The Australian has picked up on the monkey business now. They even quote Lieberman here. While it's nice to beat the papers (especially one that's been on top of the Hobbit beat since the beginning), they seem to be ignoring the fact that the story was reported here first.

Dr van den Bergh's claim is generating cyber ridicule. "Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I've seen regarding this odd skeleton," wrote Harvard University anthropologist Dan Lieberman on Corante.com.

Excuse me, that was reporting. Another sign, I suspect, that some newspapers don't like being beaten by blogs.

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Fantastic! Even if it turns out to be a wild goose chase, it is great that you are checking this out. We cannot let ourselves be prisoners of precedent.
After all, if the vegetation on Flores was as it is now(?) some of the suspected drivers for bipedalism vanish. Floresiensis could (among many possibilities) have reverted to cuadripedalism or knuckle-walking (or never have left those practices). Some suspect that chimps and gorillas had upright ancestors.

Keep up the good work.

G. Michael Burns

By Gerard Michael Burns (not verified) on 27 Oct 2005 #permalink

What Van den Bergh is refering too is humeral torsion. In humans and apes there is a large amount of it - although least in the gorillas, which spend a lot of time on the ground. It should be pointed out that gibbons are not quadrupedal. The exact relationship between humeral torsion has not been worked out. For more info Aiello and Dean's "An introduction to human evolutionary anatomy" and references their in for more details.

By afarensis (not verified) on 27 Oct 2005 #permalink

The hobbit would not be a monkey just because it walked on four legs. It would just be a quadridupal ape.

By Johan Richter (not verified) on 27 Oct 2005 #permalink

I have no idea how the bones of homo floresiensis should be reconstructed. Still, I find it a bit disturbing that the oral traditions of the natives are dismissed so readily. In particular, they refer to an advanced bipedal ape known variously as ebu gogo or orang pendek. Would it be totally shocking if this creature bears some relation to homo floresiensis? If orangutangs can survive and co-exist with humans in the area, why not orang pendek? I can only hope that some credible people are searching for it in a serious way.

By Elliot Kennel (not verified) on 27 Oct 2005 #permalink

Weird perhaps, but this idea is not dead simply because the discoverers have jeered at it. One of my sources raised this point in my October 13 story in The Scientist:

Schwartz is a major expert on hominid remains who says he has examined many of the actual examples of hominids, not casts. (Those of you with FT access to Science, see his review on Homo erectus in the July 2 2004 issue.)

Until someone publishes a serious critique of Liang Bua stratigraphy, Schwartz's speculation that the bones may represent different taxa is not so easily dismissed, IMHO. It's very easy to forget a crucial aspect of this site. It's not a living or burial site. All those bones and other artefacts washed into the cave during tropical rains and flooding. No one knows where they came from.

By Tabitha M. Powledge (not verified) on 28 Oct 2005 #permalink

Schwatz's speculation about multiple taxa makes absolutely no sense. Is he, for instance suggesting that the arms of LB1, belong to a different taxa to the rest of the body. Or, the postcranial bones which share numerous features with the first skeleton, belong to different taxa. Its not as if there were even any other primate taxa on Flores during the Pleistocene. As for articulated skeletons being washed into the cave...

By Peter Brown (not verified) on 28 Oct 2005 #permalink

Could there be any connection with the Humanzee, Oliver? Oliver is/was a chimpanzee that exhibited human characteristics, such as a preference to walk upright, a more human shaped skull and a disdain for the chimpanzee species which treated him as an outcast.

Look at the size of that nose! Has anyone seen any Homo floresiensis reconstruction artwork that is actually good?

They haven't tried another theory - this species could be locked in a 'in between stage'. Basically, on the verge of heading off from ape to humanoid.