Do Not Arm-Wrestle With Hobbits

hobbit head-lo.jpgPeter Brown, one of the discoverers of Homo floresiensis a k a the Hobbit (previous posts here), had a few interesting remarks in an article in today's Oregon Daily Emerald:

Though the hobbit people were very small -- the adult stood as tall as a 3-year-old human child and had a brain the size of a newborn human baby -- they had incredible strength, Brown said.

"Chimpanzees have an arm strength four times that of a human; the hobbits were similarly as strong, we think," Brown said. "You wouldn't want to arm wrestle one, that's for sure. It would probably snap your arm off."

Since the discovery of the first female, a mostly complete skeleton, Brown's team has found parts of six or seven others that are mostly the same as the first one, Brown said.

"We have found about half of the remains of a 3-year-old that is half-a-meter tall," he said. "You could put its leg across an American $1 bill."

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The entire Homo floresiensis thing still scares me. I hope to god (pardon the pun) that this doesn't end up giving Creationists a 21st century version of Piltdown. It is comforting that there were more than the single fossil skeleton and that they were all tiny.

Why are we the 90-pound weaklings of the primate world? I generally assume that a lot of it has to do with our bloomin' big brain and social structure combining to put less selection pressure on being arm-rippingly strong, as well as providing a setting where there's less and less need/opportunities (in some circumstances) to reach our genetic potential?

How far back does this go? Is it mostly a H. sapiens thing?

I was under the impression that much of the strength of our ape cousins comes from the differences in muscle attachment points. Essentially, they've got better leverage.

This shouldn't apply to H. floriensis, so I'm puzzled, too. I thought, all else being equal, that muscle strength was a function of cross-section. Unless the hobbits were very differently proportioned, I just don't see how they'd be stronger than normal-sized modern humans.

I'm sure that it has to do with different selective pressures. There's not much benefit to humans having giant, muscular arms. Our legs, though, are much more developed than those of other primates. It just seems less impressive because you can't rip an arm off using your foot.


I'm guessing the site's just experienced a redesign? It looks terrbile for me, in both FireFox AND Internet Explorer, running Windows XP. Consider that together, that's about 95% of your audience, you should probably address that. (Or rather, whoever handles this sort of thing should address it).

In FireFox, the whole "footer" (about us, advertise, contact us, etc) is covering up the comments, while in Internet Explorer, it floats out over the left column, and forces the text to wrap very weirdly.

Just wanted to give you a heads up.


Apologies for the hiccup and thanks for the heads up - it was not an intended design change, rather a technical templating issue that's since been resolved. Thanks much, Hylton

If you want more muscles, I'd suggest exercise. My own high school cross country running performance experience suggests a factor of eight (8x) power improvement through workout over one summer. I had a repeat performance in my thirties when I decided to bike to work (9 miles each way) one summer. I never made it to Olympic quality. My point is that there is plenty of unused capacity.

Seven days without exercise makes a weak.

John, I don't think that anyone considers the possibility of hoax. The dispute has been about the first individual being a microcephalic modern human or not. I confess that this is one of the few subjects where I feel impatient, I don't want to wait, I just wished there were some massive efforts to solve this fast. And of course I hope they really were not modern humans (but alas science is not about wishful thinking).

Also, I'm divided. I really like to get info about the Hobbits, but I'd prefer people would not talk about unpublished stuff. But since it is on the news... Unfortunately I can't get the dailyemerald. Can someone tell me how did they find that the remains are from a three year old? Does that mean they have teeth? another skull?

Caio - I get what you are saying, and my point was not about it being a hoax but, rather, just something they could point to and say, "See? You thought it was further proof of evolution and it wasn't. It was just a modern human - like all other such fossils". They won't talk about the impossible to reconcile fossils like Austrolopithecus and Homo habilis, they'll talk about H. floresensis. It doesn't really matter - it just annoying and I hate giving them ammunition.

"just something they could point to and say, "See? You thought it was further proof of evolution and it wasn't."

Though, even at the time, most scientists thought Pildown was a problem. It didn't much touting as proof of evolution because it just didn't fit with the rest of what we'd been finding. In a certain sense, evolution had shown, before direct examination proved, that Piltdown was wrong.

By Mike Traynor (not verified) on 10 Feb 2006 #permalink

"Chimpanzees have an arm strength four times that of a human; the hobbits were similarly as strong, we think," Brown said. "You wouldn't want to arm wrestle one, that's for sure. It would probably snap your arm off."

Exactly why do they "think" this? Are there clues in the tiny limb anatomy?

By Jason Malloy (not verified) on 10 Feb 2006 #permalink

I always forget the way people from the USA are obsessed with creationism. And in fact this is not a religious problem. We still have a lot of people going after astrology and homeopathy. Believers won't change their ways even in the face of hard data.

The Hobbit is very interesting even if it turns out to be a modern human (I hope not). The oldest remains in the cave are pretty old and very small also. I just read the interview and it doesn't say much. They obviously have the leg bones, but there was no mention about cranial remains. How I envy the guys in that team.

I have been reading the comments on the size of the Hobbits. Has anyone considered the fact that even now we have the aboriginies of Australia and such? They are quite small and very strong for their size. Our current size is due to the change in diet (more and better food per person). Our relative weakness is due to the lack of need for strength. Trust me our pioneer ancestors of a generation or two ago were far stronger and more compact than we are now. BTW as I understand it you can determine age by bone structure and proportion as well as determining over all strength by attachment points (levers and pulleys, and size of attachments) as well as muscle size. IE; A child's legs are not the same proportion to the body as an adults.

By Anita Stoddard (not verified) on 11 Feb 2006 #permalink

Muscle strength is very roughly proportional to the size of the origins and insertions on the bones. The term "strength" is not a very specific one. In the case of the hobbits, it probably means that they have fairly large muscle attachments relative to their limb lengths. To develop the king of strength alluded to in this article, their bones would also have to relatively strong for their size. How are the bone dimensions and densities comparable to a H. sapiens when scaled up to our size?

One of the factors that will give an idea of brute strength is the limb length. "Power" lifting records are almost invariably set by lifters with short limbs (less distance to squat or bench press). In contrast, other measures of strength demand longer limb lengths (hammer and discus throw). The latter is what may be referred to when comparing human strength to that of other primates whose upper limbs are relatively longer and can therefore develop more leverage over larger arcs.

By Bill Schaffer (not verified) on 12 Feb 2006 #permalink

When suggesting a chimp has four time the strength of a human i guess you're thinkin about the average strength of a person of a certain size. in some strength-exercises i can perform at least four times better than the average joe. does this mean i have the strength (if not the fury) of a chimp? will a homo sapiens dedicated to bodybuilding and powerlifting achieve those enlarged and distinctive muscle attachments? could it be told just by looking at the skeleton thhat his favourite occupation was strength-exercises?

Most of a chimp's strength is in its arms. Most of our strength is in our legs and core. If you tried to arm wrestle a full grown chimp it would tear your arm off. But it is concievable to overpower a chimp by fast and relentless kicking and stomping, if you're a strong guy.