Newsweek on the Hobbit

Newsweek magazine features an interview with Matthew Tocheri, one of the investigators behind the Hobbit wrist study.

20 September 2007 (Newsweek) – Newsweek magazine features an interview with Matthew Tocheri, one of the investigators behind the Hobbit wrist study.

‘Tip of the Iceberg’
A new study of a skeleton of a member of a race of three-foot-tall ‘hobbits’ who lived 12,000 years ago in Indonesia shows that they were a species of human—and that the evolutionary path to Homo sapiens has been tortuous indeed.
by Jessica Bennett

It was an astonishing discovery: the skeletal remains of a new human species that lived for eons on a remote island while man colonized the rest of the planet. Back when it was first discovered in 2003, on the tiny Indonesian island of Flores, the three-foot-tall adult female skeleton was dubbed “the hobbit,” because she—and the 11 other skeletal remains that were found like her—bore more of a resemblance to the Tolkien fantasy characters than to modern humans. The hobbit’s discovery presented evidence that as recently as 12,000 years ago another species of human may have roamed the earth and, more startling, that our evolutionary history was a lot more complex than previously thought. Many scientists were more skeptical—the bones, they said, most likely belonged to a diminutive human with physical defects: a freak.

The skeptics, however, were wrong. According to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science, the hobbit species, Homo floresiensis, or Flores Man, was indeed a new human species—an offshoot of an earlier human ancestor from Africa that somehow reached Flores and likely survived by hunting pygmy elephants and dodging Komodo dragons. The key was an analysis of the skeleton’s wrist. Matthew Tocheri, a postdoctoral anthropology fellow at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, says the hobbit bones are primitive; the wrist bones are shaped differently from those of humans and Neanderthals—and thus represent a human lineage that appeared before the modern wrist evolved, with Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Tocheri, who has been studying wrists since 2001 and began looking at the hobbit’s wrist bones last November, spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jessica Bennett. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What’s different about what was published back in 2004 and what you’re publishing now?
Matthew Tocheri: In 2004, when the initial reports came out, not everything had been analyzed, and they mainly focused on the skull, because that’s what’s generally most preserved in the fossil record. The reason this paper is catching such a storm is because it’s basically coming out of left field. The main hobbit specimen has three wrist bones preserved, and the results are quite clear. Within our human, great-ape family tree, we’ve got two very different types of wrists: those of humans and those of living African apes, like chimps and bonobos and gorillas. And the hobbit wrist looks just like that of the African apes.

What does this say about human evolution?
It smashes the long-cherished scientific belief that our species, Homo sapiens, has had the earth to ourselves for tens of thousands of years. It makes us realize how much more complicated our recent evolutionary history is. Before the hobbit was found, we thought that for the last 30,000 years or so we’ve been alone in the world, and that all the other earlier hominid forms that we see in the fossil record between 1 and 3 million years ago had died out. Now we know that not all of those lineages went extinct prior to 1 million years ago, and some lived all the way up to the present time.

Does it also raise even more questions about where we come from?
It doesn’t necessarily raise questions about where we come from, but it does raise many questions about where the hobbits came from. When did the hobbit’s ancestors leave Africa? How did they get all the way to Southeast Asia, and when? It looks as if this could be just the tip of the iceberg, which makes it such an exciting discovery for science. It tells us that, hey, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

What about the argument that there could be a pathological explanation to all of this?
Pathology cannot adequately explain why the shape of the hobbit’s [wrist] is just like what we’ve seen in Australopithecus, early species of Homo, and African apes. The characteristic shapes of wrist bones develop during the first trimester [of gestation], well before genes that cause growth disorders and other skeletal defects begin to express themselves. Therefore, pathology cannot explain, for example, why the hobbit’s wrist is indistinguishable from that of a normal chimpanzee.

But there are still skeptics, no?
In this debate most people have sat somewhere in the middle, waiting for more evidence. I think what this paper does is convince all those who were undecided, people who are allowing the evidence to help make up their minds, that this is really a primitive species of human and not a modern human with some form of pathology.

What was your involvement back when the hobbit was first discovered in 2003?
None at all. I was an innocent bystander until about a year ago, when by accident these wrist bones basically ended up in the same room I was in. At that point I hadn’t made up my mind about anything. But even without knowing what I now know, if you had shown me these wrists without any other contextual information, I’d have said it is the wrist of a small African ape or fossil hominin. They don’t look anything like what the bones look like in modern humans.

Flores Man’s grapefruit-size brain was two-thirds smaller than ours, a size at one time thought too small for sophisticated thought. But evidence suggests that the creatures made stone tools, tended fires and organized hunts. If that’s true, would it overturn scientific axioms about the relationship of brain size to intelligence?
There’s never been a skull that small in the genus Homo. It’s basically equivalent to a chimp or Australopithecine [an apelike hominin closely related to humans]. And that small brain size creates a problem, because we thought that once the brain size started getting big, all the other hominin species with smaller brains went extinct. But these hobbits not only made it out of Africa but across Asia to a small, remote Indonesian island. How they did it and when they did it—these are questions we now have to solve. But it definitely tells us that big brains may not be everything about the story. All the parts of the skeletal anatomy need to be explored.

What does this discovery say about Africa holding or not holding the answers to how and where we came to be? Could there be other types of people who lived?
Africa is still the most likely place of our ancestry, but that doesn’t mean that different types of hominins didn’t get out of Africa earlier than we previously thought. We’ve always known that there are other types of hominins, but the hobbits tell us that there are other types that have lived almost up until today. So all of a sudden certain places that may not have been interesting [for excavation] because their sediments weren’t old enough, now are. Hobbits are opening up a whole lot of doors, telling us that the next 50 years or so are going to be very exciting in human origins research. Is it going to make the picture complicated? Yes. But it’s going to result in good science in the long run, and it’s going to be tremendously exciting.

So what’s the next step?
To do more excavations on Flores and the islands surrounding it, as well as more detailed analyses on the fossils we have. We’ve got a whole lot of looking and studying to do.

Books about homo floresiensis:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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