New book on the Flores hominid

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23 May 2007 ( – A book review on the latest book about the Flores Hominid, also nicknamed the Hobbit, written by Mike Morwood, one of the archaeologists who discovered the remarkable find in 2003.

The discovery of the Hobbit

The Discovery of the Hobbit – Mike Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzee

Long after homo sapiens invented art, porn and sailing, another kind of human scampered about in Indonesian forests.

We know this because a team led by one of the writers of this fascinating book, Australian archaeologist Mike Morwood, discovered the creature’s skeleton in 2003, in a cave on the remote island of Flores.

Since then, bones belonging to at least eight more individuals have been found, ranging in age from 95,000 to 12,000 years old. Our own species has been alive for at least 100,000 years, in case you were wondering.

This theory has not gone away, despite Morwood’s team finding more tiny individuals separated widely in time. He is not the only one to point out that it seems unlikely a race of imbeciles could survive so long on an island swarming with meat-eating lizards three times bigger than they were, although he needs to find another skull to prove his point.

A few of the proponents of the microcephalic theory have axes to grind and Jacob is accused, sensationally, of grabbing then damaging the hobbits’ bones. The fog of war has been compounded by Indonesian v Australian politico- cultural complexities and newspapers that have given equal time to every theory, whether it met the test of peer review or not.

This book is timely. It clarifies events which have been glossed over in other media, including damage done to the only extant hobbit skull, a jawbone and a pelvis. Although neither Morwood nor fellow writer Penny Van Oosterzee could be confused with Tolstoy, the book is intelligent, pacey and evocative.

Read the full review of The Discovery of the Hobbit here.

Some other books about the Flores hominid you might be interested in:
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

World Heritage status for Hobbit site?

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02 May 2007 (The Australian) – The discoverer of the Flores hominid is preparing to submit a proposal to list the Liang Bua cave, where the dimunitive hominid is found, as a World Heritage site due to the significance of the find. Personally, I think this might be too premature. While I am rooting for the hominid to be an entirely new species, the general consensus is that the jury is still out as to whether the Flores hominid represents and entirely new species. While the article’s main thrust is the nomination of LB1 as a World Heritage Site, one should also take note that the Soa Basin, located 40 km away from the cave is also proposed to be listed as a world heritage site, because of the presence of 900,000-year-old stone tools found there.

Heritage push for ‘hobbits’

THE cave where hobbit-like creatures were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores is so crucial to the study of human evolution it should be World Heritage-listed, leading prehistorians claim.

The international experts kick-started the process at a meeting last month in Mildura, near the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area where the 40,000- to 60,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man were discovered in 1974.

Representing some of the most famous human fossil sites in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe and Australia, as well as universities, Australian government authorities and private groups including the Getty Conservation Institute in California, the experts also called for listing of the Soa Basin of central Flores.

The basin is located about 40km from Liang Bua cave where the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, was discovered in 2003 by an Australian-Indonesian team.

An open-air site in the basin, Mata Menge, boasts 900,000-year-old stone tools associated with animal remains.

According to Mike Morwood, co-leader of the hobbit discovery team, the cave is especially significant because it contains the site where a totally new species of human was found.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Small skull, huge controversy


c. 23 April 2007 (Research|Penn State) Research|Penn State, an online magazine by the Pennsylvana State University has an interesting feature-length article on Dr Bob Eckhart, who leads the charge in debunking the Hobbit myth. While SEAArch has covered plenty in the news about homo floresiensis, this article presents an in-depth look at the arguments against the Hobbit theory and is worth a read for anyone following the story.

Small skull, huge controversy

In October 2004, while working in his lab, Bob Eckhardt heard a report on National Public Radio: A team of archaeologists had unearthed bones of a three-foot-tall humanlike creature on the island of Flores in Indonesia. Based on the shape and size of the skull and other skeletal remains, the archaeologists, led by Michael J. Morwood of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, claimed they had discovered a new species of human.

The diminutive biped had a cranium no larger than a chimpanzee’s, yet its bones had been found along with abundant stone tools. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal in the same stratum, along with luminescence dating of surrounding sediments, implied that the skeleton was only 18,000 years old. Considering other earlier archaeological finds on Flores, Morwood and his colleagues concluded that a new human species had evolved from a preceding population of Homo erectus that had been isolated for over 840,000 years on Flores, in the archipelago between Asia and Australia.

Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology in Penn State’s department of kinesiology, added it up. Three feet tall. A tiny brain. Complex stone tools. Evolved in complete isolation in 40,000 generations. He says: “It just didn’t ring true.”

Eckhardt read the scientific papers, published in the British journal Nature, setting forth the findings and conclusions of Morwood’s group. “A lot of things didn’t make sense,” he says. “For instance, the overall height seemed to be off. I took the long-bone measurements from the paper and plugged them into standard regression formulas.” Where Morwood and colleagues estimated an overall height of 1.06 meters for their specimen, Eckhardt came up with figures ranging from 1.15 to 1.33 meters, with an average of 1.25 meters—more than seven inches taller than Morwood’s estimate. Eckhardt also wondered about the proximity of the small cranium to sophisticated stone tools, including points, perforators, blades, and microblades. Over a century of research by anthropologists has established a rough correlation between an increasing brain size and advances in stone-tool technology. The kinds of tools described in the Nature article matched those made elsewhere by Homo sapiens. Says Eckhardt, “It seemed very unlikely that a human with a chimp-sized brain would have invented such tools independently and in total isolation.”

New evidence for Island Dwarfism with implications for Homo floresiensis

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18 April 2007 (Daily Telegraph and Biology Letters) – Thanks to Liz Price for flagging me to this piece of news, a new study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters demonstrates that primates conform to the theory of “Island Dwarfism”. Island Dwarfism describes the phenomenon that in areas where resources are limited (eg, islands), small animals become larger and large animals become smaller in a bid to be more efficient in gathering food. The study can be found in this week’s Biology Letters, which a subscription-based. The abstract is published here:

Primates follow the ‘island rule’: implications for interpreting Homo floresiensis
Lindell Bromham and Marcel Cardillo

When the diminutive skeleton of Homo floresiensis was found on the Indonesian island of Flores, it was interpreted as an island dwarf, conforming to the ‘island rule’ that large animals evolve smaller size on islands, but small animals tend to get larger. However, previous studies of the island rule have not included primates, so the extent to which insular primate populations undergo size change was unknown. We use a comparative database of 39 independently derived island endemic primate species and subspecies to demonstrate that primates do conform to the island rule: small-bodied primates tend to get larger on islands, and large-bodied primates get smaller. Furthermore, larger species undergo a proportionally greater reduction in size on islands.

The Daily Telegraph, which I assume has access to the article, expounds on the connection with Homo Floresiensis further and makes careful mention that the article does not imply the genus of our beloved hobbit, whether it was Homo sapiens or Homo erectus.

Hobbit hominids lived the island life

Lindell Bromham and Marcel Cardillo trawled through published journals and online databases to see how primates performed when subjected to the “island rule”.

True enough, small primate species (ones weighing less than 5kg) all pumped up compared to their mainland relatives – but all the larger primates became smaller, in a range of between 52 and 80 per cent.

That fits in well with H. floresiensis, who was around 55 per cent of the mass of a modern Indonesian and probably 52 percent of an H. erectus.

So the evidence backs the idea that the hobbits were an insular dwarf race – humans who became smaller, possibly after the island separated from the mainland and left them marooned with diminished food resources.

The authors refuse, though, to wade into the debate as to whether the hobbits were H. erectus or H. sapiens.

Also unclear is why the hominids had a relatively undersized brain compared to their diminutive body. A modern human child of the same size has a much larger brain, as do pygmies.

So the hobbits may well be products of their own environment, but the question as to what species they are remain unanswered for another day…

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

FSU anthropologist confirms 'Hobbit' indeed a separate species

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30 January 2007 (Eureka Alerts, BBC) – A new development in the Hobbit debate, paleoneurologist Dean Falk from Florida State University concluded that the Hobbit is indeed a new species, rather than a human with microcephaly. This conclusion was made by making comparisons of the brain casts between human, microcephalic and hobbit specimens.

BBC, 30 Jan 2007
Comparisons between a microcephalic (left) and the Hobbit (right)
(Image: Kirk E. Smith, Electronic Radiology Laboratory, Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology)

FSU anthropologist confirms ‘Hobbit’ indeed a separate species

After the skeletal remains of an 18,000-year-old, Hobbit-sized human were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, some scientists thought that the specimen must have been a pygmy or a microcephalic — a human with an abnormally small skull.

Not so, said Dean Falk, a world-renowned paleoneurologist and chair of Florida State University’s anthropology department, who along with an international team of experts created detailed maps of imprints left on the ancient hominid’s braincase and concluded that the so-called Hobbit was actually a new species closely related to Homo sapiens.

Now after further study, Falk is absolutely convinced that her team was right and that the species cataloged as LB1, Homo floresiensis, is definitely not a human born with microcephalia — a somewhat rare pathological condition that still occurs today. Usually the result of a double-recessive gene, the condition is characterized by a small head and accompanied by some mental retardation.

In this latest study, the researchers compared 3-D, computer-generated reconstructions of nine microcephalic modern human brains and 10 normal modern human brains. They found that certain shape features completely separate the two groups and that Hobbit classifies with normal humans rather than microcephalic humans in these features. In other ways, however, Hobbit’s brain is unique, which is consistent with its attribution to a new species.

Comparison of two areas in the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe and the back of the brain show the Hobbit brain is nothing like a microcephalic’s and is advanced in a way that is different from living humans. In fact, the LB1 brain was the “antithesis” of the microcephalic brain, according to Falk, a finding the researchers hope puts this part of the Hobbit controversy to rest.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Tiny bronze commands a giant price

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03 November 2006 (Sydney Morning Herald) – A feature on the Artsmart column about the National Gallery of Australia’s $4 million acquisition of The Bronze Weaver, a statuette dating from abut 600 AD. There is also an interesting mention on the provenance of the statuette.

Tiny bronze commands a giant price

The National Gallery of Australia made headlines last week – and astonished tribal art fans – by outlaying a seemingly unprecedented $4 million for an Indonesian artifact.

The gallery’s purchase is a small Indonesian bronze figure of a weaver suckling a baby. Dubbed The Bronze Weaver, it dates from circa 600 AD.

While San Francisco authority Thomas Murray is guarded about the provenance of The Bronze Weaver, an object he evidently knows well, it appears the bronze hasn’t spent all its life in the hands of Westerners and was owned and treasured by a family on Flores as late as the 1970s.

How such a precious item could have emerged soon afterwards in the collection of a European connoisseur – whence it was bought by the National Gallery of Australia – is something of a mystery.

It’s likely the Indonesian cultural authorities will be upset the figure didn’t end up in one of their state collections.

The Bronze Weaver was apparently examined and photographed by a Harvard associate professor of art and anthropology, Marie Jeanne Adams, who in a paper published in 1977 describes it as a “previously unreported figure of exceptional artistic and historical interest” that was revered by the family that owned it.

The paper includes a photo of The Bronze Weaver being cradled by a woman on Flores, probably its owner.

Related Books:
The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia (Cambridge World Archaeology) by C. Higham
The bronze-iron age of Indonesia (Verhandelingen van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde) by H. R. van Heekeren

Compelling evidence demonstrates that 'Hobbit' fossil does not represent a new species of hominiddence demonstrates that 'Hobbit' fossil does not represent a new species of hominid

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9 October 2006 (EurekAlert) – An upcoming article in the November edition of The Anatomical Record aims to definitively put the debate on the Flores Man to rest.

Compelling evidence demonstrates that ‘Hobbit’ fossil does not represent a new species of hominid

CHICAGO — What may well turn out to be the definitive work in a debate that has been raging in palaeoanthropology for two years will be published in the November 2006 issue of Anatomical Record.

The new research comprehensively and convincingly makes the case that the small skull discovered in Flores, Indonesia, in 2003 does not represent a new species of hominid, as was claimed in a study published in Nature in 2004. Instead, the skull is most likely that of a small-bodied modern human who suffered from a genetic condition known as microcephaly, which is characterized by a small head.

“It’s no accident that this supposedly new species of hominid was dubbed the ‘Hobbit;'” said Robert R. Martin, PhD, Curator of Biological Anthropology at the Field Museum and lead author of the paper. “It is simply fanciful to imagine that this fossil represents anything other than a modern human.” The new study is the most wide-ranging, multidisciplinary assessment of the problems associated with the interpretation of the 18,000-year-old Flores hominid yet to be published. The authors include experts on:

  • scaling effects of body size, notably with respect to the brain: Dr. Martin and Ann M. MacLarnon, PhD, School of Human & Life Sciences, Roehampton University in London;
  • clinical and genetic aspects of human microcephaly: William B. Dobyns, PhD, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago; and
  • stone tools: James Phillips, PhD, Departments of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Field Museum.

This is just one of four separate research teams that have recently published evidence indicating concluding that the Flores hominid is far more likely to be a small-bodied modern human suffering from a microcephaly than a new species derived from Homo erectus, as was claimed in the original Nature paper.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf?

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9 October 2006 (The Anatomical Record) – A new study in The Anatomical Record, the journal of American Association of Anatomists strongly suggests that the Flores Man is not a new species of human being, but in fact a Homo Sapiens with microcephaly. Abstract is printed below, subscription required for full access.

Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf?

The proposed new hominid Homo floresiensis is based on specimens from cave deposits on the Indonesian island Flores. The primary evidence, dated at 18,000 y, is a skull and partial skeleton of a very small but dentally adult individual (LB1). Incomplete specimens are attributed to eight additional individuals. Stone tools at the site are also attributed to H. floresiensis. The discoverers interpreted H. floresiensis as an insular dwarf derived from Homo erectus, but others see LB1 as a small-bodied microcephalic Homo sapiens. Study of virtual endocasts, including LB1 and a European microcephalic, purportedly excluded microcephaly, but reconsideration reveals several problems. The cranial capacity of LB1 ( 400 cc) is smaller than in any other known hominid < 3.5 Ma and is far too small to derive from Homo erectus by normal dwarfing. By contrast, some associated tools were generated with a prepared-core technique previously unknown for H. erectus, including bladelets otherwise associated exclusively with H. sapiens. The single European microcephalic skull used in comparing virtual endocasts was particularly unsuitable. The specimen was a cast, not the original skull (traced to Stuttgart), from a 10-year-old child with massive pathology. Moreover, the calotte does not fit well with the rest of the cast, probably being a later addition of unknown history. Consideration of various forms of human microcephaly and of two adult specimens indicates that LB1 could well be a microcephalic Homo sapiens. This is the most likely explanation for the incongruous association of a small-brained recent hominid with advanced stone tools.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

The Official Hobbit Article

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23 August 2006 (Proceedings from the National Academy of Science of the United States of America) – The article is finally out (and better yet, it’s on open access!) The article itself is extremely technical, so if you’re not that inclined, check out the related links for a list of summaries (including a new entry from Scientific American).

Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities

T. Jacob, E. Indriati, R. P. Soejono, K. Hsü, D. W. Frayer, R. B. Eckhardt, A. J. Kuperavage, A. Thorne, and M. Henneberg

Liang Bua 1 (LB1) exhibits marked craniofacial and postcranial asymmetries and other indicators of abnormal growth and development. Anomalies aside, 140 cranial features place LB1 within modern human ranges of variation, resembling Australomelanesian populations. Mandibular and dental features of LB1 and LB6/1 either show no substantial deviation from modern Homo sapiens or share features (receding chins and rotated premolars) with Rampasasa pygmies now living near Liang Bua Cave. We propose that LB1 is drawn from an earlier pygmy H. sapiens population but individually shows signs of a developmental abnormality, including microcephaly. Additional mandibular and postcranial remains from the site share small body size but not microcephaly.

Related Books:
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

Hobbit debate: 3 more articles

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21, 22 August 2006 (New York Times, National Geographic News, San Francisco Chronicle) – The hobbit debate seems to be picking up speed among the mainstream media with decent science pages. (Unfortunately, this rules out most of the papers in Southeast Asia). Not going to post excerpts here.

Report Reignites Feud Over ‘Little People of Flores’ – New York Times

“Hobbits” Were Pygmy Ancestors, Not New Species, Study Says – National Geographic News

Claims of ‘hobbit’ species face fresh scientific skepticism – San Francisco Chronicle

Related Books:
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