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The hobbits 17 April, 2011

Posted by Simon Nickerson in Uncategorized.
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Here’s a scientific controversy that’s been out of the spotlight for a little while – the so-called ‘hobbit’ skeletons found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. These human-like remains, found in 2003 and announced to the world in 2004, were from creatures just one metre high, and were relatively modern – just 12,000 years old.

When researchers made the discovery, they claimed that this was a new species which they called Homo floresiensis. This kicked off a controversy that received a lot of coverage in the press.

Did they really belong to previously unknown species in our family tree, or were they just a group of early humans that suffered from a medical condition (microcephaly being the prime suspect) that made them so small?

That debate has continued ever since, although it has faded from public view recently as further finds from the cave indicate that the hobbits probably were a separate species.

In a strange twist to the story, Teuku Jacob, a prominent Indonesian paleoanthropologist, removed most of the hobbit remains from the lab where they were stored in late 2004. Jacob conducted his own analysis of the remains and returned them a few months later, but they had suffered some damage while in his care. Jacob did not believe that the remains were a new species, so when the Indonesian government blocked access to the cave in 2005, some believed that it was in order to prevent excavations that might prove him wrong. The government allowed work to resume in the cave in 2007.

A recent development was the announcement that researchers at the University of Adelaide are going to attempt (for a second time) to extract DNA from one the hobbit’s teeth. By far the most interesting part of that link to the story in Nature is in the Comments section, where Maciej Henneberg, also from the University of Adelaide and a well-known opponent of the hobbit-as-a-separate-species idea, attacks the techniques and accomplishments of the lead scientist attempting the DNA analysis.

So what happens next? If the DNA testing is successful (which seems like a longshot), that should clarify things. If it’s not, the discovery of further remains from Flores seems like the best way to resolve the controversy.

One of the most interesting things about the controversy is that the stakes aren’t as high as the media coverage would have you believe. Even if the hobbits are a new species, that doesn’t cause a major rewrite of the human evolutionary story – it’s just an interesting little branch that wasn’t known before. Ralph Holloway from Columbia University, who hasn’t fully committed to either side in this debate, has been quoted as saying “I think it’s sort of a side issue.” It seems like the public’s fascination with the story have driven the level of acrimony in the scientific debate to heights that it wouldn’t reach otherwise.

Further reading:

John Hawks (Anthropologist who maintains an excellent blog)

What is the Hobbit? (2006 review article in PLoS Biology)