Middle Earth in Indonesia? Fossil Hobbits Smash Evolutionary Ring
Here we go again: another alleged human ancestor fossil that shakes up the evolutionary family tree. No sooner had Nature1 announced a little 1-meter tall fossil female “hominin” that the discoverers classified as Homo erectus, that the science news media like MSNBC and the BBC flew into action reporting it as “fossil hobbits” They seem to have all borrowed National Geographic’s artwork, which appeared so fast they must been tipped off. The drawing by Peter Schouten shows an upright-walking, naked, dark-skinned male with spear and prey over the shoulder.
The trouble with the fossil is that it was dated at only 18,000 years. The bones were soggy and unfossilized in the cave, and they were found on an island far from the Indonesian mainland, with stone tools apparently associated with them. Having a member of genus Homo so far to the East so late in the timeline is forcing a major revision of the idea that modern humans arrived in Europe much earlier. “My jaw dropped to my knees” said one researcher upon hearing the date. Homo erectus were long assumed too primitive to have migrated to an island as distant from the mainland as where the two partial skeletons were found. Yet surprisingly, local natives have legends about “little people” that lived in the jungle, and the BBC article says Henry Gee (editor of Nature) goes as far as to suggest that descendants of this tribe might be found alive today.
The small stature of these individuals was a big surprise. Skull capacity of Homo floresiensis, as it was named, is only 380cc – yet evidence of stone tools, upright posture and other “derived” (i.e., advanced) characteristics seemingly contradicts the suggestion these were primitive. Maybe it’s not brain volume but complexity that matters; after all, DNA can store 1018> bits of information in one cubic millimeter. “The whole idea that you need a particular brain size to do anything intelligent is completely blown away by this find,” remarked Henry Gee. Everyone seems to be agreeing on one thing: this astonishing find is going to rewrite the textbooks on human evolution – again.
Carl Wieland has written a creationist perspective on this find at Answers in Genesis.
Update 11/12/2004: Was so-called Homo florensiensis a small but modern human with a skull deformity called microcephaly? Michael Balter reported in Science3 that two prominent paleoanthropologists think so. Brad Harrub and Bert Thompson published an article on Apologetics Press that quotes one of them, and argues this skeleton cannot be anything but fully human. Balter, for now, leaves the controversy unresolved.
1Rex Dalton, “Little lady of Flores forces rethinking of human evolution,” Nature 431, 1029 (28 October 2004); doi:10.1038/4311029a.
2Mirazon and Foley, “Paleoanthropology: Human evolution writ small,” Nature 431, 1043 – 1044 (28 October 2004); doi:10.1038/4311043a.
3Michael Balter, “Paleoanthropology: Skeptics Question Whether Flores Hominid Is a New Species,” Science, Vol 306, Issue 5699, 1116, 12 November 2004, [DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5699.1116a].
People don’t have to be 5 to 6 feet tall to be people. There are little people and big people today, yet they show an uncanny commonality in average intelligence, sociability, language, and understanding that Francis Schaeffer used to call the “mannishness of man” (i.e., the set of universal distinctives that separate people from the animals). Calling something a “hominid” or “hominin” is just a word game to make scientists appear to know more than gullible reporters. Nothing primitive or transitional about these creatures was found; they have all the marks of full humanity.
National Geographic and its allies in the news media should be excoriated for the racist artwork they published. With only bones to draw from, they made Mr. Floresiensis have a protruded chimp-like jaw, an ape-like squat nose, and black skin. Everything else about the drawing looks fully human, including the proportion of skull size to body size, musculature, walking posture and hunting skill. Any black person, any respecter of black persons, should be outraged not only at the racist overtones of the picture, but the evolutionary spin put on the data.
Evolutionary paleoanthropology was in such a complete upheaval of confusion already, what’s another skeleton going to hurt? It’s just making the rubble of evolutionary storytelling bounce at this point. The only progress to be hoped for is that they will start calling themselves creationists (see 09/23/2004 headline).