Hobbit Man, Neanderthal Man Further Scrutinized
The positions of two alleged human ancestors in the family tree is becoming clearer, or murkier, depending on whom you ask. This illustrates the uncertainty and disparity of opinions in this field.
- Hobbit workshop: Regarding the diminutive skeletons dubbed Homo floresiensis found in Indonesia, opinions seems to be condensing around the idea they were true Homo sapiens, not missing links. Bruce Bower reported in Science News (162:22:141, June 3), summarizing a paper by Adam Brumm et al. in Nature last week,1 that stone tools found elsewhere on the island of Flores appear to match those in the Liang Bua cave where H. floresiensis was discovered. But these artifacts are dated at up to 840,000 years old, whereas the bones of Hobbit Man are thought to be much more recent (estimated 74,000 to 12,000 years), within the time frame when true Homo sapiens are believed to have inhabited the island. This raises several questions:
- Can we trust the dates? Bower quotes James L. Phillips (Field Museum, Chicago) calling the idea “beyond belief” that the tools at the other site are connected culturally with H. floresiensis. He says, “Mata Menge artifacts lay in unstable river sediment that moved over time, making it impossible to obtain accurate age estimates, Phillips holds.”
- Can we measure brain power from bones? The stone toolwork, apparently unique to Flores, displays humanlike technology. “The latest Flores finds show that the diminutive islanders, with their craniums the size of chimps’, possessed enough brainpower to parlay cultural traditions into effective toolmaking,” Bowers writes.
- Can we know the toolmakers? Though 3,626 artifacts have been excavated in the cave hideout of Hobbit man, “I don’t think we can rule out Homo sapiens as the [maker] of the Liang Bua tools,” John Shea (State U of New York) said.
- Can we assume cross-cultural connections? According to Bower, Dietrich Stout (University College, London) remarked that “It’s hard to know whether a single Stone Age culture connected residents of Mata Menge to Liang Bua’s inhabitants or whether separate hominid populations happened to exploit similar, basic toolmaking techniques.”
Indeed, it appears hard to know anything at all about this population. Since the dates of H. floresiensis are too recent to consider them missing links or derivatives of Homo erectus, a minority of scientists still contend the specimens are examples of modern humans with microcephalic disorder (see Science 19 May, 2006). An article on BBC News mentions the puzzle of the hundreds of thousands of years alleged between Mata Menge and Liang Bua; “We can’t guarantee that this material really is related because of the large time gap,” Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, UK, commented.
- Neanderthal genes: European scientists reporting in Current Biology2 sequenced another strand of Neanderthal DNA in hopes of shedding light on whether Neanderthals and modern humans interbred (see 05/22/2006). In short, they reported that there is still a distinction between the DNA of the two groups, but that Neanderthal genetic diversity has been underestimated, and is comparable to modern human genetic diversity. They could not discern if the diversity was due to cohabitation, climactic changes, or subdivisions of populations; “Thus, more Neandertal sequences than the six presently available and longer than 100 bp [base-pairs] are needed to fully understand the extent of the past diversity of Neandertals.”
No firm conclusions here, either, but that has not stopped Steven Mithen (U. of Reading, UK) from writing a whole book speculating that Neanderthals were the first musicians (see Reuters story on MSNBC.com). The storytelling goes on: “It was a dark and stormy night, and in a cave in what is now southern France, Neanderthals were singing, dancing and tapping on stalagmites with their fingernails to pass the time.”
1Adam Brumm et al., “Early stone technology on Flores and its implications for Homo floresiensis,” Nature 441, 624-628 (1 June 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04618.
2Orlando et al., “Revisiting Neandertal diversity with a 100,000 year old mtDNA sequence,” Current Biology, Volume 16, Issue 11, June 2006, pages R400-R402, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.05.019.
The MSNBC story about Neanderthal music continues by asking whether such a cave concert might have actually happened, or is a figment of Mithen’s imagination. The answer is: the latter.
In neither story are data definitive enough to draw conclusions. In the case of Hobbit man, they cannot be sure which tools are associated with which population, who is related to whom, how old they are, how long they were there, and what their capabilities were. It seems incredible to expect a simple stone-tool technology to persist on one island for over 800,000 years without change. And making inferences about intelligence based on brain size is fraught with fallacies; consider how capable a hummingbird is with a brain the size of a grain of rice (see next story).
None of these reports contradict the creationist position that humans have always been humans and had their intellectual and artistic abilities from day one, or shall we say, Day Six. According to the Bible, Adam’s great grandchildren were already accomplished farmers, metallurgists and musicians (see Genesis 4), having invented these skills from scratch using their God-given abilities, without hundreds of thousands of years of mutations and natural selection. Do you need a model that fits the evidence? Put this score on your music stand and play it. (More harmony, less cacophony.)