Are Hobbits Human?
Two of the most mysterious hominin fossils are in the news again, and opinions are flying every direction.
Are the little people of Indonesia and South Africa just small versions of us? Wherever they came from, and whatever they were doing in the caves in which they were found, they don’t fit evolutionary expectations.
The Hobbits: Homo floresiensis
Whenever you see an overconfident headline like Science Daily‘s “Origins of Indonesian Hobbits finally revealed“, you know some press department is trying to promote one of their university’s researchers. This one is from Australian National University, and the researcher is Dr. Debbie Argue.
The most comprehensive study on the bones of Homo floresiensis, a species of tiny human discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, has found that they most likely evolved from an ancestor in Africa and not from Homo erectus as has been widely believed.
Don’t be too sure about that. Darren Curnoe at The Conversation is less cocky; “The Hobbit hits the headlines again, but is the mystery of its origins really solved?” He recounts the history of the mystery, showing this creature doesn’t fit the neat evolutionary expectations. It’s a mosaic of features, some very human-like, some not so. He thinks Dr. Argue’s study was done well, but is less confident of the conclusions: “there will always be uncertainty with these kinds of studies, and with the Hobbit in particular,” he says. He knows of one study that agreed with Argue’s, but another that concluded the Hobbit is a dwarf version of Homo erectus, a fire-making, tool-using, not-so-primitive version of Homo.
Implication? The Hobbit isn’t a new species at all, but just a dwarfed version of Homo erectus. But I think it’s too soon to jettison the name Homo floresiensis just yet. For a start, only Argue’s study has accounted for the Hobbit’s weird limb bones, and these must surely weigh heavily on any decision we make about how to classify it?
For me, the Hobbit continues to be best understood as a very primitive member of Homo, with all of the implications this brings for us. And wow! What implications they are!
Alice Roberts, also writing for The Conversation, argues with Dr. Argue that the Hobbit is not Homo erectus. Alice Klein on New Scientist concurs [Note: do not trust the artist’s portrayal; no soft parts exist on bones]. But if they are right, this creature had to have migrated out of Africa separately long before Homo erectus did (in the evolutionary confabulation). Roberts ends by admitting that nobody knows the answers, and whatever they are, they are not helping evolution:
But can we really infer such an early, out-of-Africa migration on the basis of a handful of bones from one site in Indonesia? For many palaeoanthropologists, that’s a step too far. But it’s hard to know how else you can explain the presence of something so ancient looking on Flores. Brown knew he was looking at something strange, something that would challenge our ideas about human evolution, as soon as he laid eyes on that first skull from Liang Bua Cave.
And he was right…
Berger Flips Critics on Homo naledi
Light could be shed on the Hobbit by looking at another miniature hominin that burst on the news in 2015. When Lee Berger announced hominin fossils brought out of a very tight cave chamber in South Africa, the paleoanthropology world didn’t know what to think. They still don’t. Was it human? Was it a missing link? Like the Hobbit, it seemed to have had a mosaic of features.
Now, New Scientist reports a new implication from detailed scans of the creature’s skull: “Mystery human species Homo naledi had tiny but advanced brain.” Advanced brain? We modern humans can relate to that. Would an advanced brain, with possible capabilities of speech and cooperative behavior, exist in a pre-human?
It’s not the size of your brain, it’s how you organise it. The most recently discovered species of early human had a skull only slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s, but its brain looked surprisingly like our own – particularly in an area of the frontal lobe with links to language.
This could back suggestions that these mysterious early humans showed advanced behaviours, such as teamwork and burial, even though we still don’t know exactly when they lived.
Anthropologists should have buried the notion that brain size alone tells you much about intelligence. Paleoanthropology has a dark history of ranking humans based on brain capacity. Besides, is a smartphone less intelligent than a desktop PC? We know that crows and honeybees accomplish remarkable feats with much smaller brains than mammals.
The face of H. naledi looks too sloped to be human, but the brain case is comparatively large for its dimensions. How much can one infer from this unexpected composite? Colin Barras continues,
The first official scientific reports were published in 2015, and they painted a confusing picture. The bones belonged to a never-before-seen early human, which was named Homo naledi.
It had a peculiar mix of anatomical features, which is part of what makes it hard to tell when the species lived. But what really set tongues wagging was the suggestion by Berger and his colleagues that H. naledi had deliberately disposed of its dead in this deep, dark, difficult-to-reach cave chamber full of remains.
Scientists at a meeting last week batted around ideas. Some argued that brain areas measured by skull casts indicate that the creatures had language and social skills. Others doubted the claims. One, however, felt that the work “supports the idea that parts of the brain became modern in their configuration before they grew large.” And team member John Hawks remarked, “You look at the naledi cast and you think – holy [&$!@] this is just a tiny human.”
You look at the naledi cast and you think – holy [&$!@] this is just a tiny human.
Until researchers decide on a date for the find, secular scientists will continue to debate the significance of Homo naledi. Perhaps both the Indonesian and the South African specimens might just show that there is power in miniaturization.
Update 4/26/17: Creationist Todd Wood, who takes a keen interest in the latest human-evolution stories, especially the recent finds in South Africa, wrote his first installment about the news on April 25. Without firm published dates, he is holding back on interpretation. This first blog entry mostly concerns open publishing.
New dating evidence places the species in a time period where Homo naledi could have overlapped with early examples of our own kind, Homo sapiens.
Update 4/27/17: News is coming out of a projected date for the bones at 200,000 to 300,000 years, which would be too recent for them to be an evolutionary link. “Primitive human ‘lived much more recently’,” writes Paul Rincon at the BBC News. “New dating evidence places the species in a time period where Homo naledi could have overlapped with early examples of our own kind, Homo sapiens.” At New Scientist, Colin Barras adds to the troubles for paleoanthropology. To keep H. naledi as an evolutionary ancestor, they have to believe it survived unchanged for hundreds of thousands of years while other versions of Homo were making great strides. And, “Conceivably, H. naledi might even have met early members of our species, H. sapiens.” What would you think if you saw one of these little people? Would you be a racist? “One could even speculate we had something to do with it going extinct.” To maintain the evolutionary sequence and long ages, paleoanthropologists like Chris Stringer are starting a narrative that pre-moderns are relict species, escaping evolution while the world around them changed. He draws a parallel with the Hobbits of Indonesia, but then has second thoughts: “There are obvious parallels with the late survival of H. floresiensis in Indonesia, but in that case island isolation probably accounts for its longevity,” says Stringer. “How did a comparably strange and small-brained species linger on in southern Africa, seemingly alongside more ‘advanced’ humans?”
So what are creationists to make of these bones? I think first of all, they should point out that every new discovery messes up the evolutionary confabulation, even if one were to accept the long ages of the moyboys. As we have reported for 16 years now, we get the tale “Everything you know is wrong!” about once a year from these guys. There’s not a consistent evolutionary story when you have independent teams all looking for their time in the limelight, showing their bones as the Biggest Thing Yet. And we should never forget that even former Nature editor Henry Gee remarked that the “march of man” icon of evolution is false, and everyone knows it’s false.
That levels the playing field (i.e., everyone has problems and questions), but creationists need to deal with the brute facts of these bones, too. Are these extinct upright-walking apes? Not if they used tools, buried their dead, and migrated long distances; those are human traits. Why are they so small and strange-looking, then? Could such extreme changes have occurred in a short time after the Flood? I ask, why not? Look at the extreme diversity of living humans. Our timeline is not as long, but after the Flood centuries went by; thousands of years. A lot can happen in a century. Humans like to explore. How long would it take a tribe to cross land bridges during the Ice Age, set up camps, and accentuate their traits by inbreeding? If you took the largest humans and kept them together on one continent, and the smallest on another continent, and they bred within their own small groups, the differences would easily become so extreme within a few generations that we would consider them different species by their bones, if that’s all we had. What strikes me as the very most implausible story of all is to think that intelligent humans would just sit in caves for hundreds of thousands of years doing nothing.
Simon Worrall opines in a book review for National Geographic that creativity drove human evolution.
What makes us human? Is war an inevitable part of the human condition? These are some of the questions that anthropologist Augustín Fuentes explores in his new book, The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional. Harnessing the latest findings in evolution, biology, and archaeology he creates a new synthesis to show that the great drivers of human progress have been creativity and cooperation, and that many of the things we believe about ourselves, from religion to race, are wrong.
Stop right there. Why would you trust anything else Worrall or Fuentes say? It’s another example of “Everything you know is wrong!” So now they’re going to tell us what is right? Baloney. Our mistake is to even listen to these know-nothings, especially as leftist Worrall takes potshots at Donald Trump in the next paragraph. If they can’t figure out a man they can observe, how on earth can they figure out where humans came from, and what makes us human? Then leftist-lib Fuentes goes off on other tangents, promoting LGBT, criticizing monogamy, and speaking on other matters this admitted know-nothing knows nothing about. These are the people who tell us about evolution. Everything is backwards! They confuse cause with effect. Creativity didn’t drive human evolution; creativity is a manifestation of our shared humanity. The only thing creativity drove about evolution is the creative storytelling of those who teach it.