The Human Hobbit

The Human Hobbit

BBC Horizon
BBC Horizon

The Discovery

On the island of Flores, in the Indonesian archipelago 375 miles east of Java, an amazing thing happened. A team of Australian archaeologists - led by Peter Brown, Mike Morwood, and Bert Roberts - stumbled on a 10,000 year old skeleton. At only 3 feet tall, they assumed they had found the skeleton of a young girl. But the evidence - worn teeth, wisdom teeth erupted - told quite a different story. They had discovered one of the smallest human adults ever found. It was hailed as the scientific sensation of the century.

As the excavation continued, things became stranger still: elephants the size of cows, rats the size of dogs, lizards the size of crocodiles. Everything small was large, everything large was small, as though they had stepped into some Sir Arthur Conan Doyle topsy-turvy Lost World.

Furthermore, the dates didn't make sense. 18,000 years ago, the modern Homo Sapien was supposed to be the only human species left on the planet. If not a modern human being then what? This question became a piece of the evolution puzzle, and the challenge was determining where the piece of the puzzle fit.

Actual Hobbit Skull

Comparison with Human Skull
Comparison with Human Skull

The Investigation

The remains were compared to possible ancestors. One by one, they all were eliminated. The skull most closely resembled Homo Erectus, but was only half his height. Most perplexing was evidence of sophisticated tools, weapons, and remains of a roasted pygmy elephant, implying hunting skills, teamwork, and possibly language, all of which set it far apart from other human species of the era.

They believed they had found a new species of human. They called her the Hobbit. But the mystery deepened. Despite signs of intelligence, the brain was smaller that a chimpanzee's. Everything challenged what we knew about humans. If she was a new species, we could throw everything else out with the prelapsarian bathwater.

Homo floresiensis

Artists Rendering
Artists Rendering

The Debate

Naturally, there was skepticism and resistance among scientists. University of Illinois stone tool specialist, Professor Jim Phillips, opined that "the stones [don't] fit the bones." He further argued that the tools were of a "modern human," and far more sophisticated than anything ever found from that time period. Professor Bob Martin, Field Museum of Chicago, posited that the brain was "worryingly small," and Professor Ann MacLarnon, University of Roehampton, London, called the specimen "a very odd fossil, particularly the size of the brain."

The discovery team counter-claimed that evolution on a remote island does not follow conventional wisdom. That is how, over thousands of years, a Homo Erectus became a small-bodied, small-brained Hobbit. Professor Martin disputes this, quipping, "Humans have lived on many islands without shrinking."

Liang Bua Cave

The Team at the Cave Entrance
The Team at the Cave Entrance

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Professor MacLarnon had a theory, and located a specimen known to have suffered from microcephaly, which can cause dwarfism, a small brain, and facial deformities which can easily be mistaken for primitive features. She then located the brain of a modern human known to have suffered from the disease and compared it to the Hobbit's brain. They were almost exactly the same. Perhaps, Professor MacLarnon propounded, the Hobbit was simply a specimen that had suffered from microcephaly. The skeptics pounced on this theory, agreeing that it fit the facts much better: Occam's razor realized.

The discovering team was nearly mortified. Their incredible find - one which would completely alter our understanding of the human species - was dissolving before their eyes, morphing into an embarrassment, a scientific joke. The team quickly returned to Flores to search for new evidence as the Hobbit war dragged on. Another set of bones was unearthed, examined, compared. They were the same. It would be against staggering odds for two individuals to be struck by microcephaly. Soon, bones from another seven individuals were unearthed. It seemed that she was a new species and was named Homo Floresiensis. But in science, things are not always as they seem.

Full Body Rendering
Full Body Rendering

The Beat Goes On...and On

New research from the Proceedings of the Royal Society B loudly proclaimed that "Homo floresiensis was nothing more than a population of Homo Sapiens that were endemic cretins"- (anthropology.net, March 5, 2008). Cretinism - a medical condition that affects growth because the thyroid gland isn't working properly - is brought on by an iodine deficiency.

Many believe the research in this paper was fatally flawed. For one, fish is iodine-rich, and unearthed remains show that fish were cooked at the same time H. floresiensis inhabited the caves. Furthermore, the authors cite the double-rooted lower pre-molar as evidence, but, without the actual bones, used a screenshot from the BBC documentary, Mystery of the Human Hobbit (BBC Horizon, 2005). Hardly perfect science.

"No way, Jose," says Dean Falk of Florida State University, responding to the latest charges. He is a leading expert on brain evolution and performed CT scans on the bones (sciencenow.sciencemag.org).

Team leader Mike Morwood - perhaps weary of the arguments - states, "There's a long history in this discipline of being incredibly conservative, of people with vested interests trying to defend (those interests), even against the overwhelming body of evidence..."(abc.net.au). And that is just the beginning. There is so much back and forthing that it has become tiresome to many, and feels more like a debate of egos than really figuring out human evolution.

The Conclusion - Or Is It?

But anthropology is a cruel mistress and sometimes asks more questions than she answers. As the debate continues the scientists are left scratching their egg heads. The team is going to dig deeper, literally, but it will take years - perhaps decades - before we know who the small-bodied, small-brained Hobbit truly was.

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Comments 36 comments

pgrundy 8 years ago

I saw a show about this on Discovery or TLC or one of those 'educational' channels. It was pretty interesting. I know that when species are confined to an island natural selection can speed up in weird ways--that was one point made in the TV show. Great hub, thanks for writing about it.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thanks for the comment pgrundy. It may have been the BBC documentary referred to in the article, which seemed to infer that it was a "done deal". What surprised me was the arguments that continue on -- how scientists got into all these hissy fights like kids on a playground. Thanks again for taking the time to comment. I like your stuff, too!


ProCW profile image

ProCW 8 years ago from South Carolina

I LOVE to watch educational television shows on Disc., Hist., Sci., etcetera and have seen shows about hobbits on there as well. You've done a great job encapsulating the hobbit in a hub! Hopefully many will discover your hub and the history/science of the hobbits contained within! :)

ProCW (thumbs UP!)


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thanks, ProCW. I think it is a very interesting story and wanted to get it down on paper. Thanks for the positive review!


Cailin Gallagher profile image

Cailin Gallagher 8 years ago from New England

Very well-written and researched article.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thank you, Cailin.


jim10 profile image

jim10 8 years ago from ma

I read about this a while back. Thanks for all of the updated info. I never realized that they also found a pygmy elephants and giant lizards. I wish they could find some of these creatures still on the island. A lot of creatures in old stories passed on for generations seem to have real origins. Maybe they found dinosaur bones or different animals evolved. I would bet that at some point humans had come in contact with these "hobbits".


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thanks, Jim 10. I appreciate your comment


Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda Severn 8 years ago from UK

Great Hub Christoph. I love the fact that we're still unearthing mysteries from the ground. If you read the history books, it's easy to imagine that everything is a done deal, but actually there is so much more to learn, and a vast amount that will just remain, undisturbed, dreaming beneath our feet.


sixtyorso profile image

sixtyorso 8 years ago from South Africa

Interesting hub. i also saw the Discovery documentary. It seems palentology evokes more passion than religion or politics. "handbags at 10 paces". There has also been a lot of fraud. Piltdown man in the UK was one well researched fraud perpetrated on the Paleontologists!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Amanda Severn: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it's amazing that our history still unfurls before us. Just when we think we know it all...

sixtyorso: Great to see you. That palentology passion that you mention really facinated me. I was unaware of the Piltdown man fraud. It's true, the paleontologists have to be damn sure before something is put forward as truth, but in the case of the Hobbit, it seems like it's more like jealosy. Thanks for writing!


sixtyorso profile image

sixtyorso 8 years ago from South Africa

Christoph I think Jealousy plays a large role in Paleontology. I read a few books about the early man discoveries and I think Leaky (and son) are interesting characters along that vein.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Yes, it can be a facinating subject. Thanks for the message, sixtyorso.


Marian Swift profile image

Marian Swift 8 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

This is the best overview of the Hobbit I've seen thus far. A great glimpse at scientific politics as well. Thanks for the great read!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Marian: Thanks for reading this and your kind comment. It's the first piece I published on hubpages, and it doesn't get a whole lot of traffic. It's nice to have a friend read it. Thank you!


dafla 8 years ago

I get angry at scientists, especially antropologists and paleontologist. They are the most narrow minded people in the world. Just because something doesn't fit into their previous view of evolution, they refuse to believe it. Amazing that people so educated can be so stupid.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Dafla: It's true. On top of that, they are a jealous lot. They don't want anyone else discovering something and getting all the attention. Thanks for reading this article. It's the first I wrote here on hubpages and I like it when someone takes the time to read it. Thank you also for leaving a comment. I appreciate it.


agvulpes profile image

agvulpes 8 years ago from Australia

I,m all confused on where I spoke to you about Gimp so I came here.

I think I have an answer but its a bit involved so I feel its better to do it by email rather than clog up comments? If thats ok contact me thru my profile email and I'll get back to you. 

cheers buddy 

peter

read and self destuct in 30 seconds


Shalini Kagal profile image

Shalini Kagal 8 years ago from India

Hi Christoph - thanks for a great read! You might find this interesting:

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2005/04/29/...

I've seen the pygmies in the Andamans and they really do seem like they are from another age and time.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Agvulpes: It was on one of Spryte's hubs. Yes! I'll drop you an email and explain more thouroghly. Thanks for your help!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 8 years ago from St. Louis Author

Shalini: Thanks for coming by and thanks for the link. I'll check it out! You've seen pygnies? Sounds like you've had some exotic travels! Thanks again!


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 7 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

Looking through your list of Hubs, I realized I hadn't read this one, your first. Of course, this essay is thorough and entertaining, just as all those that followed. But what I find so interesting are the comments. Then, you were testing the waters; now, you just jump in without hesitation and with so much of your intriguing personality shining. I am so glad to have come to know you here on HP.

Your loyal fan, Sally.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

Sally:  Thanks for reading this old chestnut. How you know it's my first, I am not sure.  Your observation about my comments is interesting and insightful.  I know what you are talking about, but I'll have to come back to read them later.

Interestingly, this article is serendipitous to me, since it brought me to hubpages.  I wrote it for another site, where there are editors and they reject things and force rewrites, etc., etc. Everything has to be done a certain way and they are strict about it.  After this one was rejected 3 times, I looked for a place where I could publish what I wanted with minimal interference, and here I am.

Thanks for bringing that back for me, and for brightening up this old room!  2 Sally's in one day, and now I see you have left another.  3 Sally's in one day!  I'm feeling better all the time!  Thanks you!


The Lost Dutchman profile image

The Lost Dutchman 7 years ago from Flanders (Belgium)

Fascinating stuff... and what a great hub!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thank you, sir! Glad you read it and found it interesting. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


Patricia Costanzo profile image

Patricia Costanzo 7 years ago from Behind the Redwood Curtain

Now you got me thinking. My Anthropology teacher in college was my all time favorite. He changed the way I looked at the world. This was a fun read for me. Thanks for the education.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

Patricia: Wow. The first thing I ever published here. In fact, it is what brought me here to HP, as I was trying to publish it on another site, but the editor kept making me rewrite it over and over. Well, I had already spent way too much time on it, so the last time, i withdrew it from that site and published it here, and the rest, as they say, is history. That editor still picks on me to this day.

Glad you liked it. Not sure if it reads like me any more or not. Thanks again for coming by!


Patricia Costanzo profile image

Patricia Costanzo 7 years ago from Behind the Redwood Curtain

It reads like the less silly, professor in you.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thanks. One of my poorest performing hubs, but all the serious ones are. Shame, really, that the silly crap gets all the attention.


LondonGirl profile image

LondonGirl 7 years ago from London

I think it's fantastic, crap compensation though that may be!


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

old human or humanesque remains are fascinating, the idea that these people attempt to figure out and are able to understand how they lived, what they ate...of course ideas change over time and various experts disagree but that only makes the subject more interesting


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

LondonGirl: I agree. It seems the field of anthropolgy is full of jealousy, people who will go to any lengths to deny a (colleague) a fabulous discovery. Not sure how the debate is going today, but it seems as though they continue to win any challenge made to their discovery. Thanks for the comment!

Delores Monet: It is remarkable what scientist can figure out about our predecessors. I explained one such test in a recent article (a Rare Roast Beef recipe, actually) where scientists were able to determine that we ate meat and did not eat grasses. A quote:

"So how do we know our predecessors ate meat in the first place? Nitrogen isotopes can tell us if we ate animals that consumed broad leaf plant material or grasses. Studies conducted on a hominid 3 million years old shows us that the individual ate large quantities of nitrogen enriched foods such as grasses, and since hominids cannot digest grasses and no evidence of grass chewing was found on the hominid's teeth, we can derive that the hominid did not eat the grasses himself, but rather ate the animals that ate the grasses.

Read more: "Sirloin Tip Roast With Bacon on Top: This Succulent Slow-Cooked Beef is Simple, Tender and Delicious" - http://recipes.suite101.com/article.cfm/sirloin_ti...

Thanks for coming by and the comment!


Moon Daisy profile image

Moon Daisy 7 years ago from London

Wow, what an interesting read! It would be great to know where these 'hobbit' people/beings really fitted into the scheme of things. Shame the scientists can't agree on anything. I like watching documentaries like this, I'll have to look out for it in case they repeat it.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

Moon Daisy: Thank you for coming by. I believe there was an updated documentary recently. Sorry I can't remember the name, but I'm sure something will come around. It's a facinating story, even to me, who is not normally intrested in anthropology. Thanks for the comment!


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 7 years ago from England

Hi, I know you wrote this a while ago, but i was looking for the subject and thought maybe someone had written it on hubs, as i was going to give it a try! I love the subject and i am sure others have said this but, throughout history especially in ireland and west england there have always been stories of little people. in fact people still leave out milk for the elves and leprachauns. were these homo floresiensis? who knows, i am just waiting for someone to find the bones of a dragon or see a fairy! i know it sounds stupid but you never know. thanks Nell


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 7 years ago from St. Louis Author

No, you never know. There are many mysteries in the history of the world that cannot exactly be disproven, and some of them have some element of truth to them. For example, Homer, in The Odyssey, wrote of Cyclops. There is some truth to them. In his day, "cyclopia" was a known affliction. They weren't giants, of course, but the disease or deformity did cause them to have only one eye in the center of their face.

Thanks for the comment. Be on the lookout for leprechauns!

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