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Walking on two feet

The Hobbit took our breath away: now it’s the new normal

Homo floresiensis skull from Liang Bua (left) and modern human skull (right). Peter Brown (University of New England).

It’s been a big year for the early human species Homo floresiensis - aka ‘the Hobbit’ - and the scientists who found it.

Way back in 2004 this was the discovery that threatened to rewrite the textbooks and the one that took every anthropologist’s breath away.

It was the first early human from the island of Flores in eastern Indonesia and the first ever to be found on a landmass that had always been an island.

Did it build boats? We wondered.

Oddly, it was just 1 metre tall, had a brain the size of a grapefruit and a primitive Lucy-like skeleton; plus those weird, flipper-like, feet!

It was initially thought to have made stone tools like those produced by Palaeolithic modern humans; outsmarting even our Neanderthal cousins in its cultural sophistication.

It’s brain was too small, and way too simple, to have made such sophisticated tools, we reasoned.

Later we learned that there were different kinds of tools in Liang Bua cave and the one’s found with the Hobbits were a lot like those made by early Homo erectus in Africa more than a million years ago.

And, Homo floresiensis lived until just 12 thousand years ago on Australia’s doorstep.

How could this be, when Lucy’s kind lived millions of years ago in Africa?

What a sensation! It was completely and utterly unexpected and unpredictable based on the fossil record we had at the time. No wonder it caused such a splash.

But such is the nature of a discovery driven science. And it’s also what makes working in a field like anthropology so damned exciting, but also, so prone to controversy.

Now, several detractors reasoned the Hobbit was unmistakably a diseased human and not a new species at all.

A battery of different afflictions was used to explain its weird physical features: from microcephaly to endemic hypothyroidism (‘cretinism’) and Laron syndrome to Down Syndrome. No of them have stuck.

Some detractors also accused the discoverers of the Hobbit and the scientists who supported the work of aiming a wrecking ball at an otherwise respectable science.

Not one of anthropology’s prouder moments in history, to be sure.

What they were really expressing of course was a set of reactionary views in response to a major challenge to deeply held notions about human evolution.

This was not a problem it itself; sensational claims require sensational support! And, we should and must debate the evidence, attempting to pick holes and exploring alternative explanations.

But, there comes a point, however, when the science must carry us all forward; when bloody mindedness must give way to the weight of evidence; even if we’re pulled kicking and screaming.

We have now passed that point. The case for the Hobbit is well and truly established.

You might enjoy reading a special article published by Nature about the discovery of the Hobbit and its various detractors, told from the viewpoints of various parties involved.

Incrementally, as new research is done, we are learning more and more about the Hobbit’s place in human evolution. This marks a new phase - a kind of maturity - in research about Homo floresiensis.

And this year, new research has forced us to revise some of our views about the Hobbit.

In April we learned that the species was around until 60 thousand years ago and not 12 thousand years as originally thought.

Although, stone tools associated with _Homo floresiensis _are dated between 190 thousand and 50 thousand years ago at Liang Bua, suggesting it could have survived until a time after modern humans settled Southeast Asia and Australia.

A paper published today in the journal Nature by a joint Australian, Indonesia and Japanese team led by Gerrit van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong provides new evidence the Hobbit may have lived on Flores much earlier than suggested by Liang Bua.

Excavations at the site of Mata Menge in the So'a Basin have provided an abundance of animal fossils and stone tools. And, following today’s announcement, a jaw bone and teeth that look suspiciously like the Hobbit as well.

The fossils are a bit scrappy, but they certainly hold enough clues to give us a sense that they are: 1) a human relative; 2) probably related to Homo erectus; and 3) could even be the ancestors of Homo floresiensis.

Even more exciting, the fossils are at least 700 thousand years old; so they’re in the right place at the right time and have the right physical traits to connect the dots to the Hobbit.

There should be more than enough evidence now to convince even the most die hard sceptics. Will we finally get closure on the Hobbit’s authenticity as a new species of human?

I doubt it somehow. As Max Planck once famously observed, sometimes ‘science progresses one funeral at a time’.

In other words, no matter how convincing the evidence, some scientists will simply never change their minds. They have invested way too much to lose face.

Still, the rest of us move to where the evidence takes us, regardless.

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