Posted by: Steve Coplan | August 23, 2006

No hobbits in this shire?

After a few beers some time ago at the Cedar Tavern, the local of my former coworkers at The 451 Group, I encouraged in a generally genial manner (as best as I can recall) a complete stranger reading the New York Times at the bar to pay closer attention to the compelling article on the discovery of ‘homo floriensiensis’. Based on the discovery of a set of fossils on an Indonesian island, a group of researchers posited the existence some 18,000 years ago of a hominid species that hunted an also extinct species of pygmy elephants. Since humans were already living in Australia 40,000 years ago, it was entirely feasible that humans could have encountered these ‘little people’, and could acount for legends about little people across the globe (leprechauns and the like). I was not the only person who found this idea romantic in a scientific way, and the new species started to become known as the ‘hobbits’.

Instead, the ‘little people’ theory has become an illustration of the shortcomings of extrapolating from too small a set of data. Much of the foundation of the claim of a different species rests on a single intact skull, which differs in terms of the proportions of the brain case to modern humans. What these Penn State researchers argue is that the single skull is from an individual with microcephaly (literally ‘small headedness’), a condition which apparently Borat’s brother also suffers from. For macrocephaly, refer to Mr Met. Assuming then, that the skull is an abnormality, these researchers suggest that the remains are from the ancestors of the island’s current inhabitants, who are generally of smaller stature — pygmies, technically speaking.

Judging by this report in the New York Times, the hobbit defenders are not going down without a fight, retorting that the abnormalities could be the result of pressure on the skull applied over thousands of years. If I was accused of basing my theory on a retard, I would be similarly combative. I am planning to follow the blow by blow at Carl Zimmer’s excellent blog as well as John Hawks.


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