The Hobbit on Darwin Day

A few months ago I attended a talk by Professor Colin Groves of the Australian National University: ‘An update on Homo floresiensis, a.k.a. the “Hobbit”’ (available on YouTube in seven installments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7). As is well known, there has been an unusually bitter scientific debate over the last couple of years as to whether the hobbit is indeed a new species, or just a small microcephalic human. The term ‘microcephaly’ covers a range of conditions which cause unusually small brain sizes. (Disclaimer: Groves is not a disinterested participant in this debate, having coauthored a paper which argues against the microcephalic interpretation.) Groves went over a long list of unusual features of the hobbit. The limb bone ratios are unlike those of any apes or humans. They are also very robust: in spite of their small size, hobbits would have been remarkably strong. The arms are too long for humans, and they had unusually large feet (like Tolkien’s hobbits!). The lower jaw lacks a chin, a feature found in all humans (even people who look chinless), and that is also true of a second jaw which has been found. The upper end of the humerus has a twist not found in modern humans, but which was then found in the Turkana Boy Homo erectus/ergaster skeleton once it was looked for. Groves’ conclusion: all of these features make it overwhelmingly unlikely that the hobbit was just a small microcephalic human.

In the question time afterwards, I asked Groves whether the scientific community was coming to any consensus about the hobbit.

The reply was unequivocal: although the debate is very heated, the microcephalic interpretation is supported only by a small number of scientists, and rejected by an overwhelming majority. At a recent conference, Colin was able to talk to a number of prominent paleoanthropologists. All were under no doubt that the hobbit is a new species. And, during one of the talks, when a reference was made to the microcephalic interpretation, a ripple of amusement went through the audience. Creationist Marvin Lubenow, in a new article “Hobbits” were true humans! claims that

In contrast to the discoverers’ claim that these fossils represent a new human species, a second theory gaining popularity is that these fossils do not represent a new human species but instead were dwarfs or pigmies possibly suffering from microcephaly, having abnormally small bodies and brains.

but this would appear to be wishful thinking. The microcephaly supporters may be making a lot of noise, but not many converts.

By the way, Mike Morwood, one of the discoverers of the hobbit, was present at the talk and I met him very briefly. He had just coauthored a new book, The Discovery of the Hobbit, available in Australia. It has now been published in hardcover in the USA in May 2007 under the title A New Human. A must-read for anyone wanting to know more about one of the hottest paleoanthropological discoveries ever.