Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 21st, 2009
Henry Gee, the editor of Nature, in a now-famous editorial entitled “Flores, God and Cryptozoology,” forever tied the finding of the “Hobbits” to cryptozoology. He wrote: “The discovery that Homo floresiensis survived until so very recently, in geological terms, makes it more likely that stories of other mythical, human-like creatures such as Yetis are founded on grains of truth….Now, cryptozoology, the study of such fabulous creatures, can come in from the cold.”
And so it still goes. More new confirmation has come forth that we humans have remarkably, in our recent past, if not actually yesterday, shared the Earth with another hominid species.
In an analysis released on January 20th, of the size, shape and asymmetry of the cranium of Homo floresiensis, Karen Baab, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Anatomical Scienes at Stony Brook University, and colleagues conclude that the fossil, found in Indonesia in 2003 and known as the “Hobbit,” is not human. They used 3-D shape analysis to study the LB1 skull of the hobbit and found the shape of the skull to be consistent with a scaled down human ancestor but not modern humans. Their findings, reported in the current online edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, add to the evidence that the hobbit is a new species.
The question as to whether the hobbit was human or another species remains controversial. Some scientists claim the hobbit was a diminutive human that suffered from some type of disease that causes microcephaly, which results in abnormal growth of the brain and causes the cranium to be much smaller than the normal human cranium. But Dr. Baab and co-author Kieran McNulty, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, believe their findings counter the microcephaly theory.
“A skull can provide researchers with a lot of important information about a fossil species, particularly regarding their evolutionary relationships to other fossil species,” explains Dr. Baab. “The overall shape of the LB1 skull, particularly the part that surrounds the brain (neurocranium) looks similar to fossils more than 1.5 million years older from Africa and Eurasia, rather than modern humans, even though Homo floresiensis is documented from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago.”
The 3-D landmarks superimposed from the front of the LB1 skull of Homo floresiensis assisted in concluding that the fossil is from a new species. (Credit: Peter Brown)
To carry out the study, Dr. Baab and colleagues collected 3D landmark data on the LB1 skull (above) and a large sample of fossils representing other extinct hominin species, as well as a comparative sample of modern humans and apes. They performed several analyses of different regions of the skulls. Taken together, these analyses indicated that the LB1 skull shape is that of a scaled down Homo fossil not a scaled down modern human.
The results of the analysis of the asymmetry of the skulls, which refers to differences between the right and left sides of the skull, refutes the suggestion that the LB1 skull was that of a modern human with a diagnosis of microcephaly. In modern humans, a high degree of asymmetry may indicate that the individual was diseased. At least one scientific study on the asymmetry of LB1 supported the argument that this individual had microcephaly. Conversely, Dr. Baab and colleagues found the degree of asymmetry of the LB1 skull was not unexpectedly high and therefore not supportive of the diagnosis of microcephaly.
“The degree of asymmetry in LB1 was within the range of apes and was very similar to that seen in other fossil skulls,” says Dr. Baab. “We suggest that the degree of asymmetry is within expectations for this population of hominins, particular given that the conditions of the cave in Indonesia in which the skull was preserved may have contributed to asymmetry.”
Dr. Baab recognizes that the controversy as to the evolutionary origins of Homo floresiensis will continue, perhaps without an answer. However, all the evidence that she and colleagues illustrate in their article “Size, shape, and asymmetry in fossil hominins: The status of the LB1cranium based on 3D morphometric analyses,” suggest that Homo floresiensis was most likely the diminutive descendant of a species of archaic Homo.
The results of this study are also in line with what other researchers in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University have found regarding the rest of the hobbit skeleton. Drs. William Jungers and Susan Larson have documented a range of primitive features in both the upper and lower limbs of Homo floresiensis, highlighting the many ways that these hominins were unlike modern humans.
The Department of Anatomical Sciences is one of 25 departments within the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The department includes graduate and doctoral programs in Anatomical Sciences. Fields of study include research on human evolutionary anatomy, morphology and vertebrate paleontology. Many faculty members in the department are also participants in an interdepartmental graduate program in anthropological sciences that is recognized worldwide for its faculty and research strengths in functional morphology and human evolution.
It will be recalled that since 2004, skeletal material has been described and discussed from eight other Homo floresiensis, putting to rest that the first discovery was merely of an individual anomaly or a diseased burial of a local person, as Hobbit debunkers proposed.
During 2005, the original discoverers were more open to discussing their initial sense that Homo floresiensis might actually be closer to Australopithecus than Homo. Speculation as to the linkages of Homo floresiensis to Australopithecus was there from the first. Dr. Peter Brown, Dr. Mike Morwood, and others on the original team had this thought from the start, and it remains as part of their ongoing considered analysis of the finds.
Looking back to 1955, in the writings of cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, he bravely (for his time) wondered aloud if reports of small hominids in Africa were australopithecines.
There is even a formally published scientific article in 1945, by London University’s Dr. W. C. Osman-Hill, which speculated that historically remembered "little people" in south Asia might one day be found to have been based on relict diminutive representatives of Homo erectus.
This was long before the discovery of Homo floresiensis or the contemporary tales of the Flores little people, the ebu gogo. Perhaps even the “Little Yeti,” the teh-lma or pyar-them, are merely regional names or relatives of Homo floresiensis? Ivan T. Sanderson called the Little Yeti the “least known and most neglected by everyone.”
Osman-Hill studied similar folklore, for example, of the nittaewo, the three feet tall hairy hominids of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The nittaewo were mentioned by Pliny in the first century. They were said by Osman-Hill to have existed, at least, to the end of the 18th Century before being exterminated by "modern" humans through methods that mirror how the humans of Flores talk about killing off the ebu gogo (via fires at the entrances of caves).
Homo floresiensis is part of cryptozoology’s interest in these tales, folklore, and legends.
The 3-feet-tall Homo floresiensis, living on Indonesia’s Flores Island, perhaps do exist today as the small, hairy ebu gogo, the Proto-Pygmies of Flores Island folklore. As noted in my and Patrick Huyghe’s field guide, Homo floresiensis, while connected in the media in 2004, with Sumatra’s orang pendek, probably has a more direct link with the more fully hairy hominid examples, such as Sri Lanka’s nittaewo.
The front cover of the field guide is illustrated with a drawing of Homo floresiensis by retired professor Richard Klyver, who studied wildlife art for seven years, in the midst of chimpanzees in Africa.
(Adapted from a Stony Brook University press release, Journal of Human Evolution, archived Cryptomundo materials, and The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates .)