A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee is scheduled to come out in May, 2007. Through the miracle of internet blogging I have a review copy.
When I first heard the news the a new species of hominid had been discovered, my first thought was “Cool!” My second thought was “Why Flores?” Morwood and Oosterzee’s new book answers that question. Morwood did not set out to discover a new species of hominid or to create controversy. As he tells it, he was excavating a site, in northwestern Australia, that had been used by Indonesian groups to process sea cucumbers (valued by the Chinese because it is believed to be an aphrodisiac). While there he and a co-excavator idly discussed the idea of starting a research project in Indonesia with the goal of finding the origins of the First Australians. This lead him to Dr. Fachroel Aziz who had recently done some excavations at Mata Menge on the island of Flores. Mata Menge and a number of other sites, including Liang Bua, had been excavated in the 1950’s by Father Theodor Verhoeven and Aziz was following in his footsteps. More importantly Aziz had found a number of possible stone artifacts in layers containing fossil Stegodon and wanted more confirmation that they were indeed artifacts. This lead to a plan to have a joint excavation that would work out the chronology and stratigraphy of Mata Menge. Eventually the project would spill out into the entire Soa Basin and spread to Liang Bua. When they finally got to Liang Bua (which had been used as a school at the time of Verhoeven) they found evidence of culture bearing strata dating back 100,000 years. Liang Bua is important because of the rich abundance of artifacts running from historical times to, as mentioned above, about 100,000 years ago. That is the basic story that Morwood and Oosterzee tell in A New Human. Of course, they did discover LB 1 and, consequently created a lot of scientific controversy as well as political controversy. For example, the contractual agreement Morwood had with his Indonesian colleagues was broken when the hominid skeletons were turned over to Teuku Jacob. There is much more to the book, we get discussions of the peopling of the Pacific, the Wallace line and island dwarfing. We also get a fascinating discussion of the biogeography of Indonesia and how that influenced the biogeography of Flores and surrounding Islands. Oh and some interesting ethnographic information on some of the cultural and ethnic groups in the area. Basically, the book is jam packed with all kinds of interesting information. We also get a lot of information about the Hobbit skeletons. For example, we learn that Peter Brown absolutely hated the idea of calling them hobbits. We also learn that Brown wanted to name the find Sundapithecus tegakensis but was talked out of it by Morwood. Morwood had his own idea as to what the skeletons were:
I argued with Peter that the strange amalgam of traits we found on Liang Bua hominids most likely meant that the original population in Asia was very early in the line of Homo, possibly a transitional Australopithecus/Homo population, such as Homo habilis or Homo rudolfensis – which appeared in East Africa around two million years ago. These constitute the earliest known species in genus Homo. Some researchers argue that because of their short stature, small brains and apelike body proportions, both these species should be referred to the earlier australopithecine genus, namely as australopithecus habilis and australopithecus rudolfensis, but you might expect such taxonomic blurring and uncertainty at times of transition. Was LB 1 another example of taxonomic blurring?
This issue of taxonomic blurring is only going to loom larger in paleoanthropology as more fossils are discovered. Think of the reptile/mammal transition where deciding whether a given specimen is more properly considered a reptile or a mammal can be difficult (technically this is a somewhat misleading way of saying it. Mammals and mammal like reptiles are members of the Synapsida and technically mammal like reptiles are called nonmammalian synapsids and the nonmamalian synapsids share some primitive features with the common ancestors of reptiles and synapsids. Essentially, the reptiles and synapsids form a sister group relationship rather than an ancestor/descendant relationship.) The point here is that as the hominid family tree proliferates we are going to see a wide variety of fossils with a wide variety of traits that are going to blur the boundaries not only between Australopithecus and Homo but within those taxonomic categories as well.
So what is the Hobbit? I will be the first to confess that I do not know. I am sure there are a lot of others out there who don’t know either, and that is part of the beauty of it. Trying to find out what the Hobbit is has already lead to some interesting methodological innovations. As more fossils are uncovered the problem will only get worse and force us to come up with more innovative and creative ways of understanding our past history. That is the beauty and reward of confronting the unknown with questions and struggling to understand the answers nature gives us.
In case you can’t tell, I really liked this book. It is written in an engaging style and once you start the book you can’t put it down. When finished you are disappointed that you finished it so soon (it is 221 pages long). Whether you think Homo floresiensis is a pathological modern human or a species previously unknown, I think you will find this a delightful and interesting read. In terms of anthropology books written for a larger audience, this is one of the best (I put it up there with Lucy: The Beginning of Humankind [my favorite] and The Ape in the Tree). A definite must read for anyone interested in paleoanthropology and archaeology.