The Hobbit, Ten Year Anniversary

http://news.anu.edu.au/2014/10/28/hobbit-tales-homo-floresiensis-ten-years-on/

The discovery of the fossilized remains of an unknown hominid species in Indonesia sent shockwaves throughout the scientific community in 2004.  While the discovery of a new human species is certainly an exciting event, what made this discovery so extraordinary was the extremely small stature of the specimen.  Standing only three feet tall, the new species, dubbed Homo florensis, had a brain the size of a chimpanzee and could have hunted Komodo Dragon!  Homo florensis coexisted with Homo sapiens only 18,000 years ago, thousands of years after the last Neanderthal: this means it was our last living hominid relative!

However, backlash was immediate, with many pondering if “Homo florensis” fossils are merely deformed Homo sapiens.  There is evidence to support both claims, and the debate raging for ten years is nowhere near conclusive.  Those in favor of classifying the fossils as a distinct, separate species claim that many other animals diminish in size when relocating to an island environment due to a lack of food and calories.  Furthermore, proponents cite that it is very unlikely that so many deformed Homo sapiens would be fossilized together.  Critics, on the other hand, justify their claims by referencing that the body proportions of the fossils fall under the anatomical spectrum of pathogenic Homo sapiens.

I chose this article because I find this the most fascinating scientific discovery of all time!  I remember first being introduced to this discovery in IB Biology, and thinking it was a hoax!  Remember: the controversy with the Homo florensis fossils is not whether or not natural selection could have produced such a small organism, but whether the anatomical traits of the fossils suggest evidence for a new species or a deformed Homo sapien.  If true, it means that we lived with “Hobbits,” and could explain some of the native folklore which describes small, human-like creatures that lived in the wilderness.  From this article, I wanted to stage a discussion on the beauty of the scientific method, recognizing how it is an adaptive and flexible process, not a stagnant and conservative system.  One maxim of science is that it can be proved wrong through experimentation and new evidence.  How does the debate over the status of Homo florensis illuminate this tenant of science?  Why can Creationism not be considered a science under this definition?  Finally, do you support the classification of Homo florensis as its own species?  Which side do you think has the most compelling evidence?  I know previously this summer, there was more evidence to support the Down syndrome hypothesis (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/06/hobbit-human-down-syndrome_n_5651429.html).  Feel free to reference more articles providing further research or clarification about the status of these fossils!

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27 Responses to The Hobbit, Ten Year Anniversary

  1. gatorade15 says:

    This was a really interesting article pianokid123! I would have to agree with the second article you posted pointing towards these “hobbits” as merely being homo sapiens with down syndrome. The first article highlights how hominins like the hobbits disappeared from Africa many many years before the new hominins appeared in Australia. This would lead me to believe that multiple homo sapiens in Australia acquired Down Syndrome, somehow creating an isolated population that was able to survive for a while, creating more offspring with Down Syndrome. Seeing as these hobbit people didn’t survive very long nor do we have proof of similar descendants who can be traced back to a common ancestor, I think that they were merely a mutated form of homo sapiens.
    As for your question about Creationism and its illegitimacy as a science, you are right in saying that we cannot test nor conduct experiments to verify its validity. Its roots are in a religious text, passed down for thousands of years. We can only trace the books origins, we cannot figure out anything about the actual events described in the holy text, nor can we test for an omnipotent “creator”. A large part of Creationism also lies in belief. This means that you aren’t expected to question these beliefs, but rather, accept them as facts. This is a huge contradiction to scientific methods, which value experimentation and adaptation to constantly improve ideas.

    • pigfish1116 says:

      I believe that creationism is a science butt I disagree with Gatorade15 when you say that evidence about the actual events can not be found. There is a science called biblical archaeology in which their have been findings that legitimize events that occurred that the bible speaks of. Of course these artifacts don’t prove the existence of a god but do shed some light on some of the stories within the bible and other religious texts. http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/free-ebooks/ten-top-biblical-archaeology-discoveries/

      • pianokid123 says:

        pigfish, could you ellaborate on your definition of science? While there are undoubtably historical references in the Bible, one should be careful of literal interpretation. For instance, there is no scientific evidence to support Noah’s Flood (http://ncse.com/cej/3/3/six-flood-arguments-creationists-cant-answer).

      • butterjones says:

        can you please explain what you mean when you say “creationism is a science”?? archeology is undoubtably and scientific practice, and people definitely do use archeology to provide evidence to legitimize events/locations mentioned in the bible, but this by no means “proves” these stories. Furthermore, this archeology has nothing to do with creationism. They might believe they are finding evidence to validate certain elements of the scripture, but just because one small piece of the book has historical backing, doesn’t mean the rest is suddenly valid as history or science. Have they found a garden of eden, or fossils of all modern species from the same biblical time period? No. And even if they had, it would be the archeology that would be the “science”, not the scripture. I wonder how you, personally, define science?

    • pianokid123 says:

      That is an interesting hypothesis, gatorade! However, I am slightly skeptical of your proposal that that Homo florensis fossils could really be a population of organisms with Down Syndrome. This is because people with Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) have extremley low fertility rates (https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=can%20people%20with%20down%20syndrome%20reproduce).

      • gatorade15 says:

        Great point, pianokid123! I wonder how large the population of Homo florensis was predicted to be? If we know that number than we can make a better guess as to whether the fossils may have been Homo sapiens with Down Syndrome or a separate species. If it was a smaller, short-lived population then the Down Syndrome hypothesis would hold. If it was a larger, longer-lived population then they nave have been a separate species.

      • graduallychanging says:

        Pianokid123, thanks of bringing up their low-fertility rate. It is very relevant to this debate. The people that believe that the “Hobbits” were a separate species state that it is improbable for fossilized remains of deformed humans to be found together. If Down syndrome were the cause of the Hobbits’ small stature it would be even less likely to find the remains close to each other, because there would not be many people with the condition. Today, 1 in 1000 people (according to the World Health Organization) are born with Down Syndrome. Knowing that population density is much higher than it was during the time the Hobbits were thought to have lived, Down Syndrome cannot account for the remains that were found together. Sadly, my reasoning is purely conjecture because we have no way of knowing of any hominids were born with Down Syndrome or the prevalence in which it occurred.
        If anyone knows of any cases of Down Syndrome in hominids, please share the information with us.

        Source for current Down Syndrome prevalence: http://www.who.int/genomics/public/geneticdiseases/en/index1.html

  2. Pianokid123, very nice post! You effectively hooked me on your post when you put hobbit in your title haha.

    Personally I believe that this was most likely a separate existing species. From my understanding of the species, which I believe I saw mentioned at the Hall of Human origins exhibit, they existed on an isolated island and never really came into contact with other homo sapiens. To me it seems perfectly possible that they were a separate species who was very well adapted to the environment on the island. If they never left the island then there never would have been the necessity to evolve.

    In regards to your comments on science v creationism I would agree with you that the fact that science is derived from epistemic research makes it much more convincing than the creationism explanation. Creationism is based off of religion and the belief in God. Many religions directly address the fact that they religion is almost completely based on faith and it is actually viewed as valuable attribute. But the problem is appealing to faith as evidence simply doesn’t work. There is no way to prove that God exists or therefor religion. That is why people must have faith.

  3. punky1218 says:

    This Homo florensis discovery is very fascinating in that there could have been another human species in existence in the past 30,000 years. I don’t know if it is the most fascinating scientific discovery of all time (evolution, gravity, electricity, Big Bang, DNA, X-rays I would argue are all more fascinating) however it is one of the most intriguing modern mysteries of our time as to a possible additional species or to only deformed humans. As to your questions pertaining to the debate between evolution and creationism, I think this discovery highlights the flexibility that evolution has, one of the severe flaws of creationism. Evolution can change and adapt to new scientific discoveries while creationism is confined to the bible, much of which has been disproved from a literal standpoint.

  4. I do not have much evidence to support this but it seems more likely that it is a deformed Homo sapiens because of its seclusion. Also there doesn’t seem to be much of an evolutionary trail leading up to these Homo florensis. Also I must add that I was a little disappointed when I saw that this didn’t have anything to do with Tolkien. But it is definitely very interesting!

    • pianokid123 says:

      The leading hypothesis on the origin of Homo florensis is that it evolved from Homo erectus (http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/anthropology/article01041.html). Homo erectus was the first hominid species to leave Africa (as its binomial nomenclature suggests), and they even made it as far as South East (Asiahttp://anthro.palomar.edu/homo/homo_2.htm). It is therefore completley plausible that a small band of Homo erectus made it to Indonesia and evolved into Homo florensis. However, you are right — we are still not completley sure what its direct hominid ancestor was, but we can make educated guesses.

  5. pigfish1116 says:

    Pianokid123, referring to your question about what these fragments of bone could be, I think that the lack of information is so pertinent that the only thing scientists can do is assume. Of course analyzing the fragments they do have can help them narrow it down but I think that they could make a more concrete inference if more human remains were found to signify a larger grouping of people all with similar traits that are unique from other hominids discovered.

  6. sunny2018 says:

    I’ve learned in my biological anthropology class that it is extremely difficult to classify fossils. There is constant debate between whether or not pairs of fossils are sexually dimorphic members of the same species, or different species altogether. The lack of fossil evidence makes this an even more challenging issue. Even experts have a hard time classifying fossils, so it’s easy to see why there is so much controversy regarding this ‘hobbit.’ The issue remains to be a lack of evidence. Hopefully we can find more examples of this species in order to do more comparisons.

    • jwmigook says:

      Good point, sunny2018! I noticed that there wasn’t exactly a lot of evidence of the fossils, especially when I looked up multiple articles regarding Homo florensis. I want to know how scientists actually classify fossils when similar ones are paired together. I like the fact that you brought in your knowledge from your biological anthropology class, too.

  7. moneytrees3001 says:

    I love these science treasure hunts! Making new historical discoveries that have gone unknown for thousands of years sounds like a blast of a career. I think it’s hard not to read an article like this and feel some excitement, science geek or not, about the possible existence of such weird creatures. It’s events like these that makes one think about how frustrating and boring religious fundamentalism seems to be. I don’t want to be condescending or take the superior intellectual position, but the world of scientific discoveries is so colorful and ever changing, and allows us all to take a role in its process. Religious belief offers the opposite, providing infallible historical and moral absolutes, with no room for questioning. Does anyone agree? Am I missing a tenant of faith that makes it more interesting than scientific pursuits?

    • glowcloud says:

      I agree with you, moneytrees! One thing about science (both natural and social) that makes it so fascinating is the fact that it is falsifiable. While proponents of religious theories might take this as a sign of weakness, in reality it makes for much more convincing ideas. After all, in real life things are rarely unchanging and absolute in the way religion makes them out to be.

    • pianokid123 says:

      I share similar seniments moneytrees! I find it beautiful how adaptive and “ever changing” science is. Even in my Biology 1111 class, my science professor told us about how they determined a purpose for introns in DNA. For years, they thought the introns in our DNA was just “junk.” My professor ellaborated that we should try and distance ourselves from viewing everything in science books as a concrete fact and try and see the bigger picture, studying how theories have evolved and developed over the course of time.

    • jwmigook says:

      I agree with you regarding the fact that science really is interesting, and definitely full of fascinating things yet to be discovered. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with your point about religious belief, because I think its appeal is something that is different for each individual. I know plenty of people that are very devoted to religious beliefs and find interesting and exciting things about those beliefs every time they pray/go to religious ceremonies/etc. I was raised a Christian and always found Christianity interesting to discuss and think about, but I also have that “science geek” side in that I love reading articles like this one and catching up on news related to scientific discoveries.

  8. regan1984 says:

    This was a very interesting and cool article pianokid123! I must also say that the ensuing conversation was and is one to pick your brain, per se. After reading the discussion so far and looking up some external facts I believe this group of smaller humanoids is a separate species of human for a few reasons. First of all, this species lived for nearly 70,000 years which, in mind, would be substantial enough of a reason to make me believe such a species’ genetic characteristics weren’t a sole reason for such hominids to be biologically different. Furthermore, according to the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS), in 1960 the average life expectancy for a person with Down Syndrome was 23 years old. Considering that, despite its primitiveness, those persons had access to some form of medicinal like treatment and the amount of evolution current humans have undertaken biologically, the likelihood of an entire species as primitive as Homo florensis managing to survive for that long with Down Syndrome seems highly unlikely.

  9. serrobert says:

    Geographic conditions can alter human size, for example at the time of the American revolution, the average American soldier was taller than the average British soldier because of the hearty American diet. On islands, species tend to get smaller so as to accommodate the less food and resources, it is entirely possible that this happened to some humans.

    • butterjones says:

      this was exactly a point I wanted to make! I think it completely plausible that these were humans, since, as you said, it is quite common for island populations of a certain species to be considerably smaller than their mainland counterparts. Also, human size still varies greatly depending on region of origin. And people were also just generally smaller in the past. Even just a couple hundred years ago, the average height for a european man was about 5’4 (that’s one of several reasons why we think of Napoleon as so short, when really, he was slightly above average for his time)

    • pianokid123 says:

      Thanks for the clarification serrobert! I researched a little further, and the proper scientific term is “insular dwarfism.” Here is an article to clarify the science behind Homo florensis’s small stature, and a few examples of other dwarfed organisms that live on islands (http://theophanes.hubpages.com/hub/Examples-of-Insular-Dwarfism).

  10. jwmigook says:

    Great article, pianokid123! I have to admit that I somehow thought this would be related to the movie, but I liked the creative title you paired with your article and interpretation of the article. I think it’s interesting that you find this is the most fascinating scientific discovery of all time, and I hadn’t even heard of this until now! I feel like multiple people are referring to Homo florensis as its own separate existing species, but I have to admit that I’m not really sure how to approach this argument. I’m not sure what would classify a species as being separate from another, and I feel that a significant amount of research into this topic would be required for me to have a somewhat solidified standpoint on this. I looked at another article (http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/homo-floresiensis-making-sense-of-the-small-91387735) and it talks about “island dwarfing” as a possible explanation. There is a lot of explanation provided in this article, but it says that “consensus remains elusive as the study of the fossils is ongoing and apparently contradictory interpretations have been published.”

    • pianokid123 says:

      jwmigook, I share your confusion and caution when referring to ancient human populations as their own “species.” This is because the term “species” has multiple definitions depending on who you ask. The most commonly used is the biological definition of a species, which states that organisms that can “reproduce and produce viable, fertile offspring,” classify as a species. However, under this definition, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens would be classified as the same species because there is evidence that we once interbred!

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