Legends of ‘the Hobbit’

By Razib Khan | July 16, 2013 3:24 am

Credit: Ryan Somma

Like many people I’ve been following the tales of the Hobbits of Flores, H. floresiensis, with some interest since 2004. And, like most people I have no personal expertise or skill which is relevant to evaluating whether this putative hominin species actually is a new species (as opposed to a pathological modern human). So how are we to evaluate a new PLOS ONE article which comes down on the side that it is a new species? First, my very vague impression is that over the past ~10 years the new-species camp has been gaining ground on the pathological-modern-human set. But setting all that aside perhaps the critical issue for me is that the likely reality of archaic human admixture into our own lineage means that the world is far stranger than we had thought in 2004. For various anatomical and paleoanthropological reasons H. floresiensiswas implausible. But as implausible as the idea that the genome of a Siberian hominin would yield admixture in modern Papuans?

Addendum: New York Times on the paper in PLOS ONE.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Human Evolution
  • Sandgroper

    What I can never get my head around is that LB1 was interpreted by some to have some features more primitive than erectus – in which case, how did it get to where it was? But then if I knew that…

    Yes, far stranger.

    • razibkhan

      primitive in what way though, right? in any case, one can imagine loss-of-function of traits. dodos were more ‘primitive’/ancestral re: flight than their ancestors.

      • Sandgroper

        Yes. The idea of evolution as a linear progression is wrong-headed.

        • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

          Hence more and more researchers using “basal” or “ancestral” rather than “primitive” (and “derived” rather than “advanced”).

    • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

      Migrating from Africa to Sunda is not something you need a particular cranial capacity to do.

      • Sandgroper

        I got confused about the apparently fairly sophisticated (?) stone tools found at the LB site – whether they had been made by the floresienses or modern humans. I guess the ability to hunt dwarf stegadons and other animals suggests some level of technology, if indeed that was them.

        Then my next question is, did they cross the strait by design or by accident (e.g. the accidental crossing by a ‘single pregnant female’ or few individuals)? I don’t dismiss non-fatal accidental crossings of serious bodies of water out of hand, but it seems to me that they must be very low probability events.

        • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey
          • Sandgroper

            The one that is coincident with the Wallace Line.

          • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

            See pic — wasn’t there when sea levels were at their very lowest. (Or at least, it didn’t cut off Flores from Malaysia, just Sulawesi, etc.)

          • Sandgroper

            That’s Peter Brown’s map. No disrespect to Peter, and correct me if you know for a certainty that I am wrong, but I think he is at odds with the scientific consensus on this, which is that the Lombok Strait has been there continuously (although varying in width) for 50 million years.

  • Marj Vetter

    well, where do you think the legends of the “little folk” came from?

    • razibkhan

      there is a normal human range in height, and, there are pretty dominant de novo mutations for dwarfism. i like the idea as a speculative matter than dwarves, elves, etc. are recollections of ancient Others, but i think the human imagination is fertile enough that that’s not necessary.

      • andrew oh-willeke

        I agree. The idea is attractive, but there are no archaeological traces that are at all close to this or suggestive of an archaic hominin species fitting the profile in the Middle East, South Asia, or Europe, and really not trace even of pygmy/negrito modern humans in the Middle East or Europe.

        Also, in the instances where legendary history has been convincingly tied to actual historical roots the historical events are almost never more than a couple of dozens centuries older than the first written accounts of them – not many tens of thousands of years. So, I am highly skeptical of claims that oral histories, legends and folktales could have roots in pre-Upper Paleolithic events – just about any historical roots for oral traditional prior to the Neolithic-Upper Paleolithic transition are pretty doubtful.

        Historical foundations for “giants and little people” stories, if there are any, might more plausibly be attributed to diminutive marginal relict modern human hunter-gathers on one hand encountering tall stature mixed farming-livestock rising peoples on the other (e.g. the Biblical Goliath was attributed to a population of that was ethnically made up of Mycenean Greek sea people transplanted to the Levant and they may have seemed like giants to less well fed early Hebrews with a bit of hyperbole; contrawise, relatively short Hebrews, or even shorter small remnant tribes of European hunter-gatherers in marginal mountains or deep European forests may have seemed like “little people” to the taller and healthier people of fertile farming valleys in the Copper Age with a bit of hyperbole and imagination and their strange belief systems and awareness of the forests and the ways of its wild plants and animals that they had forgotten may have seemed magical and mysterious to them).

        Concretely, if you’ve ever visited a historical site about early U.S. Pioneers and looked at their clothes and caskets it is stunning just how short people of that era just a couple of hundred years ago were relative to those today. In East Asia the transition from short to tall driven by diet is so stark that you can pretty much guess someone’s age when they are alive today by their height. Exaggerate that a bit because of more stark differences in diet and human variation between populations could seem like two different races of peoples.

  • Sandgroper


  • andrew oh-willeke

    It isn’t entirely impossible that a relict population of a few dozen individuals of the same species (called the “Orang Pendek” still exists on the island of Sumatra in Kerinci Seblat National Park) in an area that is also home to the last remaining Sumatran Tigers in the wild. http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com/2013/01/more-hobbit-fossils-confirm-existence.html

    • razibkhan

      not impossible. in fact, i hope they exist. but, i would bet money that they don’t….

  • Michael

    I don’t exactly understand the controversial aspect. Insular dwarfing has been seen on multiple occasions, so it is likely that the small size developed after their isolation. And why should a reduction in brain size indicate lower intelligence? The smallest adult alive has a total body weight of only 4x the average brain weight, yet is perfectly intelligent.

    Is the controversy only H. sapiens vs. H. somethingelse? What about insular dwarfism of modern humans? Isn’t it well established that this can occur on very short time scales?

    • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

      Are there any human populations that have undergone insular dwarfism? Negritos? But what about, e.g., Samoans who are larger on average?

      Insular dwarfism still wouldn’t explain a lot of H. floresiensis’ other features (particularly postcranial features).

      • razibkhan

        the negrito example may be problematic if u r thinking andamans or phillipines. lots of these pops may be sick/marginalized. the sentinel islanders look to be of normal size, but they are isolated.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    Presumably they walked.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey

    It was. See pic below in another comment.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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