Hobbits among us

It seems the big science news today is the discovery of a new species of homind in a dig on Flores Island in Indonesia. Homo floresiensis, who apparently was about a metre tall apparently lived as recently as 13,000 years ago – much more recently than any known homnid other than humans, and there is already speculation that they survived much more recently. It seems that some people on Flores still tell stories of little people who lived in caves at the time of the arrival of the Dutch 400 years ago. This leads one to speculate that the less well expored areas of Flores, and perhaps other islands in eastern Indonesia, may still hold pockets of little people.

BBC is already calling them “hobbits”.

All of this sounds a little too pat for me to turn off my sense of scepticism just yet. All over the world, there are legends of little people – elves, leprechauns, whatnot – and no doubt the usual suspects will soon be telling us they are based on some real memory of a now-extinct race of little people. I imagine the check-out line press will soon be regaling us with tales of the discovery of tribes of hobbits living in isolated corners of the world.

The whole “legends and myths refer to real events” school of archeology does not have a lot of successes to its name – only one that I can think of off the top of my head – and many, many crackpots to make up for. I expect the kooks are mobilising right now, looking up legends of the short in stature to see if they can be reinterpreted.

But, the significance of this discovery is clear enough. The reports from Indonesia suggest that they had mastered some fairly sophisticated techniques: fire, hunting tools, possibly language. Since they had brains the size of chimpanzees, this sharply undermines the arguments linking brain size to humanoid intelligence. Those of us from the “social consciousness” school of cognitive science may even come out of this feeling some sense of vindication. If people with brains the size of a chimpanzee’s were able to develop sophisticated societies and technologies, the most plausible reason is because they could take advantage of social cognition. If social structure is the key to the intelligence of other hominds, perhaps it is the key to our own.

But it is too soon to come to such conclusions from this dig. The paleontology journals are going to be interesting for a while.

If one is going to feel free to speculate, then the biggest revolution would come from discovering a living community of these people. The legal issues alone are incredible. Are they people? Do they have human rights? Who is and isn’t a person is generally a matter of “you know them when you see them”, but evolutionary biology has always understood that we can only say that because the fuzzy cases are extinct. And there is no limit to the revolutionary potential such a discovery would have for social science. But, such speculation is just science fiction for the moment.

3 thoughts on “Hobbits among us

  1. Doug and I visited Flores, oh, six years ago. It gives me a very deep pleasure to know that we were so close to those hominids.

    It also makes me want to go back there. It’s such a cool place. Great diving, wonderful people. [Sigh]


  2. “Evolutionary biology has always understood that we can only say that because the fuzzy cases are extinct.”

    Quite right, which is what’s so fascinating about this discovery. Richard Dawkins was on British TV today talking about all this along with someone from Nature who was excited about the exceptional way in which locals talked about the ‘little people’ – essentially there were no myths and legends, no supernatural properties attributed to them, just matter-of-fact descriptions. Apparently they have a kind of murmuring language, and if you speak to them in a sapiens tongue they just parrot it back to you. These sort of anecdotes about encounters with them are wonderful to hear, but personally I find all this talk of isolated populations still existing too good to be true. I’d really really love it to be true though, as the discovery of living Homo floresiensis would, as you say, revolutionise social science. The potential for research into their language, tool-making, psychology, culture, religion perhaps, is truly immense, and I’d jump at the chance to be a part of it.

    Aside from the human rights questions (which are very pertinent indeed), how would the world’s religions respond to such a discovery? If you believe Homo sapiens has a soul and chimpanzees do not, on which side of the fence do you accomodate Homo floresiensis? So much to think about! What an amazing discovery this is.

  3. If Flores Man was found to point upward with two hands after making a mini-elephant kill then the pearly gates will be opened for him.

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