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October 27, 2004

Small surprise

(27 October, 18.00 GMT)

Search Google News for 'Hobbit' right now and you'll fall off your chair.

Addendum from Razib: I was in the air most of today, and paid $4.95 to access Cincinnati airport's wireless connection, and boy was it worth it, as I saw this post by David. I didn't have much time to peruse the articles, but now I'm in Houston and I spent about an hour looking at the various stories. I didn't quite fall out of my chair, but the effect was similar. Nevertheless, I am far less shocked by this story than I would have been 5 years ago. The Great Leap of 50,000 years BP hypothesis seems on shakier ground than it once was, while Out-of-Africa is being challenged by new pieces of data.

The possibility of a new ape species under our noses seems to have been timed well to precede this finding of a nearly contemporaneous hominid people. But, the excellent summation of this research over at Nature seems to make objections about its overall veracity (as opposed to interpretation of various elements) untenable.

The small size of these island hominids is a testament to the universality of natural selection, as islands tend to shift many animals away from their worldwide modal size. Additionally, the fact that it seems probable that a form of Homo erectus must have crossed a non-trivial body of water is really amazing. The possibility of "advanced" tools are easy to quibble with, and I'm not so sure about that, but the geological history is something that is less amenable to spinning. In my post about Out-of-Africa revisions because of possible ancient Asian genes in modern East Asians I noted that many of my recent books are being rendered obsolete, well, this will probably push that process along.

One final note. The use of the term "Homo erectus" seems to be so broad that I wonder about its utility for the general public. It seems that "Homo erectus" is almost a negative definition, that is, it is not sapiens, not Australopithecines, not neanderthalis, etc. It seems likely that the human family tree is very bushy, especially since hominids have been a worldwide genus for about 2 million years. Unfortunately, the press release capsules tend to be worded in a way that implies a progression upward and onward, rather than the reality that it seems difficult for many paleoanthropologists to differentiate various species or subspecies with great precision. The morphological features of the new homonid highlighted in the article are distinctive enough that I do not doubt their interpretation, but on the catchall use of the term "Homo erectus" for various homonids (with the exception of Neanderthals) before the rise of modern humans, I am more dubious. The term seems to obscure more than illuminate.

Nick Wade has a good thick piece on this topic in The New York Times. Steve offers some more juicy bits about the possibility of a modern relic population still existing. Coelacanth's of our time? I doubt it, though the stories told by Flores natives are tantalizing, pulled out from their context they sound much like tales told by many peoples the world over about barbaric tribal neighbors who behave like animals. Remember that a few years ago Indonesians were beheading "witches" and "warlocks." In much of the world ghosts, witches, spirits and demons are real elements of their universe, and I suspect tales of quasi-humans emerges from the same cognitive predisposition (same goes for the legend about ancient Formosan pygmies offered in the comments section). Strange inhuman behaviors like cannibalism are accusations nearly always made against other peoples, but genetics indicates it is part of Homo sapiens common heritage.

Related: In 1988 Harry Turtledove wrote the book A Different Flesh, a collection of short stories based on an alternate history where Homo erectus survived into modern times.

Tangentially related: A pygmy mammoth population survived on Wrangel Island until 3,700 years ago (that is, they went extinct around the time of Hammarubi).

Update: Carl Zimmer has an excellent entry up on the topic.

Posted by David B at 11:07 AM