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Not Hobbits, Just Shorties?
March 11, 2008 3:13 PM   Subscribe

A South African paleoanthropologist on vacation on the island of Palau in Micronesia has discovered thousands of bone fragments of very small people estimated at between 900 and 2900 years old. He and his colleagues have just published a paper on their findings, which would appear to damage the claim that the bones discovered on Flores Island, Indonesia in 2004 and attributed to homo floresiensis (or "Hobbits") were not a unique and extinct branch of the human family, but rather pygmy-like peoples. However it also knocks a hole in the claim that the Flores bones were merely all unusually small humans suffering from microcephaly due to iodine deficiency. Naturally, the scientists who originally discovered the Hobbits on Flores aren't too thrilled about either of these theories. (Previous discussions here and here)
posted by Asparagirl (30 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I remember reading somewhere that these small island people are called "insulated dwarfs", which I think means they were immune to electrocution. I guess the islands in question experienced a lot of lightning strikes, or else they were infested with deadly electric eels.
posted by The Tensor at 3:28 PM on March 11, 2008


Helluva vacation
posted by librarylis at 3:29 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


or else they were infested with deadly electric shrieking eels.

i know it bears no import a propos of anything, but i am a purist. and a capricorn.
posted by CitizenD at 3:41 PM on March 11, 2008


Frodo doesn't live here anymore.
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:44 PM on March 11, 2008


I heard about this a bit ago. I went “WOW! WTF MAN?” and then the story just seemed to vanish. The argument seemed to touch on species, but I’m still curious either way how those folks came to be.


(No, *this* is Frodo, man. Look, don't answer because I think the Palantír is bugged man...ok? Ok? Bombadil?)
posted by Smedleyman at 3:53 PM on March 11, 2008


Science fight!
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:14 PM on March 11, 2008


Man, all the folklore about elves and dwarves and goblins has to be based in something. Whether European pygmies or some other species of Homo existing in Europe long enough to be culturally remembered.
posted by orthogonality at 4:15 PM on March 11, 2008


Pegasus is based on the cross between a bird and a horse and it's completely imaginary. Couldn't be that hard for ancient Europeans to imagine small humans.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 4:17 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


All your pithy rejoinders dwarf anything I had in mind.

Cool find, though!
posted by DenOfSizer at 4:36 PM on March 11, 2008


Damaged the claim...that they were not...unique....

Is there a non-negated version of this post?
posted by DU at 5:08 PM on March 11, 2008


This is really interesting. The Flores Island finds were probably the most unexpected discovery in the last 25 years of archaeology. This is close and will be interesting to follow. A few things strike me at the outset -
-- Palau must have been reached first by modern humans within the last few thousand years, while Flores we know was occupied 800,000 years ago, by Homo erectus.
-- Homo florensiensis dates back to what - about 25,000 years ago? Palau specimens to a couple of thousand.
-- Flores island is about 25 times larger than Palau and is biologically much richer 9dwarf elephants, for example)
-- The idea that the first Palauns couldn't fish strikes me as bizarre and contrary to everything we know about the first peopling of remote Pacific islands.
-- So on Flores there is at least the possibility of independent descent from isolated Homo erectus, while on Palau that possibility seems extraordinarily remote. Conversely, on Palau, being fairly small, it may have been more likely for island endemism or a genetic bottleneck to produce dwarfism.
posted by Rumple at 5:20 PM on March 11, 2008


+2 Constitution, –2 Charisma.
posted by crunch buttsteak at 5:52 PM on March 11, 2008


i wish i could make a major scientific discovery in my field during a vacation.
posted by wantwit at 6:18 PM on March 11, 2008


Rumple, according to everything I've read, modern humans don't appear to have been in Palau for much more than 3 or 4 thousand years. Fitzpatrick (2002) says that as of 1998 the earliest dates found in Palau were around 2000 BP, but offers an older date of around 2600 BP from some human bone on Babeldaob. It should be noted that Babeldaob is a different island, about 20 kilometers or so from the Rock Islands. Clark (2005) pushes that back even a little further to 3000 BP on Ulong Island (another island about the same distance from the Rock Islands). Clark et al. (2006) cite Athens and Ward (2001) presentation of palaeoenvironmental evidence to say that Babeldaob may have been settled as early as 4300 BP, and then offer new evidence to push the settlement of Ulong back to 3100 BP.

So there were certainly Palauans around the Rock Islands by this point. As for the idea that the first Palauns could fish, it's patently ridiculous. Hell, even checking the article cited (Fitzpatrick 2004), they discuss finding fishbone in context with human bone in strata dated to before 2000 BP, and say:
Although it is unclear whether these [fishbones] are directly related to the earliest period of human activity, their presence in all stratigraphic deposits ... suggests that fishing in Palau has a greater antiquity than indicated by our preliminary analysis from the uppermost strata.
In other words, Palaun fishing does not, as the original article says, date to "only about 1700 years ago" (Berger 2008) but to "at least 1700 BP" (Fitzpatrick 2004, emphasis mine).

So while I'm not entirely convinced yet that Floriensis is a separate species of hobbits, who knows if this article is necessarily the one to add further information. I might just wander down the hall and see what biological anthropologists are saying before I get even more off-topic here ...

Athens, J. S. and J. V. Ward. 2001. Palaeoenvironmental evidence for early human settlement in Palau: The Ngerchau core. In Pacific 2000. Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Easter Island and the Pacific (C. M. Stevenson, G. Lee, and F. J. Morin, eds.):164–177. Easter Island Foundation, Los Osos: Bearsville Press.

Berger, L.R., Churchill, S.E., De Klerk, B., Quinn, R.L. 2008. Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia. PLoS ONE 3(3): e1780.

Clark, G., Anderson, A., Wright, D. 2006. Human Colonization of the Palau Islands, Western Micronesia. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 1: 215-232.

Clark, G.R. 2005. A 3000-Year Culture Sequence from Palau, Western Micronesia. Asian Perspectives 44(2): 349-380.

Fitzpatrick, S.M., Kataoka, O. 2005. Prehistoric Fishing in Palau, Micronesia: Evidence from the Northern Rock Islands. Archaeology in Oceania 40: 1–13.

Fitzpatrick, S. 2002. AMS Dating of Human Bone from Palau: New Evidence for a Pre-2000 BP Settlement. Radiocarbon 44(1): 217-221.
posted by barnacles at 6:31 PM on March 11, 2008


The Hobbits were perhaps cretins?
posted by mattoxic at 6:53 PM on March 11, 2008


Two sets of human bones were found in the Palauan caves. The most recent remains were found near the entrance to one of the caves and appear normal in size. Older bones found deeper in the caves are stranger and much smaller.

The smaller, older bones represent people who were 3 to 4 feet (94 to 120 centimeters) tall and weighed between 70 and 90 pounds (32 and 41 kilograms), according to the paper.


This is dumb. We all know they survived the cave, saved the world, went home as heroes, and then sailed away in a magic ship to go live in a happy place with the Elves. They didn't die in the cave. That'd be so lame. It'd mean Gollum's plan worked. And we all know it didn't. I mean yeah, it... it looked really bad. But they got out of there, and they saved everyone. They didn't die. They just... they sailed away, after Sam... Sam saved the day... and they got to go home... oh no, no no no.
posted by Tehanu at 7:10 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]


I would have thought this find boosts the Flores findings, in that they are predicated on island species obtaining dwarfism.



"according to everything I've read, modern humans don't appear to have been in Palau for much more than 3 or 4 thousand years."


The new remains are apparently primitive modern humans, so you can toss those textbooks now.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:49 PM on March 11, 2008


The new remains are apparently primitive modern humans, so you can toss those textbooks now.

I think I'll be hanging onto the textbooks for a while yet. They agree that the majority of dates for the archipelago are around 3000 BP for initial settlement (perhaps as early as 4500, they concede), and the overall calibrated date range for the material they found was 940-2890 BP. The short-statured skeletal material was dated to 1410-2300 BP, with normal-sized humans following at 940-1080 BP. That's all well within the range of dates I provided above.

The important bits for the Floriensis argument are well-summarized in the final paragraph:
Based on the evidence from Palau, we hypothesize that reduction in the size of the face and chin, large dental size and other features noted here may in some cases be correlates of extreme body size reduction in H. sapiens. These features when seen in Flores may be best explained as correlates of small body size in an island adaptation, regardless of taxonomic affinity. Under any circumstances the Palauan sample supports at least the possibility that the Flores hominins are simply an island adapted population of H. sapiens, perhaps with some individuals expressing congenital abnormalities.
So insular dwarfism is a fairly common occurrence in many species, and the Palauan data appears to provide evidence that Floriensis may just be another example of it, this time in Homo sapiens.
posted by barnacles at 8:14 PM on March 11, 2008


The new remains are apparently primitive modern humans
which date much more recently than 3000 years. So there's no need to toss the textbook.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:16 PM on March 11, 2008



I would have thought this find boosts the Flores findings, in that they are predicated on island species obtaining dwarfism.

"according to everything I've read, modern humans don't appear to have been in Palau for much more than 3 or 4 thousand years."

The new remains are apparently primitive modern humans, so you can toss those textbooks now.


But Henry, the article clearly states

The remains are between 900 and 2,900 years old and align with Homo sapiens, according to a paper on the discovery., well within the 3-4000 year frame and so the textbooks appear safe for now, if, perhaps, incomplete.

It may boost the Flores Island case if indeed both are examples of Island Dwarfism in Homo, which had not been previously reported to my knowledge.

As the authors state:

Our findings do suggest, however, that a number of the morphological features considered either primitive for the genus Homo (e.g., small brain size, enlarged supraorbital tori, and absence of chins) or unique to H. floresiensis within the genus Homo (e.g., relative megadontia) may emerge as developmental correlates of small body size in pygmoid populations. This finding would be consistent with the argument that Flores LB1 may represent a congenitally abnormal individual drawn from a small-bodied island population of H. sapiens. These results also suggest that the simple presence of additional small-bodied specimens with reduced chins (that cannot be shown to share all of the traits considered taxonomically significant in the Holotype Flores LB1) is insufficient to confirm the taxonomic validity of H. floresiensis.

Based on the evidence from Palau, we hypothesize that reduction in the size of the face and chin, large dental size and other features noted here may in some cases be correlates of extreme body size reduction in H. sapiens. These features when seen in Flores may be best explained as correlates of small body size in an island adaptation, regardless of taxonomic affinity. Under any circumstances the Palauan sample supports at least the possibility that the Flores hominins are simply an island adapted population of H. sapiens, perhaps with some individuals expressing congenital abnormalities.


This raises the possibility that what were initially interpreted as "primitive traits" on Flores may in fact be previously unsuspected corollaries of endemic dwarfism in Homo sapiens, and that the one anomalous and controversial LB1 Flores specimen may be some unfortunate combination of dwarfism and a congenital disorder without modern analogue in the medical literature.

on preview: what barnacles said
posted by Rumple at 8:27 PM on March 11, 2008


A good sense of the controversy around the Flores specimens can be gained from the first reviewer's comments (Eckhardt's) which PLoS makes available online, and which frankly I find unprofessional and almost comment-free:

To begin with, I suspect that many of the comments that will be written by others about "Small-bodied humans from Palau, Micronesia" by Berger, Churchill, De Klerk and Quinn will be devoted to critical comments focusing on what the Palau material described here is not: Very likely it will be said by more than a few paleoanthropologists that the Palau sample is not pertinent to tests of hypotheses about the Liang Bua Cave skeletons from Flores, particularly that of the most complete specimen found there, LB1. I would be surprised, in fact, if the majority of the comments on this paper are not negative. Since the beginning late in 2004 of the controversy over the Flores skeletons, my estimate is that roughly 80% of those who consider themselves to be paleoanthropologists think that “Homo floresiensis” is a valid new species of hominin. Judging from the array of papers and posters presented at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, this percentage distribution has remained fairly constant for about three years.

Against this background, from the experience of the last several years, members of our own international research group (for membership in which see Berger, et al., reference 4) often have encountered such illuminating scientific comments on our work from Morwood group collaborators as “rubbish” (too often to bother tabulating), and such fascinating morphological assessments as “Robert Eckhardt is thick as a plank,” (Peter Brown, January 2006 Discover magazine [this characterization has been falsified, however, since in a subsequent scientific meeting at the University of Pennsylvania, 10 February 2006, my wife, Carey, used an anthropometer to demonstrate that I am, in fact, thicker than two short planks]). Just to make sure that everyone in the game understood that what sport aficionados refer to as “trash talk” was officially endorsed, Nature (31 August 2006) “warmly welcomed” [their phrase] our group’s detailed paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) [reference 4 in Berger, et al.] under the editorial title “Rude paleoanthropology.” Against this background of experience, I suggest that Berger, et al., as well as readers of this journal, be ready for all sorts of attempts at dismissal of the work at hand and its importance. Forewarned is forearmed.

posted by Rumple at 8:31 PM on March 11, 2008


Err, make that Eckhardt, the second reviewer. In contrast, the first, anonymous reviewer begins his/her comments with:

This paper is unacceptable for a variety of reasons and has so many fatal flaws that there are no reasons to ask for revisions. When I accepted the invitation for review, I anticipated a well-reasoned, well-documented manuscript, but this paper is the opposite. I list only a few of the problems, but it is full of citation errors, unreliable correlations, statistical manipulations and lacks essential documentation.

and end it with:

In short, this paper is so full of errors and misinterpretations that it is completely unacceptable. At best they have discovered on Palau some small individuals, but this is not well documented by them and not especially important since they are also found on Flores and other SE Asian islands. It adds little but confusion to the issue of the taxonomic postion of the Liang Bua material.

* * * * * * * * * *
N.B. These are the comments made by the referee when reviewing an earlier version of this paper. Prior to publication the manuscript has been revised in light of these comments and to address other editorial requirements.


Which also makes it likely that the PLoS was extremely eager, perhaps too eager, to publish this sensational paper.
posted by Rumple at 8:35 PM on March 11, 2008


Which also makes it likely that the PLoS was extremely eager, perhaps too eager, to publish this sensational paper.

Wow, I didn't see that you could check out the referee's comments until you pointed it out, but upon reading them I definitely agree with your point.

I was just directed to a recent article about Berger et al.'s work in Nature (Nature 452, 133-1 (2008)) which describes more of the controversy around Berger's find, and suggests that the bones may simply belong to juveniles, and shows Fitzpatrick questioning why one particular group would have insular dwarfism when others around them at the same time did not.

The final paragraph has the real meat of the issue, though, I think:
“This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media,” says Tim White, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
Amen to that.
posted by barnacles at 8:51 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


oooo, Rumples, that's awesome.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:58 PM on March 11, 2008


This public peer review could be more revolutionary than the public access journals. When someone says, "the reviewer hated my paper" I usually think, yeah right, maybe your paper sucked. But hate might not be too strong a word.

It seems the Palau specimens fall within the range of Andamese ones for the most part, with some differences, so indeed this might be an expression of a widespread slight diminution and less comparable to the hobbits (and fuck I hate that nickname). It will be really interesting to see how this plays out, especially if they can extract DNA from what appear to be hundreds of specimens on Palau, in limestone caves that are quite favourable for DNA extraction usually.

Oh, and thanks, barnacles, for those Palau links. Pacific archaeology isn't my area but I am trying to keep up.
posted by Rumple at 9:27 PM on March 11, 2008


Man, all the folklore about elves and dwarves and goblins has to be based in something. Whether European pygmies or some other species of Homo existing in Europe long enough to be culturally remembered.

Human imagination was invented in a freak accident in Robert Hook's lab in 1647.
posted by delmoi at 12:12 AM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]


at the University of Pennsylvania, 10 February 2006, my wife, Carey, used an anthropometer to demonstrate that I am, in fact, thicker than two short planks

His wife measured his "short plank" and found it "thick"?

Sounds like a hot science meeting.
posted by delmoi at 12:19 AM on March 12, 2008


If anyone's still following this, John Hawks just put up a post about the Palauan stuff on his blog. He was editor on the paper and discusses many of the points we've been raising above (too many to copy and paste here, really).
posted by barnacles at 6:04 PM on March 13, 2008


thanks barnacles, good link.
posted by Rumple at 10:39 PM on March 13, 2008




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