Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the hobbit

she's a mystery girl

Wee Homo floresiensisif the name isn't premature - is an enigma, apparently, and there's a debate raging over whether the only skull so far found is that of a microcephalic variant of Homo sapiens, or that of a wholly new species, first postulated by J R R Tolkien many decades ago in his speculative scientific tract, The Hobbit. The debate has been unresolved for some time now, but it's getting newspaper space currently, and I'm trying to discover why.

Arguments for microcephaly are outlined here and here. The female skull, from a skeleton known as LB1, was found on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003, together with the partial remains from seven other skeletons, all of them indicating a remarkable smallness of stature. LB1 is dated as 18,000 years old, with the other skeletons ranging from 38,000 to 13,000 years old. To compare, and to provide more pabulum, the Neanderthals died out 29,000 years ago [apart from the one living at Sarah's place]. An arm bone, 74,000 years old, has also been found.

There's clearly a difficulty with there being only one cranium. There's also no DNA, which degrades very quickly in tropical climates. Apparently there are political difficulties inhibiting further exploration of the site.

The trouble with the microcephaly argument is that microcephaly comes in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, so that just about any skull could be rationalized to fit into that category. As one critic pointed out, many new hominid finds have been described as pathological on first discovery. More investigation is clearly needed.



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