In 2004, Peter Brown, Mike Morwood et al. published research in the journal Nature describing a hominin that they had discovered in a cave on Flores island in Indonesia (LB1), that they proposed to be a member of a new species. The work was exciting for a number of reasons. It showed evolutionary pressures on humans not unlike other species and stimulated new ideas and insights about how we evolved. The group published their second article a year after the first. In that 2005 Nature article, Morwood et al.analyzed the excavated bones from nine more individuals from the cave. They measured the skeletal remains and proportions, and their findings seemed to bolster the discovery of the new species. Acronym Required wrote about their discovery briefly here.
Morwood et al concluded that the smaller stature of LB1 was due to island dwarfism and that the species most likely split from Homo erectus. Morwood has now refined his original thesis that LB1's small stature was a result of island dwarfism and believes that the species arrived on Flores with its small stature.
Last spring, Science published an article by Falk et. al, about the derivation of the ancient bones of a small individual (LB1) found in a cave in Flores, Indonesia. They had analyzed the brain of LBI and determined that the convoluted brain showed that LB1 was a new species, Homo floresiensis. However, their findings were quickly disputed by paleontologists from the University of Chicago and Indonesia, who claimed that these individuals were simply Homo sapiens afflicted with microcephaly.
Martin et al. published their opinions in comment in the May 2006 issue of Science. That group concluded that the brain was disproportionally large for a proposed species, but was comparable to other microcephalophic brain fossils. They dismissed the fossil find as merely the skull of 10 year old H. sapiens afflicted with microcephaly. The tools found in the cave they said, were not evidence of the higher cognitive skills of a new species, they could have only have been used by Homo sapiens. Falk wrote a letter in response to the comment that Science published at the same time.
Martin et al, the group that has been dismissing the new species, fleshed out their long-standing contentions in a new paper that stoked last week's attentive excitement. Titled, "Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities", the paper is posted for all to read freely, online at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Jacob et al. published online August 23, 2006, accessed Aug. 25th) As reflected in the title, the paper heartily disputes the evidence for a new species, H. floresiensis.
Martin et al. present a laundry list of data based on the their own investigation of the remains. They describe geological circumstances as proof against the isolation of H. florensiesis, and assert that the island of Flores is too small to support 40,000 generations of a hunter gatherer population. They list "94 descriptive features of the LB1 cranium or the 46 features observed on both mandibles", that they claim are not unique to the 'hobbit'. They categorize all this and more, with a trace of alacrity common to the pre-dawn hawker of kitchen utensils in a TV commercial.
Of course they do discuss utensils - microblades. Martin et. al question whether an individual with a brain less than the size of a chimpanzee could manufacture and use tools that seem more compatible with the abilities of Homo sapiens. If they did use these tools, the researchers think that these 'H. sapiens-like' faculties might actually be evidence of species commingling. This theory, disconcerting to some, has also been forwarded to explain other pieces of the evolution puzzle and runs counter to Morwood et al.'s claim that LB1 is a unique species that evolved in parallel but distinct from H. sapiens.
Martin et al present a mountain of evidence against the argument for a new species, but his paper (naturally) draws criticism. Some scientists claim that the new evidence was "cherry-picked", and that the method of computer generated skull analysis that portrayed abnormal asymmetry in the paper is prone to manipulation. Critics say that the comparison between the LB1 chin and the chin of modern pygmies was spurious. They assert that so-called signs of disease in the leg bones were "a house of cards". (Culotta, E.,"Skeptics Seek to Slay the 'Hobbit,' Calling Flores Skeleton a Modern Human" Science 25 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5790, pp. 1028 - 1029).
The two groups each claimed that their evidence was the final word on the issue. But the most definitive "comment" was by an anthropologist not involved with the research at all, Ian Tattesall, who said, "this argument is going to run and run". It is "running", and perhaps because the research is about evolution, it's fitting that the media latched on to it. Indeed it seemed inevitable that Time magazine began calling the controversy the "Hobbit Wars". Time characterizes the participants as "intellectual gladiators", and "grownups with PhDs" who behave like "fifth-graders". Apparently all hell's breaking loose in this niche of academia, therefore we must have the makings of a minor media fest.
In academic style, the critics also launch assaults not specific to the data. They don't flinch from asking how the paper got published in the first place (a routine slight for PNAS publications), and they also question the political motives of the authors. Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, the first author of the PNAS paper, has attracted suspicion by moving the skull of the LB1 to his own facility in Indonesia in 2004. Jacob has always refuted the findings supporting the existence of a new species.
Clearly the PNAS paper is not the final word.
The Dispute that Keeps on Giving
In the meantime, scientists agree that DNA analysis would provide information, but finding workable DNA at the site is unlikely. They also say that other individuals could be unearthed and morphological studies could be done to show common traits among more individuals.
While the research is exciting, the natural controversies have all the makings of those aggrandized science disputes, where the media sits on the sidelines and urges paying readers to cluck disapprovingly at the bellicosity of the Ph.Ds. Is the "hobbit wars", just another tiff that falls somewhere on the continuum between a *real* war, like the Iraq War, and the Lilliputian Wars of Jonathan Swift's crafting? You decide which end of the continuum is a more compelling place for the hobbit "wars".
But even as the scientists goad each other and argue passionately over the interpretation of the results, they provide deeper analysis that contributes to current understanding of evolution and our origins. It will be exciting to learn more about what LB1 was doing, with or without Homo sapiens, among the Komodo dragons and pygmy elephants and microblades and other tools. Did they come to Flores once, or several times over the thousands of years they inhabited the island? Did they perish in a volcano? Exhaust their resources? While the disagreements may be distracting, there are lots of interesting details that we have yet to learn that will be revealed in spite of, and/or at least partially motivated by, the debates.
Acronym Required wrote about the discoveries last year in "The "Hobbit" Species of Indonesia"