Thursday, June 16, 2005

Homo Floresiensis in limbo

Carl Zimmer at the Loom has another update about the hobbit fossils from Indonesia. The remains, potentially beloning to non-human hominids which lived up until very recently, have become the focus of a prolonged dispute between the mainly Australian discoverers and an eminence grise of Indonesian paleontology. Zimmer is taking the side of the Australians, although John Hawks (homepage appears to be down, sorry; the exact entry at the dead weblog was here ) has expressed doubts that the single hobbit skull can be assigned to a different species.

I think the worst part is that the digs have apparently been suspended, so that possible additional material is just going to have to sit there. I hope they've sealed the site!

UPDATE, 17 June: Carl at the Loom has another post on the topic adressing some specific reservations. The tiny fossils have been proposed to be dwarf homo sapiens, but there has been some concern that human brains should not become smaller with evolutionary pressure. Carl gives the counterexample of bat brains.

Meanwhile, John Hawks, who claims that he's not dead (see the comment), discusses some other fossils found in the same dig the Flores site. Remains of Stegadon, a now extinct relative of elephants, were proposed to also show dwarfism, giving the impression that the whole island ecosystem favored hobbitry. Hawks cites a recent paper suggesting that dwarf Stegadon had already died out prior to the dates of the hominid find. This counterclaim weakens the whole evidentiary heft of the fossil bed, and specifically the claim of multi-species, hence widespread, dwarfism on the island during the epoch in question. (For a flavor of the original logic here's the 60 minutes page. )

By the way, Stegadon also appears to be the name of a battle lizard from a role-playing game. That's Google for ya!

At the end of the day, the best way to settle the confusion is to continue digging and to quit with the role-playing games.

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