Author Topic: Hobbits or orang pendek?  (Read 1370 times)

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Hobbits or orang pendek?
« on: February 27, 2005, 01:51:21 AM »
WE WILL never know her name - indeed, we will never know whether she even had a name - but when her remains were unearthed last year in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, she caused the kind of stir that we normally associate with Hollywood film stars.

She died in complete obscurity around 18,000 years ago, only to be catapulted into glittering fame by a chance discovery.

Soon nicknamed "The Hobbit", below, she excited the world of evolutionary science and sent media into something of a spin amid claims that the story of human evolution would have to be rewritten.

In fact the truth was a little more prosaic, but just as remarkable for all that. She was certainly distinctive enough to be given a new species name, Homo floriensis, after her home island. But what made the Hobbit so newsworthy was not that she was one of our direct ancestors - in fact, we probably last shared a common ancestor with her about a million and a half years ago - but the fact that her kind had survived at all for so long.

Our current understanding of human evolution, based on the fossil evidence we currently have, goes something like the following. After the long haul of the "apeman" phase (typified by the 3.3 million-year-old "Lucy" skeleton from Ethiopia), our ancestors underwent a relatively rapid shift into a more obviously humanlike form known to scientists as Homo erectus (literally "erect man") sometime just short of 1.5 million years ago. Though brain size increased quite a bit from the 350cc typical of its earlier apelike size, it was still a long way off the relatively massive 1,250cc that we find in modern humans. What we do find in Homo erectus, however, is a new body shape that has the same long legs, narrow hips and barrel chest that modern humans have - features associated with a more efficient form of striding walk that was good for covering long distances in a nomadic, migratory lifestyle.

Armed with its long legs, Homo erectus set off to conquer the world, breaking out of Africa for the first time around a million years ago, and very rapidly colonising the furthest corners of mainland Asia. In the millennia that followed, the Asian populations went their own way, cut off from their African cousins.

Around half a million years ago, some of the African populations began to undergo rapid change, mainly involving a dramatic increase in brain size. Over the space of a couple of hundred thousand years, the African erectus metamorphosed into modern humans, exploded out of Africa once again (about 70,000 years ago).

In the next 10,000 years they colonised every corner of the Old World and Australia, finally even launching themselves across the Bering Strait into the Americas around 20,000 years ago.

When modern humans reached the Far East, it seems likely that they came into contact with the remnants of the east Asian erectus population who had survived in the backwaters of China long after their African equivalents had died out or evolved into the modern human form. But so far as we knew, none of these Asian erectus populations had survived past 60,000 years ago.

The little lady of Flores island changed all that. Here she was, hale and hearty as recently as 13,000 years ago, a mere handshake’s distance in geological time. What makes her all the more remarkable was her small brain size. We are familiar enough today with diminutive humans - the pygmies of the south Asian forests and Africa are not much bigger than she was. Whereas all these modern human pygmies have brains that are the same size as everyone else’s, the Hobbit and her kind had brains that were no bigger than those of our mutual apeman ancestors.

To cap it all, along with their bones were found stone tools of a modestly sophisticated kind, and evidence for fire and the hunting of large animals, including the now-extinct stegadon - a primitive elephant. For someone the size of a three-year-old human child, killing a one tonne stegadon would be no mean feat; which at best suggests some degree of co-ordinated planning and cooperation.

On the nearby island of Borneo, aboriginal forest tribes have long claimed that they were familiar with three kinds of people in the forest: humans, the orang-utan (the familiar Asian great ape) and the orang pendek (a diminutive forest dweller). Perhaps the orang pendek is the surviving folk memory of contact with the Hobbit. We came within just a whisker of shaking her hand.

• Professor of evolutionary biology Robin Dunbar is the author of Human Story published in hardback by Faber and Faber at £12.99