August 22, 2006

New PNAS paper on Flores hominid

John Hawks has much more info. I will post the abstract and any comments when it appears. From the Guardian:
"The question that I and my colleagues have asked ourselves is how anyone could possibly believe this," said Robert Eckardt at Pennsylvania State University, who co-authored the critique in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "There was such a will to believe in the story that critical faculties were suspended on the part of many people."

The Sydney Morning Herald:
Very short villagers who live close to where the remains of tiny, prehistoric humans were found on the Indonesian island of Flores are the descendants of these so-called hobbits, scientists say.

In a reigniting of a scientific dispute over the significance of the remains, Indonesian, Australian and American sceptics led by Teuku Jacob have published their analysis of the bones in a respected scientific journal for the first time.

They say that the hobbits were not a new species because some of their facial and bodily features are found in Rampasasa pygmies living about a kilometre from Liang Bua cave, where the bones were unearthed.

National Geographic:

Robert Eckhardt is a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and a study co-author.

"We think the area is populated by people of short stature, and the Liang Bua cave sample in general is equivalent with that short stature," Eckhardt said.
And the New York Times:
In the report, Dr. Jacob and his colleagues cited 140 features of the skull that they said placed it “within modern human ranges of variation.” They also noted features of two jaws and some teeth that “either show no substantial deviation from modern Homo sapiens or share features (receding chins and rotated premolars) with Rampasasa pygmies now living near Liang Bua Cave,” where the discovery was made.

“We have eliminated the idea of a new species,” Robert B. Eckhardt, a professor of developmental genetics at Penn State who was a team member, said in a telephone interview. “After a time, this will be admitted.”

That time has not yet come.

Peter Brown, a paleontologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, who was a leader of the team that discovered the “little people” bones, took sharp issue with the new report.

In an e-mail message, Dr. Brown said, “The authors provide absolutely no evidence that the unique combination of features found in Homo floresiensis are found in any modern humans.”

This seems to be a case where scientists' ideas of what constitutes a modern human got the better of them. In recent times, we have become accustomed with the range of variation found in most human racial groups, that we forget how extraordinary it once was.

When explorers first encountered foreign racial groups, they often debated whether or not they were truly human. Today, many interpret these debates as evidence of racist attitudes, but, we should not forget how bizarre the indigenous foreigners must have looked to people accustomed to seeing people of their own race. The noses and hairiness of the Caucasoids just looked weird to the Mongoloids, just as the black color and flattened noses of the Negroids looked weird to Caucasoids.

In time, and with increased familiarization, it became clear that the foreigners were simply different humans. They could talk, they could sing, they could trade, and eventually it was obvious that they could bear children if they copulated with one's own race. Such a process of familiarization could not be effected with the Flores hominids. Thus, the default insinct, that these grapefruit-brained halflings could not be Homo sapiens kicked in.

Previous posts on Flores hominids.

UPDATE. The abstract has now appeared. The Homo sapiens in the title is a bit of schadenfreude directed at the Homo floresiensis folks, methinks.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0605563103

Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities

T. Jacob et al.

Liang Bua 1 (LB1) exhibits marked craniofacial and postcranial asymmetries and other indicators of abnormal growth and development. Anomalies aside, 140 cranial features place LB1 within modern human ranges of variation, resembling Australomelanesian populations. Mandibular and dental features of LB1 and LB6/1 either show no substantial deviation from modern Homo sapiens or share features (receding chins and rotated premolars) with Rampasasa pygmies now living near Liang Bua Cave. We propose that LB1 is drawn from an earlier pygmy H. sapiens population but individually shows signs of a developmental abnormality, including microcephaly. Additional mandibular and postcranial remains from the site share small body size but not microcephaly.


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