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New study claims Hobbit was a new species

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Image Wikipedia.org, drawn by Rainer Zenz.

The skull of H. floresiensis.

The latest salvo in the ongoing hobbit wars is a study led by anthropologist Dean Falk, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), purportedly showing that the hobbit was not a microcephalic, but rather a new species.1 The announcement of the study received considerable media attention, although the paper itself only appeared on the PNAS web site days later—when the story was no longer ‘in the news’.

The unfolding of the hobbit debate has been covered earlier, by both the author2 and Dr Carl Wieland.3 An in-depth development of the hobbit tale, from the perspective of the archaeologist who led the discovery team, is available in a recently published book.4

The new study involved comparing 3-D reconstructions of the brains from the hobbit (LB1 individual), nine microcephalic people, and 10 normal people.5 From this, according to a media report:

‘The researchers found two characteristics—in addition to small size—that distinguish microcephalic brains: The bottom part sticks out in the back, and the region behind the forehead is unusually narrow’.6

Regarding these characteristics the hobbit was reported as:

‘fitting in with normal humans, not microcephalics … But she was unlike modern humans in four other features distinguishing her from Homo sapiens, crying out for recognition as a separate species, the researchers said’.1

One thing is certain; the data in the study is characteristically silent—not even a whisper can be heard. Hence, it is not the LB1 fossil, but the investigators interpreting the fossil find that are crying out for the hobbit to be recognized as a new species. As indicated by evolutionist John Reader: ‘Preconceived notions have played a fundamental role in the study of fossil man’.7 Given this, can the authors of the paper be relied upon to give an unbiased study, or instead to interpret the data to fit a preconceived outcome? From an examination of a previous study led by Falk it is obvious that the agenda of the authors is to debunk the microcephaly hypothesis.

“ Preconceived notions have played a fundamental role in the study of fossil man’ ”

In this earlier brain endocast study by Falk et al they concluded that LB1 was not a microcephalic or pygmy, and a hypothesis was put forth ‘that H. erectus and H. floresiensis may have shared a common ancestor that was an unknown small-bodied and small-brained hominin’.8 But a problem with the study was that the sample size of microcephalics used was a mere one specimen, and even if it was a good comparison specimen (which it was not), ‘it is simply impossible to take any single skull as typical of “true microcephalics.”’9 Hence, for Falk et al to rule out microcephaly, after comparing LB1 to only one other microcephalic specimen, shows a total lack of objectivity. To emphasize the point, about six months later a brief paper was published by Weber et al, detailing the analysis of 19 microcephalic modern humans, where the finding of a microcephalic endocast comparable to LB1 was reported.10 The authors commented that:

‘Both skull and brain morphologies of microcephalics are extremely heterogeneous11 and grossly resemble the anatomy and proportions of H. floresiensis’.10

Hence, one would have thought that the Falk team would have learnt from this rush to judgment about inventing a new ‘hominid’ species, but the latest study shows no such caution. According to anthropologist Robert Martin one of the problems with the current Falk et al study is that four out of the nine microcephalics used in the comparisons were juveniles, not adults.12 Martin comments:

“What we’re saying is LB1 was definitely an adult. If LB1 was a microcephalic, he was one with a mild condition who managed to survive into adulthood … So the proper comparison is with microcephalics with a mild condition who were adults.”12

Martin also has an issue in regards to a discrepancy between his and Falk’s team on the classification of a microcephalic skull from South Africa, known as Basuto woman. The Martin team’s results showed the brain of the Basuto woman to be much more similar to LB1 than the current study found.6 This illustrates how different researchers, examining measurements from the same skull, can come to opposite conclusions. Needless to say Martin remained unconvinced with the study, and is quoted as saying:

‘My gut feeling is what they (Falk’s team) did is just played around with the measurements until they got something that suited them’.1

Strong words, but after reading through the paper the comments appear to be not without justification. The authors state that eight measurements were ‘used to generate four ratios that we thought would discriminate between’ normal humans and microcephalics.13 They then did statistical analysis on the data, using the four ratios as variables, and subsequently claimed that two of the variables (cerebellar protrusion and relative frontal breadth) could classify microcephalics and normal humans with 100% success, with LB1 sorting with normal humans.13 However, this begs the question, could other ratios have been chosen, that also differentiated between the microcephalics and normal humans, but where LB1 sorted with the microcephalics? Also, looking at the authors’ scatter plot of the two ‘classifier’ variables, the microcephalic measurements appear very heterogeneous.14 One suspects that if the sample sizes were much larger, the 100% success rate in classification would break down.

It should also be considered that LB1 may have been a microcephalic specimen of Homo erectus, not necessarily a microcephalic ‘modern’ human. Because of its small brain and the current definition of microcephaly, the hobbit would tend to be classified as microcephalic by default, irrespective of its level of intelligence. However, even if, for example, it is regarded as a dwarfed specimen of Homo erectus, then because erectus itself is a fully human category, a separate species name or not will make no difference to the ‘big picture’, namely that we are dealing with a descendant of Adam, a toolmaking, fully human being. In short, despite being interpreted within a framework that assumes the idea of human evolution, it gives no support to that idea.

In other hobbit news, it has recently been reported that permission has been granted to the original discovery team for them to restart excavations in the Liang Bua hobbit cave in Indonesia.15 There is even talk about extracting DNA from hobbit remains to settle the debate.16 That remains to be seen, but there seems little doubt that further hobbit fossils will add more fuel to a debate which will not go away soon.

Related articles

References

  1. Flores island ‘Hobbit’ a new species, 30 January 2007, <http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=182257>, 30 January 2007. Return to Text
  2. Line, P., The hobbit: Precious fossil or poisoned chalice? 22 June 2006, <http://www.creation.com/article/4386>, 22 January 2006. For an updated version of this article see: Line, P., The mysterious hobbit, Journal of Creation, 20(3):17-24, 2006. Return to Text
  3. Wieland, C., Hobbit: New news is good news, 25 August 2006, <http://www.creation.com/article/4584>, 25 August 2006. Return to Text
  4. Morwood, M. and Van Oosterzee, P., The Discovery of the Hobbit: The Scientific Breakthrough that Changed the Face of Human History, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, NSW, 2007. Return to Text
  5. Falk, D. et al., Brain shape in human microcephalics and Homo floresiensis, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 104:2513-2518, 2007. (www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0609185104) Return to Text
  6. Roach, J., "Hobbit" Was Own Species, Not Diseased Human, Brain Study Says, 29 January 2007, <http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070129-hobbit.html>, 31 January 2007. Return to Text
  7. Reader, J., Missing Links: The Hunt for Earliest Man, Second Edition, Penguin Books, London, p. xv, 1988. Return to Text
  8. Falk, D. et al. The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis, Science, 308:242-245, 2005. Return to Text
  9. Martin, R.D., Maclarnon, A.M., Phillips, J.L. and Dobyns, W.B., Flores hominid: new species or microcephalic dwarf, The Anatomical Record Part A, 288A:1129, 2006. Return to Text
  10. Weber, J., Czarnetzki, A. and Pusch, C.M., Comment on “The Brain of LB1, Homo floresiensis”, Science, 310:236b, 2005. Return to Text
  11. Heterogeneous means having widely dissimilar elements or parts. That is, varied or diverse. Return to Text
  12. Than, K., Scientists say ‘Hobbit’ is different species, 30 January 2007 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16876005/>, 31 January 2007. Return to Text
  13. Falk, D. et al., ref. 5, p. 2514. Return to Text
  14. Falk, D. et al., ref. 5, p. 2516. Return to Text
  15. Hobbit cave digs set to restart, 25 January 2007 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6294101.stm>, 26 January 2007. Return to Text
  16. Dayton, L., Cavern may hold answers to hobbits riddle, 30 January 2007 <http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,21139476-30417,00.html>, 1 February 2007. Return to Text
Published: 9 February 2007 (GMT+10)

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