There’s a retelling of old fable called The Seven Blind Mice, which I’ve enjoyed reading to my kids over the years. In the story, seven blind mice encounter an object and try to determine what it is. One thinks it’s a pillar, another a fan, one a snake, and one a rope. The last mouse explores the entire thing and concludes that it is, in fact, an elephant. The moral of the story is:
Knowing in part may make a fine tale, but wisdom comes from seeing the whole.
Scientists could benefit from that reminder, I think. Especially in the case of Homo floresiensis. A study in this week’s issue of Science jumps into the debate over Flo with some new (or, at least to this point, unexamined) evidence. While the skull has been the most widely discussed fossil from Liang Bua, other bones were found at the site, as well. The new research examines three wrist bones associated with the skull, presumably from the same individual.
Using 3D imaging and analysis, the Liang Bua wrist bones were compared to over 500 extant and fossil hominin specimens, including:
- Australopithecus afarensis
- Homo habilis
- Australopithecus africanus
- modern humans from various regions, including 2 pathological individuals (a pituitary giant and a pituitary dwarf)
Multivariate analysis of the morphology of the three Liang Bua wrist bones demonstrates that they are primitive compared to the condition seen in Neandertals and modern humans. The morphology of these bones is actually more similar to modern chimpanzees (the primitive hominin condition), which raises some interesting questions. Flo has a tiny brain, but was found with flake tools. Did she make them? And if so, were the Oldowan tools found in Africa made by H. habilis or Australopithecus? And exactly how did an ape-like hominin get to Flores, and (assuming that the dates are correct) how did it survive? Why did they eventually become extinct? Were they out-competed by modern humans?
As for media coverage of this story, it’s been confusing, if not downright wrong. The tagline of the Newsweek story reads:
A new study of a skeleton of a member of a race of three-foot-tall ‘hobbits’ who lived 12,000 years ago in Indonesia shows that they were a species of human—and that the evolutionary path to Homo sapiens has been tortuous indeed. (emphasis added)
Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be just sloppy reporting. There’s an interview with the lead scientist at the end of the article, where he says:
“this is really a primitive species of human and not a modern human with some form of pathology”
But it is not human (i.e., a member of the genus Homo), and perhaps a taxonomic reclassification is in order. Morphologically the wrist bones look nothing like a human. It is a hominin (in the same way that Australopithecus is a hominin), which was never in doubt. The analysis suggests that Flo is a bipedal ape. Which means that even after the Neandertals died out in Europe, there was another bipedal, possibly tool-making hominin on the planet with us. A distant cousin, maybe a descendant of Australopithecus, that left Africa.
Early on, the debate over Homo floresiensis was dichotomized. Was Flo a) a pathological modern human or b) a new human species? This new research suggests that the correct answer is none of the above. Flo isn’t human at all. She’s a new, late-surviving, species of bipedal ape. Like the blind mice’s elephant, the “wisdom of understanding the whole” makes for a much more interesting story.
Tocheri, M., Orr, C., Larson, S., Sutikna, T., Jatmiko, ., Saptomo, E., Due, R., Djubiantono, T., Morwood, M., & Jungers, W. (2007). The Primitive Wrist of Homo floresiensis and Its Implications for Hominin Evolution Science, 317 (5845), 1743-1745 DOI: 10.1126/science.1147143