Hobbit Idol

I felt like Ryan Seacrest Thursday morning, introducing papers about LB 1. There's not really anything new to report, but there were a few dust-ups. The audience was standing room only, with the back of the room five ranks deep. The session had a mix of different talks, and a couple of authors had to cancel, which helped me keep things on schedule. We even had an extra ten minutes after Bob Eckhardt's talk for some discussion and questions.

A number of attendees let me know afterwards how much they enjoyed the session. I don't know whether that's true of all the authors, but I think I saw each of them smile at some point later in the week!

As for the talks themselves; I don't really want to give a detailed overview. I've seen lots of presentations during my time blogging, and I've never written a review of any of them. Many talks become papers, and the 15-minute format is really not sufficient to give the kinds of supporting details to support a scientific argument fully. It's just not fair to the research to critique it based on less than the published version.

But the abstracts are public, and there is certainly some interest in the contents of the talks, so I'll give some quick impressions of what was new. I did that earlier with Tocheri's paper about the wrist bones of LB 1.

Eckhardt and Dean Falk largely talked about details that were published within the last year. Falk presented some additional comparisons involving the microcephalic samples, mainly to argue that the juvenile specimens in that sample did not bias the endocast comparisons.

Lisa Nevell from GWU read a paper with many interesting allometric comparisons of LB 1 with recent humans and earlier hominids. This was nice work, and I hope to see it come out in publication. Still, the final sentence of the abstract says a lot:

These results are consistent with the taxonomic validity of Homo floresiensis, although they do not rule out the possibility that LB1 is pathological.

That ultimately is the bottom line of much work on LB 1, of course. Eckhardt pointed out that hundreds of conditions manifest with microcephaly as a symptom. Distinguishing a rare pathology from a rare pattern of evolution is an inconvenient problem.

The paper by Susan Larson and colleagues was read by Bill Jungers (Stony Brook). The conclusions of the presentation are summarized in the abstract's last paragraph:

We have examined the Liang Bua fossil material and find the analyses of the LB1 postcranial material by Richards (2006) and Jacob et al. (2006) to be incorrect on nearly all counts. Contrary to both Richards and Jacob and colleagues, both limb proportions and stature reconstruction for LB1 are completely outside ranges ever observed in modern humans, including the smallest "pygmoids." Previous studies have shown that muscularity cannot be deduced reliably from muscles scars. In addition, Jacob et al. (2006) exaggerate the degree of left/right asymmetry in LB1, and cortical bone thickness is perfectly normal and well within modern ranges.

It was after this paper that the questions became the most heated, as there are plainly differences in interpretation -- and in primary data -- between Jungers (and coauthors) and Eckhardt (and coauthors). It's really not possible to evaluate these differences fully without access to a published account.

I imagine that all the attendees probably thought much the same.