The Hobbit Nova: "Alien from Earth"

I’m sitting down in front of the TV to live-blog the Nova episode on the Flores fossils, “Alien from Earth.” It has the typical Nova high production values. We’ll see what they show:

7:02: Opening montage has a little bit of everyone. Focuses on controversy. Has a great shot of a crowd of people in Liang Bua Cave.

7:03: “Flores is home to an ancient legend – an elf-like creature with big feet and a voracious appetite…as mythical as leprechauns, elves, and hobbits…Were the storytellers of Flores inventing, or reporting?”

7:04: 1990’s excavations on Flores turn up artifacts. Too old to be modern humans. Chris Stringer appears; describes himself as a skeptic to begin with. This is Morwood’s entry: the tools are 700,000 years old; that begins his association with Flores. The program explains Wallace’s line, talks about the Komodo dragon. Who made the mysterious stone tools?

7:06: Many shots of Liang Bua – means “cold cave”. Morwood interviewed in cave, many shots of the excavations, including people digging in very deep square pits. Roberts describes the problems with shoring up the sandy deposits.

7:08: Find a single bone, small. Another year yields little else other than a single tooth. Ultimately, they discover the LB 1 skeleton; the narration emphasizes how small the skeleton is – there is no description here of the analytical process; no Peter Brown, etc. The “new species” status is being described as completely obvious from the point of excavation.

7:10: Now, Peter Brown. The lower jaw is “outside the range of modern human variation”. The brain is tiny – “smaller than a chimpanzee’s.” Brown “measured it and remeasured it” – he was “flabbergasted.”

7:11: Stringer: “If it is what it seems to be, it’s an extremely primitive human-like form…living in a place where we never knew that humans had got to, altogether a challenging find.”

7:12: Date of less than 30,000 years – Roberts – film goes to Chris Turney for radiocarbon dating. 18,000 years. I like the way the film is presenting the tremendous excitement of the new find – everyone is describing their initial reactions upon getting the findings. Turney is probably the best at this.

7:14: Thumbnail version of human evolution, from australopithecus to us.

7:15: Ralph Holloway appears, playing his trumpet. Very, very cool. I mean, he’s playing his trumpet in the middle of his lab, with skulls all around him. Man, I wish I were that cool!

7:16: Henry Gee. “Fossils….deal with it!”

7:17: “Just as the team were grappling with these details, the fossils were taken away.” The narration describes Teuku Jacob – “No one could refuse his request.” Henry Gee – “It’s quite unethical…people should be given as much time as it takes” to analyze their fossils.

7:18: Stringer – what is human? Bipedal? Tool using? Large brained? Now Maciej Henneberg enters: “Probably disease” – Alan Thorne: “Pathology.” Film goes to Paris – a 3-foot dwarf who was a “court jester.” Now, to St. Louis; Dean Falk and Hildebolt are studying CT scans of mircocephalics, Falk: “The CAT scans show that microcephalics and the hobbit are totally different.” Cerebellum, frontal lobe differences. The film clearly illustrates them; this is a nice segment. They have shots of microcephalics. Falk is very convincing in this part; the graphics work well.

7:21: Bill Jungers – “There are some bumps and bruises…there is nothing about the skeleton that suggests this was a sick hobbit.”

7:22: James Phillips talks about the difficulties of tool manufacture. Could the hobbit make those tools? “A 400-cc brain, in my opinion, is not going to be able to produce a tradition with flake and blade technology.”

7:23: Mark Moore and Jatmiko are in Indonesia, making experimental stone tools on a gravel bar. Good illustration of flake production. Notice that he’s soft-selling the difficulty of this; he’s using a leather pad to help him, he’s collecting small flakes on a cloth, he’s making the opposite case, really. Now, the film describes Moore’s real point, which is that the Liang Bua tools are not very different from Oldowan tools in Africa.

7:24: Back to Falk. she’s measuring brains; points to area 10 convolutions. Narration: the convolutions “expand a part of the brain vital for higher thinking and planning ahead.” Now, the film is describing the elephant hunting. This is really going off the deep end here. But some scientists are “leery” of diagnosing a new species on the basis of one individual.

7:26: “DNA would settle whether the hobbit was a diseased human or a new species.” Now goes to Shara Bailey, who’s looking at the teeth. “It became very complicated.” She’s looking at LB 1 and LB 2 – the premolars: “Teeth used for grasping.” The premolars are the same, they were “strikingly similar.” This is overselling. Bailey appears with Tim Bromage – he points out that the tooth sizes are humanlike; “they have been shortened to accommodate the human-sized jaw…there is no pathology that shortens every element of the jaw…”

7:29: Tocheri playing the piano. His passion is music. This is starting to look like an advertisement for a career in jazz anthropology. The wrist bones, THE WRIST BONES. My goodness, the film is giving us hand skeletal nightmares. Much flashing like strobe lights. If this were a Japanese cartoon version, I’d be having seizures. Tocheri describes the hand anatomy, and there is some illustration with some animated hand bones. This could be done much better. The endocasts were clear, but these are not. Dart-throwing is an example of a “complex task” that chimpanzees can’t do? Ah, now Tocheri is looking at the bone on his computer. This would be a lot better if they’d let him just show the anatomy.

7:32: Thorne: “If there is a developmental problem, then you would expect the hand and wrist bones to be any shape, but bizarre.” Tocheri disagrees – the wrist bones are their adult shape at 10 weeks of gestation. Jungers is “also convinced.” “The evidence is pretty persuasive that this is a new species.” Tocheri: “Science doesn’t deal in persuasion, it deals in evidence. And now we have the evidence in front of us.”

7:34: Where did the hobbits come from? They have film of the conference at Liang Bua. They’re looking at the cave. “It threatens to overturn our understanding of where we come from.”

7:35: Now, a split screen showing fossils and bones. “Large gaps remain in the fossil record.” Henry Gee – “We still know relatively little about the evolution of humanity.” Gee thanks, Henry! I appreciate that one; we’ll be answering the creationists there. “One fossil is enough to blow apart your entrenched idea of the linear process of evolution.” Wow, there’s no end of these nuggets of wisdom from Gee. Can we please talk to anthropologists here?

7:36: Morwood talks about critics’ “preconceived ideas” that are threatened by the hobbits. Stringer: “In arriving at this creature, what was the ancestor?” Stringer is really good in this; he’s giving all the transitions.

7:37: Leiden University; John de Vos and Robin Dennell have come to look at Pithecanthropus. This is a really large cast in this film. Very cool. Narration: “Could Homo erectus, tall and long-legged, evolve into a pint-sized version of itself?” Introduces island rule. Whoops, this is not a clear explanation. Why did rats grow again? Why did elephants shrink? Roberts says “no big predators.” But what about those big Komodo dragons? This is a rotten explanation. Dennell is skeptical that the island rule could shrink a hominid. Jungers also “sees no evidence of a shrunken Java man.” “I’m less and less persuaded that this could have evolved from Homo erectus.”

7:41: The film shows us Lucy. Australopithecus is a possible ancestor of the hobbits. Bill Jungers compares Lucy and LB 1. “I was shocked and amazed by how similar Lucy is to LB 1.” I don’t see why he was shocked and amazed – as you’ll remember, I posted that observation here the day of the initial Homo floresiensis report! Roberts: “more and more like an australopithecine escaped from Africa.” Dennell: “a hidden Asian lineage of hominins, only recorded in Flores at the very end of its trajectory.” The film illustrates the Serengeti migrations of wildebeest, suggesting that hominids crossed Asian savannas as well, moving “widely outside of Africa.”

7:44: Are there australopithecine remains outside of Africa? Dmanisi. Begins with film of the medieval church. Lordkipanidze is walking down into the excavation. Narration: “Five unique skulls from what appears to be a colony of ancient hominids.” Brain capacities are small, 600 cc. Modern humans have more than 1500 (that’s a little big, there). Could the hobbits de descended from hobbits. Lordkipanidze says possibly. Stringer appears, to say possibly. Dennell: “Fossil evidence from more than a million years ago in Asia could cover this (small) table. More than two million years ago, who knows what was living in Asia?”

7:48: Gee: “You find the most unexpected things in the most unexpected places.”

7:49: Now, Elisabeth Daynes is sculpting the hobbit based on forensic techniques. It’s a nice piece of work.

7:50: Gee: “World is full of undiscovered hominids, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone sent a paper to Nature, saying they’d found one alive in Sumatra or Borneo or wherever. I’d be very excited, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.” Gee to Bigfoot researchers: please send papers to Nature.

7:51: More scenes of the dig site, Morwood has discovered other promising sites, split screen with bones, etc. Man, Stringer’s cast of LB 1 is miserable. He gets the last word. Good quote from Stringer, but a little abrupt, at the end.

Last words: I really liked the film – it’s visually compelling; it shows the cave and excavations; it shows museum collections in a very good light. It would be a good film to show classes. I think that the critics were given a say, and they were shown to be serious scientists. On the whole, the “circus” aspect of the Flores story did not appear in the film; it appeared as a serious scientific controversy.

Criticisms:

  1. I think the narration did a disservice to Jacob, who after all isn’t alive to defend himself. The film really glossed over the case for pathology. Given that the film was only 50 minutes, I can see the rationale for spending time on other things. However, this aspect reduced basically to “it’s a microcephalic, it’s not a microcephalic.” That really doesn’t describe the science; it’s an oversimplification.

  2. The part about tool manufacture and elephant hunting was silly – I’m sure that the experts on the issue (Phillips, Roberts, Moore) gave quotes that would have worked to show the reasons for skepticism and responses. The film was edited in a way that really didn’t give this problem any weight – it was basically Phillips saying “they couldn’t make tools,” and Moore talking about the complexity of elephant hunting, and these tools aren’t so hard to make, as he’s showing us a knapping technique that nobody in the audience could do. I’m not coming down on either side; I’m just saying the film didn’t present the problems well.

  3. Where was Peter Brown? Where was Ralph Holloway? I mean, really? These are major players in this problem, they were filmed, and they were edited out of all but a few seconds. I don’t want to criticize the film for showing too many people – in fact, I really like the way they showed a broad range of scientists. Dean Falk got the right amount of time, and Shara Bailey was a good addition. But even Morwood could have had more time – why can’t we hear about his new sites from his mouth, for instance? I thought Chris Stringer did a good job giving context and transitions, but I wonder if that time might have been better given to someone more directly involved. Ditto with Gee – why the heck is a science journal editor making himself part of this story?

  4. Why all this emphasis on australopithecine origins? I mean, it’s an interesting angle, but there’s no evidence here at all. Could we have an analysis before we spend 10-15 minutes of the film on it? I appreciated seeing Lordkipanidze, and I liked what Dennell had to say, but it seems very premature. The film discards the Island Rule without any logic at all. To me, this is a real problem: the key question with the hobbits, is what do they tell us about the evolutionary potential of humans? If we discard the idea that they could have dwarfed on an island, then we’re just begging the question.

OK, so those are my criticisms. Otherwise I really like the film. I’d like to have a copy to show in class. It’s well put together, and it gives a good impression of how paleoanthropology is done. And it shows the experts to be people, not just talking faces.

The part with the endocasts was nicely illustrated. I credit Falk and Hildebolt for that, they’ve clearly spent a lot of effort finding the best ways to illustrate their points. I wish the film had done as well with the wrists, and for that matter with other elements – how about those premolars the film spends 3 minutes discussing? And there are some loose ends that could be followed up in another film. For instance, what about those 700,000 year old tools? How did the hobbits get to this island? What about the stegodons – nobody has ever straightened out whether they were always dwarfed on Flores. The Nova team almost certainly has enough film for another episode; I’d like to see them put some of it online.