"The Mystery of the Human Hobbit"

3 minute read

This show on the Discovery Channel (3/4/06) seems like it should have some promise -- at least compared to the National Geographic Explorer version from last year.

And it starts this way: "Will the hobbit be one of science's greatest discoveries or a monumental mistake?


7:05: Peter Brown featured to good effect.

7:07: "Homo australopithecus"... not a good sign... The 3-d phylogeny and map are kind of cool, though. It's like human evolution on a Risk board.

7:08: Tools and pygmy stegodon brought in with the archaeologists Morwood and Roberts.

7:11: All of them converging on how significant the discovery is..."and then the bones disappeared!" Cut to commercial. That's kind of cool.

7:17: Jim Phillips explaining why the tools are those of modern humans. Good explanation, well laid out, including scale pictures of the LB tools along with very near matches from his own collection.

7:20: Bob Martin explaining brain-body allometry. Predicts brain size of 750 ml for hobbit-sized body. But LB1 brain is only 400, consistent with stature "size of a meerkat".

7:23: Voiceover explains that "islands hold a special place in scientific law". "Islands enable evolution to trick the laws of scaling to enable brains to shrink as much as bodies." Gee, I'd like to trick the laws of scaling, too!

7:24: "The idea is fallacious" -- Jim Phillips. "It's not something magical about islands, it's something magical about Flores, and that doesn't strike me as science at all." -- Bob Martin.

7:29: Ann MacLarnon looking through the Royal College of Surgeons collection. She's found a tiny three-year-old microcephalic skeleton. Not a great comparison -- they're talking about the twin-rooted premolars, but they're showing deciduous molars. Another sectioned adult microcephalic has the brain size of LB1. "A huge breakthrough for the hobbit skeptics"

7:33: On to Ralph Holloway, explaining endocasts. "What I am seeing in the microcephalic is very different from what I'm seeing with the hobbit's brain."

7:34: Martin brings the Royal College specimen's endocast, and they do a CT scan. Holloway: "I'm really quite struck by the lack of pathology I'm seeing on the microcephalic endocast." So this is a microcephalic that doesn't show obvious endocast deformation.

7:40: The village of Rampasasa..."Could these people be the hobbit's living descendants?" Now, this is some old school anthropometry. The village elder arrives to be measured, "He's rumored to be over a hundred years old." "At 4 feet 4 inches, he is especially short. So short, he qualifies as a unique kind of human -- a pygmy."

7:44: "The case against the hobbit as a new species seems conclusive." "The anthropological sensation of the century was in danger of becoming an embarrassment."

7:45: "The hobbit team is back. Their mission: to find fresh evidence to rescue their theory of a new hominid." "They're operating on a tip from a local. Since they were here, Liang Bua cave ... has been closed. They need to find a new cave to dig."

7:47: Meanwhile, Peter Brown has LB2 back and is X-raying...cut to commercial. I have to say, this is really a well-put-together program, in terms of making the different interpretation clear and keeping the energy up.

7:54: A second lower jaw, identical to the first. Roberts: "Like some kind of leper colony .... The probability's got to be vanishingly small."

7:56: "The case of the hobbit's true identity is closed...or is it?" And now, as MC Hammer would say, we break it down -- the brain and tools are still modern human, the "population" of small bones is incredible as some kind of pathology.

7:58: They've got another rock shelter to dig. They will return to start excavations. "It will take years, or even decades, before the picture is clear and the hobbit's identity is established."


All in all, this is a much better effort than the National Geographic versions. I like it.