Back to Rampasasa

2 minute read

Following up on an earlier post, Time Asia has a story on the Rampasasa "pygmies." After reading the article, my feeling is that paleoanthropology has, on balance, a negative effect on indigenous peoples. Take the following, for instance:

Some six generations of intermarriage with outsiders, says Rampasasa's headman Alfredus Ontas, have left few truly tiny individuals. But to prove their antecedents, he and other locals eagerly display photos of recently deceased relatives whom they say were of purer "short people" stock. "The brothers in this photograph were only 110 cm," Ontas says proudly, his broad smile revealing jagged teeth stained ox-blood red by betel nut. Another elder is introduced, who, as well as measuring only 135 cm tall, has a pelt of hair covering his arms and legs. "It was because we were so hairy that our ancestors hid in Liang Bua," says Jurubu. "They were embarrassed."

So either a "new paleoanthropological find" has already been incorporated into the ancestor myths of this village, or the people are already moving to capitalize on their newfound fame, or more likely both:

And the bones in the cave? "Of course, they were our ancestors," says Jurubu, with a touch of rheumy indignation. "They must have retreated into the cave after a hunt and got caught there when the river rose. Who else could it be?" That's proving to be a question for the ages.

But what stuns me about this article are the comments from Henry Gee, editor of Nature, which published the initial paper by Brown and colleagues (2004).

For Henry Gee, an editor at venerable Nature who was responsible for overseeing publication of the original H. floresiensis article, such squabbling is par for the course. "Science is a disputatious business, and human evolution is notorious for being even more disputatious. Historically, whenever anyone discovers a new hominid, a lot of people come along and say it's an ape or a diseased human." Gee, who says the critics haven't shaken his belief that a new species has been found, cites the example of another hotly debated discovery, that of Australopithecus africanus in 1924, the so-called "missing link" between apes and human ancestors. "Nature published that paper too and all the great and good in the scientific establishment refused to believe it." It took 25 years, but eventually the discovery was accepted, Gee says, noting that it will be a while before H. floresiensis achieves complete acceptance as well. "They're going to have to discover some more bones that prove this, but we have history on our side."

We have history on our side? I think I'll try that one next time I submit a paper to Nature: "Hey, I have history on my side, man. Those negative peer reviews? Dude, can't you see the 'great and good' are against me?"

To me, these sound like the comments of an advocate, rather than an editor who would be receptive to articles that refute the original interpretation. I hope that the quote was taken out of context. As it stands it certainly isn't helping Nature's standing as a "venerable" journal.