Homo floresiensis on 60 minutes

5 minute read

This week's (May 1) 60 Minutes on CBS had a report on the hobbit. There is a story on the CBS News website that appears to be a rough transcript. Beware the link; the 60 Minutes website crashed my Safari browser; attempting to watch the video of the report crashed Internet Explorer. There's some dangerous hoodoo there.

The report basically seems to have been a puff piece; there is no mention at all about the damage to the bones and little attention paid to the possibility of pathology. Here's how it begins:

Human history is being rewritten on the Indonesian island of Flores. It is so remote that when you get here, its not difficult to suspend your disbelief. Anything could have happened here. There are volcanoes that are still active, the bluest skies, the most relentless rain you have ever seen, and mosaics of rice paddies planted by tribal peoples who move to a beat you'll never hear on MTV.

"Little bitty stingin' rain," no doubt. The point of course is to give the character of the place, and it comes complete with a visit to the infamous volcano of the little people:

A few villagers invited 60 Minutes to accompany them on a walk up the volcano to see the ruins of a village where their grandparents lived. It's where the Abu Gogo, they say, dropped by from time to time.
When exactly were the Abu Gogo last seen? They didn't know precisely. Exactly where did they live? In caves a long way away. In these parts, going back in time always involves a lot of hard walking. This is the forest primeval. The villagers brought a chicken along, not for lunch, but for a ceremony - a sacrifice - when we reached our destination.
The ancient village is a shrine now and the ceremony involved splashing a mixture of coconut milk and chicken blood around a headstone, lighting candles and invoking the spirits of their ancestors. Then, they talked to 60 Minutes about the Abu Gogo.

Hmmm...yes...I don't know precisely, but I am pretty sure my goats were eaten by the chupacabra right...about...here. Yeah, that's the ticket! Right here! And if you wear this special T-shirt -- yes, dollars will be fine -- the chupa will surely not to follow back to your village, New York City.

I have to give the following quote, because I think it isn't true:

And Morwood will tell you that when the Komodo dragon arrived on this island, he wasn't nearly as large and lethal as he is now. He was just a small reptile. That happens on islands over the millennia.

But from a chapter by Gina Gould and Bruce MacFadden (2004):

Previous hypotheses of body-size evolution within the Varanidae suggested that there were several cladogenic events in which some groups and isolated species became large. The most recent phylogeny of Varanidae based on mtDNA suggests otherwise. Mapping the known total body lengths onto the phylogeny indicates that varanids were already getting large early in their evolutionary history, with the crown group, Odatria, becoming secondarily small on mainland Australia. Although hypothesized as a giant island varanid, the komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is discovered to be nested within a clade in which the basalmost taxon (V. salvadorii), also endemic to an island, reaches body lengths similar to those of the komodo dragon. Review of the Varanidae suggests that caution should be taken when characterizing taxa as island giants/dwarfs without first reviewing a phylogeny.

The story about island dwarfism is developing...more on that later.

In the meantime, back to 60 Minutes:

He [Teuku Jacob] says the teeth told him this was a Homo sapien [sic]. But can he substantiate that?
"He made his claims. And when you think about it, OK, do you really think a population of meter-high humans with brains the size of a chimpanzee's, with no chins and no foreheads and wide, wide hips, unusual, and arms down to their knees, OK, running around Flores from 95,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago are modern humans?" asks Morwood. "I don't know where these people are coming from, but it's not my interpretation of the actual evidence."

And there it is in a nutshell. From one skeleton and fragments of six other individuals spread across a long time range, associated with tools that are almost certainly the products of modern humans, we go to "a population."

Right now, the scientific community is leaning towards the conclusions reached by the Australians, that the Hobbit is a new, previously undiscovered species. Findings based on CAT scans of the interior of the skull commissioned by the National Geographic Society show that the Hobbit's brain was wired in a very intricate way, meaning that, despite its small size, it was packed with intelligence.

Regular readers will know that the findings actually indicate nothing of the sort. The only pieces of evidence that has been suggested to relate to greater cognitive capacities relative to a brain of its size (i.e. chimpanzee-sized) are the two strange projections at the front of the endocast, but their function is completely unknown, and they may have been products of the specimen's pathology. I can't channel the brains of ancient hominids (and if I could, boy, I'd spend my time on KGA 10-525 to see if he got clubbed by a handaxe discus) but in my opinion there is no chance that a population of hominids with chimpanzee-sized brains were "humanlike" in any meaningful cognitive way. A population of generally human-sized brains with one very small outlier would be a different story.

I have to say, I am increasingly sure that this episode will be paleoanthropology's Archaeoraptor. I have three posts on Intelligent Design earlier in the day. The top five Google ranked sites for Archaeoraptor are all creationist tracts. There is no way that this Flores situation is going to end well for our profession.


Gould GC, MacFadden BJ. 2004. Gigantism, dwarfism, and Cope's Rule: "Nothing in evolution makes sense without a phylogeny."
Bull Am Mus Nat Hist 285: 219-237. BioOne Abstract