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Hobbit again

25 April 2017

It's only a few days but the claim the Hobbit was a remote human ancestor related to Homo habilus is being questioned already – at The Conversation (see https://phys.org/print412232632.html ). The author of the piece likens the Hobbit debate as an ongoing soap opera – never ending quarrels and claims. However, the author, an anthropologist, provides us with some useful information, and the first point to bear in mind is that there is a lack of bones to actually analyse. The most complete skeleton consists of a skull, shoulder, arm and forearm, half of the pelvis, and what sounds like one leg and a foot. Another lower jaw was found subsequently, and some limb bones. There is not enough evidence to make a case in human evolution, he says. I might add to that the fact that most remains of early humans are bits and pieces and anthropologists and biologists can spend a lot of ink (and keyboard fingering) making a case for this or that, in spite of a lack of bones. For example, the Denisovans are known from a finger bone and it's DNA (and nothing else) yet are hung on the Tree of Life after the Neanderthals (or their contemporaries). In the case of the Hobbit they seem to have a lot of bones, and reading on one realises they seem to have more evidence of the Hobbit than they do of Homo erectus in Indonesia.

The author then goes on to discuss the findings of the new study (see News a few days ago). As far as Homo erectus is concerned, limb bones are in short supply – so how can the Hobbit be compared to Homo erectus? The author then goes on to hit the nail on the head as Hobbit has been dated to the Late Pleistocene, and if it is an early form of humanity it raises a sticky question. Is the uniformitarian Tree of Life correct when it comes to aligning the apes. Evolution is supposed to improve in a series of steps, from primitive to more advanced. The Hobbit appears to be a throwback. How does that sit with the majority of uniformitarians? In addition – how did it reach an isolated island such as Flores (an even bigger mystery than it's survival as it would seem to mean that humans moved Out of Africa 2 million years ago – rather than somewhat less than a 100,000 years ago.

Initially, the Hobbit was believed to be just 18,000 years ago but this was revised to around 60,000 years ago (about the time the ancestors of modern Aborigines were moving through the SE Asia landscape). The problem is the Hobbit looks like a very primitive form of humanity as it has short legs and long arms, reminiscent of a chimpanzee, he says. It probably spent a considerable amount of time living in trees as well as on the ground. Is he trying to tell us something?

The Hobbit represents a large shift in thinking amongst anthropologists and others – but how does he currently explain the presence of Homo erectus in SE Asia if not from a migration Out of Africa?

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