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Hobbit Enigma, The (ATOM Study Guide)

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The Hobbit Enigma, a documentary by Simon Nasht and Annamaria Talas, has two remarkable stories to tell. The first is of one of the most significant discoveries of this millennium. The second is of the tremendous stir that this discovery has caused in the community of scientists who work in human evolution. The debate has been vigorous to say the least, and gives us a rare insight into the way that scientific research is conducted and the conclusions that are drawn from it.

The discovery that caused all the fuss was made in 2003 by two paleoanthropologists excavating a likely cave on Flores, an Indonesian island. They uncovered a skeleton utterly unlike anything found before – clearly human-like (homonin) but tiny and different to even our immediate ancestors. Because she was only a metre tall, she was nicknamed 'Hobbit', after the small humans in The Lord of the Rings. But it would seem that she was very different even to those imaginary creatures. They called her 'Woman of Flores', or Flo for short. The species was named Homo floresiensis.

Her bones were not fossilized but they should have been. Soon it became clear why they were not – she was dated a mere 18,000–12,000 years old. In the damp soil of the floor of Liang Bua Cave, her bones were not turned to rock but had become soft like thick, wet paper and were very easily damaged. But the only recent human species other than Homo sapiens (us) is known only from much older remains – Neanderthal man vanished from Europe during the last ice age, almost 30,000 years ago. What is more, DNA tests show that he is so closely related to us that some argue that there was no Homo neanderthalensis – merely a sub-species of modern man. So the discovery of a very different homonin that may have been wandering around Asia in the relatively recent past, at the same time as modern humans, is quite astonishing and controversial.

The immediate problem was that she did not fit into the usual understanding of a linear human evolution, from ape-like creatures called Australopithecenes to various species of genus Homo with increasing brain sizes. The earliest remains accepted as a human ancestor were found in the African Rift Valley – including Lucy, a female of the species Australopithecus afarensis dating to over three million years ago. She was not very human in appearance, being short and rather like a chimpanzee, but she did have some specifically human characteristics.

About a million years later, the first real human appears, also in Africa, of the species Homo habilis. The Homo erectus walks fully upright out of Africa into Asia and from that point, evolves into a series of species, each with a slightly bigger brain and taller body. It's a nice idea – we get smarter, faster and better looking! Unfortunately evolution doesn't really work like that – it's adaptive, not progressive – and now along comes the Hobbit to challenge that idea of our development, including the claim that we evolved first in Africa. She is not like Homo erectus and may not have descended from him. Rather she seems to have the features of the earlier Australopithecenes. Is it possible that alongside the various human species, these early humans survived and continued to evolve along a quite different path right up to recent times? Could they have survived and developed alongside us just like the Great Apes have done?

This is a view that shakes the conventional view and the reputations based upon it. How is it possible that something so basic could be open to such a range of interpretation and disagreement? As a scientist in the film points out, the entire body of evidence – the whole worldwide collection of early human and homonin remains found in Asia – could be laid out up on one large table. In fact, all the ancient human remains

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