Bones of contention

Anthropologists are in an uproar over the significance of a tiny, ancient skeleton -- nicknamed the "hobbit" -- found on an island of modern-day short people.

Published January 18, 2005 9:38PM (EST)

If you want to understand human evolution, it may be worth starting with Johannes Daak from the remote village of Akel in the heavily forested center of the Indonesian island of Flores. Johannes, from the Manggarai ethnic group, reckons he is 100 years old and says he owes his longevity and enduring strength to having only ever known one woman. He says he owes his stature to his ancestors.

Johannes is no more than 4 feet 1 inch tall, give or take an inch. His grandfather and father were also tiny, and so is his son. All of them had "normal" size mothers, but for some reason, only the males in his family seem to be small. Next month, two researchers from Indonesia's leading Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta will head to Akel and nearby Rampasasa village to measure Johannes' family and other "little" people who live there. The size and proportions of their limbs and skulls will then be compared with those of the most celebrated skeleton in the world -- Homo floresiensis, aka the hobbit, the little lady of Flores, ebu, or, in the shorthand of the scientists who found the skeleton in a Flores cave called Lian Bua, LB1.

This 13,000-year-old, 1-meter tall, 25-year-old hominin, with a brain one-third the size of modern man's, was found just a few miles from Johannes' village and was a scientific sensation last October when the team of Australians and Indonesians that unearthed it claimed in the journal Nature that it was an entirely new human species. Dubbing it Homo floresiensis and nicknaming it "hobbit," they said it was a descendant of a long-extinct ancestor of modern man (Homo erectus), thought to have flourished between 1.8 million and possibly 300,000 years ago. Dubbed one of the breakthroughs of 2004 by the journal Science, it made worldwide news. Fossils show only about 10 human species and 50 subspecies, so finding a brand-new one is a huge story for anthropologists, and Homo floresiensis was greeted as the most breathtaking and important discovery in 150 years, changing our understanding of late human evolutionary geography, biology and culture. Not only was it the smallest adult hominin found but, the Australian team suggested, because it came so late in the human evolutionary scale, a group of Homo floresiensis could even be alive today in the forests of Flores.

But every major find has a backlash, and in this case a fierce, high-level challenge has come from academics in several countries. Leading them is professor Teuka Jacob, who heads the Laboratory of Bioanthropology and Paleoanthropology at Gadjah Mada. The only man outside the excavating team to have inspected the skeleton, Jacob says it is conceivable that Johannes' family members are descendants of the little lady of Flores.

But even if his researchers find no direct link, he says he is certain from his own preliminary inspection that the bones now locked in a safe in his vault at the university do not belong to a new species within the genus Homo, or even a subspecies, but a pygmy version of Homo sapiens -- not unlike Johannes. And he claims that behind the intense media attention last October were ill-equipped, hurried young academics whose work was not properly scrutinized. The world of anthropology is used to disputes, but the fierce nature of this one has split the field.

Lian Bua, the limestone cave where Homo floresiensis was found 5.9 meters below the floor in October 2003, translates as "cold cave." It is at least 10 degrees Celsius cooler than the deep, hidden valley of paddy fields that it overlooks. It is also easy to see why early man used this cave for so long. It is ideal for hunter-gatherers. Light and dry, with 20-meter ceilings, easily defensible ledges and secret chambers, it's a place a tribe could live under its stalactites.

"This is where they found the skeleton," says Riccus Bandar, a farmer from the nearby village of Beotaras who helped with the dig and is now the cave's unofficial custodian, guide and gateman. He points out the slightly disturbed ground a few feet from the cave's left wall. "They also found pygmy elephants, Komodo dragons and tools. It is the most beautiful cave in the world."

Lian Bua has a colorful recent history. At one point a schoolroom for villagers, it was first investigated in the 1950s by Theodoor Verhoevenis, a Dutch missionary and amateur archaeologist. Indonesian archaeologists excavated it again in the 1980s, but the work was suspended during the Asian financial crash. Since then it has become a favorite picnic spot for locals.

But it is legendary in Beoteras. "My grandmother told me when I was about 6 of how, long ago, six children from the village went hunting and one of their dogs went into the cave but did not come out," says Bandar, who is in his 60s. "They went in and saw a little man there. He was very small, standing on a rock. They were frightened and ran back. The people were very afraid."

The story is more or less echoed in other villages, many of whose people say they originate from the island of Kalimantan (formerly Borneo) -- where pygmy-size people live. According to one account, the little people of Flores were also called the Reba Ruek and were very hairy. The Australian scientists say they were told of an Ebu Gogo who reportedly lived on Flores until just a few hundred years ago. But no one in the villages near Lian Bua has heard that name.

Some 1,500 kilometers to the west of Flores, on the far more developed island of Java, is Jacob's laboratory. The only one of its kind in South Asia, its ground floor is a chaos of cabinets and shelving, holding 40 years of excavated material. It includes Jacob's large collection of hominins -- including his discoveries of Homo erectus, Homo erectus palaeojavanicus and Homo erectus soloensis.

But he is keeping the latest Flores find in a safe in his steel-doored vault. Like all other major finds made by the department of archaeology, the bones were sent to his laboratory. He did not -- as the press has said -- kidnap them. "They even gave me the money for the transport." He insists he is not jealously guarding his patch, or upset that Australians found the skeleton. "At my age you look at things quite calmly. I have been working in this field for more than 40 years ... Here [in this laboratory] we have one-third of the world's Homo erectus finds."

But professor Richard "Bert" Roberts of the University of Wollongong, Australia, a coauthor of the original Nature paper, accuses Jacob of "stifling study" by not releasing the bones. "Jacob has a habit of hanging on to fossils for a long time. He cannot be allowed to keep these, to stifle the study that he so advocates. I urge him to send the fossils back."

Jacob is one of the world's most experienced paleoanthropologists, as well as being a pathologist. After training in Holland and getting his Ph.D. in the United States, he worked for 40 years on many of Indonesia's major sites, as well as in Kenya, Australia, Italy, China and South Africa. He has written more than 20 books and is one of Asia's most decorated and well-known academics.

All his experience, he says, tells him that this is not a new species. "When I saw the Australians' research, I refused to comment for the first two weeks. Then the head of the archaeological center [which cosponsored the dig] asked me to take the bones and then we got a really good look. "The skull looked to me like a primate's. It was only when I picked it up that I knew it was Homo sapiens. We did the measurements. A few things might confuse people, like the shape of the skull from the back is pentagonal. Later I saw the pelvis and the thighbone. It's just human. It's not erectus."

He believes that the small brain volume may be a sign of mental abnormalities, specifically microcephaly (small brain), which has been observed elsewhere in early humans. "I started to get confirmation about the size of the brain. Then I knew they had found [something] similar to a microcephelate. It [the disease] could be genetic or acquired during birth."

He did not find the tiny skull remarkable. "It was what we call microcranic -- very small. There was a very small brain and jaw. In this case there were no other abnormalities, only in the skull. The legs, arms and everything else were genetically normal. But this [microcephaly] can happen anywhere. It could be as common as one in 500."

In rapid succession he picks up bits of the bones laid out on his desk. "Look at the teeth, they are clearly modern ... so is the skull. The arm bones, the leg bones ... all are small, but that is all. If you analyze the front of the face, you might think it is an ape. But look at the whole head and it looks much more human, especially from behind."

He inspects the jaw. "The front teeth are very small. It has only one premolar. In [Homo] erectus, they get smaller and then larger. This has the same occlusal pattern as recent Javanese finds."

He believes that the Australians got not only the species wrong but even the gender. "The margin of the eye hole is rounder than for a female," he says. He picks up the thighbone. "Observe the muscular attachments. They are more pronounced than with females. Again, the pelvis is rounded [which suggests a man]."

The row is now splitting anthropologists. Although the Australian and Indonesian scientists stand their ground and are backed by many experts, a group that includes paleopathologist Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide and anthropologist Alan Thorne of the Australian National University in Canberra is skeptical of their case. Henneberg argues that the skull of the Flores hominin is very similar to a 4,000-year-old microcephalic Minoan skull found on Crete in 1975.

Jacob says he is now getting support from around the world and hopes to publish a paper setting out his arguments in Science soon.

The Australians' mistake, he says, was not to fully compare their findings with others made in Flores or elsewhere in the region. A find like this, he says, "must be seen from all aspects, in relation to the environment and neighboring areas. They did their study without comparative material. We are now studying every detail and comparing it with all the other remains from Flores caves and neighboring islands, like the small individuals found in east Java in the 1950s. "I have studied the remains from several caves in Flores in the 1960s. There are five similar caves in the area. Catholic priests found some small skeletons in the 1950s. Dutch anthropologists found some in the 1960s."

The Australians say it is too much of a coincidence to have seven possible hominins all with small bones (only one skull has been found), but Jacob says small people are not uncommon in the region.

"There is plenty of other evidence of pygmy peoples in the region. There are pygmies still living in west Papua, the Andeman and Nicobar islands, and in the Philippines. But they are all Homo sapiens. They're just a smaller size. These pygmies were once quite common, but only pockets remain. There was far more diversity of people before."

He says the row has become personal. "I have been called everything. They say it's jealousy, a turf war, but it's not." He claims the Australian team were "scientific terrorists" forcing ideas on people, that it was unethical for them to have made the announcement without the Indonesians being invited and that they were not experienced enough. "I don't think the Australians have the expertise. They were very narrow. They have a tunnel vision and were not equipped in this area."

He absolves the Indonesians on the team. "Professor R.P. Soejono [the head of the Indonesian archaeology center that jointly sponsored the dig] was in the list of authors, but he never even saw the drafts [of the Nature article]. The others were young Indonesians. In the present climate it's hard to get a job. You usually follow the hand that feeds you. I would say [to the Australians] 'do some more work. Think twice. Look at everything from different angles. Don't start with the conclusion.'"

And he has concerns about the referees of the Nature article. "The reviewers seemed unevenly selected, very one-sided." It is an argument Roberts categorically rejects. The referees were leading anthropologists. "They [Nature] had six referees on each paper, the most I have ever known. They made damn sure they had a cushion behind their arse. The papers had to be submitted three times. It took six months, so was hardly rushed out. It was fair and rigorous.

"Our team had everyone involved -- geomorphologists, geochronologists, archaeologists, paleoanthropolgists ... We left no bone unturned. Good grief, it was a soccer team of authors!"

And he raises the stakes by suggesting that Jacob and other critics have an "intellectual interest" in denying that the skeleton was a new species. "All ... are supporters of the multiregionalism evolutionary model ... This discovery would destroy their theory. It suits their purposes very nicely [to oppose Homo floresiensis]."

The background to the row is a long and bitter debate between those anthropologists who say the modern human evolved in Africa and that all modern Homo sapiens developed there, and those such as Jacob who say that Homo erectus migrated from Africa through the north and spread [and developed] throughout the rest of the world. The argument is far from being resolved on either side.

One of the original advocates of multiregionalism, professor Alan Thorne of the Australian National University at Canberra, was coauthor of a reaction to the Flores paper in the journal Before Farming, and has weighed in on Jacob's side. He says: "If it was another species, as they are saying, then it's very unlikely that all the details of racial characteristics [are] exactly the same as Homo sapiens living there today. They might have one or two features but not all of them. There is something seriously misleading here."

Like Jacob, he thinks Homo floresiensis is a case of "secondary microcephaly." "That means that we don't know the genetic reason for [the disorder] but that secondary reasons may be responsible, like something being wrong in the gut. There are many examples in the literature. The disorder may be as common as Mongolism, say one in 2,000. Dwarfism, anyway, goes with microcephaly, especially in hunter-gatherer populations."

And he supports Jacob's broader points. "Paleoanthropology has lost its way and people are desperate for new species. People are more aggressive. If, as Jacob thinks, it's a case of microcephaly, there are a lot of people in my field who cannot recognize a village idiot when they see one."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jacob loves a good row. "This is like ecstasy without the drug. It relieves you. The blood speeds up. It excites you. You think more. But it has stirred up a nest of hornets. It's like opening a can of worms and you cannot put them back in again. The creationists are using it for the wrong reason [to deny evolution]. I am not a creationist at all.

"I don't want to seem like a killjoy but we are looking for truth, not for fame. You have to look for the truth, but fame will come to you whether you look for it or not," he says. "I think it's quite possible that there are other species. But in the past 15,000 years there is only one. It's not an entirely unimportant find because it is a pygmy skeleton found in a controlled excavation. But it's certainly not the most important in the last 150 years."

By John Vidal

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