Special Sub-Topic: Our New Human Cousin - the "Hobbit"
|In the media, the new human has been nicknamed "Hobbit." Why is this?|
The adult stood at about 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches) tall. The "Hobbit" nickname refers to the small stature of the creature (and also the current popularity of the works of Tolkien.) Other than height, there is no known link to the creations of Tolkien in this discovery.
|In what geographic region was the discovery of the "Hobbit" made?|
Indonesia. The discovery was made on the Indonesian island of Flores, which is in the heart of the Indonesian archipelago, and about 1500 kilometers from Jakarta.
|The original discovery was of the skull and bones of one female, and fragments of up to six other specimens. How old are the youngest of these specimens?|
13,000 - 14,000 years old. The most complete skeleton has been dated with accelerator mass spectrometry to about 18,000 years old. Some of the fragments appear to be younger, possibly as young as 13,000 years old. The oldest appear to be around 74,000 - 95,000 years old, indicating that these creatures were around for a very long time. The intriguing thing about this is that they almost definitely coexisted with our own species, homo sapiens. As a point of comparison, Neanderthals are believed to have disappeared from Europe and western Asia around 28,000 years ago.
|What is the scientific name given to the new species, nicknamed "Hobbit"?|
Homo floresiensis. It was named for the Island of Flores where the remains were discovered. Homo sapiens is our own species. Homo erectus is an earlier human species that lived 1.8 million - 200,000 years ago, and appears to be an ancestor of H. floresiensis. H. erectus is not believed to be a direct ancestor of H. sapiens. H. hobbitus is something I made up.
|True or false: The local people where the discovery was made have traditional legends about little people, similar to leprechauns.|
t. Their legends refer to creatures called Ebu Go Go, who were little people who spoke to each other in their own language. It is possible -- although is not now and probably never will be proven -- that these legends refer to their small cousins. There has been speculation in the popular press that H. floresiensis may have survived far longer than the current discoveries indicate, and indeed may even still exist. While these speculations are hugely intriguing, at this point (October 2004) they are not supported by any scientific evidence and are therefore pure fantasy.
|The creature's brain size is the smallest of all known hominids, including our early ancestor Australopithicus. This means that it could not have achieved the same level of technology (tool use, hunting techniques etc.) that our species had in the same environment.|
f. The relation of brain size to complex behaviour and intelligence has never been tremendously well defined, and appears to have become hazier with this discovery. There is a good possibility that H. floresiensis made stone tools and hunted and cooked meat, putting it in the same technological class as H. sapiens of the time. (Although this is not definite; see explanation for the last question.) It is a plausible theory that the smaller body and brain size allowed it to adapt better to an isolated island environment. The brain is a high-energy organ, so having a smaller one would allow the creature to survive on fewer calories. If it proves true that H. floresiensis was a tool-maker, then most likely its brain was more sophisticated (in terms of internal structure) than that of Australopithicus, even though it was smaller.
|Which of the following intriguing questions have been raised by this discovery?|
All of these (If we found these creatures alive, would we put them in a zoo or send them to school?, What other cousins might we have or have had but not know about yet?, What impact does this discovery have on religious belief systems?). The BBC website ran an article asking whether the discovery meant "the end of religion." Of course it doesn't, any more than the fall of the Soviet Union meant the end of history, but the questions are coming up. Anthropologists have expressed the opinion that this will not be the last time such a discovery is made... in fact "New Scientist" quoted one as saying, "some of them will be truly weird." And finding out that we shared the earth with a relative much later than we suspected has raised the question: what if we actually come face to face with these guys?
|There is some evidence indicating that our cousins hunted for and cooked meat. What is one animal that they are likely to have hunted?|
Dwarf elephants. There were dwarf elephants (actually dwarf stegodons, ancestors of modern elephants) present in the same time period on Flores Island. Charred bones found at the site of the discovery present the possibility that H. floresiensis had hunted and cooked such animals. Other remains found were of fish and other mammals including bats and rodents. The other animals mentioned were, to the best of my knowledge, not present in the environment.
|What publication carried the original story about this discovery?|
Nature. "Nature" is a highly respected refereed (meaning all articles are checked by other scientists before publication) journal. The others are not generally forums that publish original research, although I believe all of them carried the story after its publication in "Nature". The cover of "Nature" pictured the skull and some bone fragments, and the caption "Short for Her Age."
|The site where the discovery was made also contained fairly sophisticated stone tools. This means that our new cousin definitely was a tool-maker.|
f. While this is certainly a possibility, there are other plausible explanations to the existence of the tools at the site. First among them is that, since H. sapiens coexisted on the island with H. floresiensis, they made the tools and H. floresiensis just got their hands on them through trade, capture or some other method.
Most of the facts in this quiz came from "New Scientist" and BBC coverage of the story. I hope you enjoyed this quiz... if you are taking it much after October 2004, be sure to do a web search to find out what the latest developments are in this very exciting story.
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