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Alien from Earth: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 11.18.08
  • NOVA

On November 18, 2008, Mike Morwood answered selected viewer questions about Homo floresiensis, about his team's ongoing work at Liang Bua Cave on Flores, and other hobbit-related matters.

Michael Morwood

Dr. Michael Morwood is Professor in Archeology, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia. Full Bio

Photo credit: Courtesy Mike Morwood

Dr. Michael Morwood is Professor in Archeology, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia. In 2003, the Australian/Indonesian team of which he was coleader made a stunning discovery deep within a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores: the remains of what he and many other experts consider a brand-new species of human, Homo floresiensis. The following year, Morwood's crew unearthed remains of up to eight more "hobbit" individuals in the same cave. Morwood has written many scientific papers on the discovery and is coauthor (with Penny van Oosterzee), of A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia (Smithsonian Books, 2007). Besides his work on Flores, where investigations are ongoing, Morwood is currently conducting archeological research projects in Java, Sulawesi, and West Timor, Indonesia. These and other studies fall under an umbrella research program called "Astride the Wallace Line: 1.5 Million Years of Human Evolution, Dispersal, Culture, and Environmental Change in Indonesia." Morwood received his Ph.D. from the Australian National University in 1980.

Q: Has anything new been learned since this show was produced? Jack McCarthy, Chester, New Jersey

Mike Morwood: Yes, there are studies and associated papers in progress on the feet, pelvis, body proportions, and brain of LB1 [the almost-complete hobbit skeleton found in Liang Bua Cave]. All have very significant implications for the H. floresiensis lineage. Some of my American colleagues at Stony Brook University are taking a lead in this.

Incidentally, a collection of 12 papers on the Liang Bua findings, including the hobbit remains, are about to be published in a special edition of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Q: Now that you have been searching for years, have you found other bones of the hobbit? Lisa, Canada

Morwood: Yes, our excavations at Liang Bua last year and this year produced more hobbit remains. Not another skeleton or skull, unfortunately, but enough for some exciting papers. You can't be so lucky all the time!

Q: Dr. Morwood, has there been any search for similar remains on nearby islands such as Timor and Atauro? Thank you for your work, sir! Jody Glade, formerly of UN Mission in East Timor, Sedona, Arizona

Morwood: Yes, we have just finished surveys and excavations on Sulawesi and have located stone artifacts in geologically old contexts. Just waiting for some preliminary dates. And we already have some really old stone artifacts from Timor (about to be published). Whether very early modern humans or a late archaic species were responsible is not clear at present. Some of my colleagues will be returning to Timor next week.

Q: What is the realistic possibility of recovering DNA from H. floresiensis? Dick Cavallaro, New London, New Hampshire

Q: Dear Dr. Michael Morwood, I have two questions:
1. What about H. floresiensis DNA?
2. Are there fossils of clothing H. floresiensis used, or perhaps body hair?

With kind regards, Adriaan van Sandwijk, Kersbeek, Belgium

Morwood: Alan Cooper from the Centre for Ancient DNA in Adelaide, South Australia, and Svante Paabo from the Max Planck Institute in Germany have both tried to get DNA from the teeth of LB1 and LB6—unsuccessfully, unfortunately. But we have high hopes for some of the new finds made this year. These have not been handled and have been kept cool.

Several types of hair were recovered from the Liang Bua deposits in the Pleistocene levels and are currently being studied by specialists. My guess is that the samples are from rodents and maybe Stegodon [an extinct genus of elephant].

Q: How tall might a child hobbit have been? Nicolas, Grade 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Morwood: We have some remains from a child about 5 years old, who was about 50 cm [20 inches, or just over a foot and a half] in height.

Q: Does the hobbit's overall morphology more closely resemble classic Homo erectus, Lucy, or the new find at Dmanisi, Georgia (1.75 mya)? Do you consider the Dmanisi find to be the most likely ancestor of the hobbit, and, if so, does that mean the hobbit's small size is more or less likely to be a result of the island dwarfism scenario?

Also, whose stone toolkit is more sophisticated—the hobbits of Flores, Java Man, or the hominids of Dmanisi? Jason Thompson, Huber Heights, Ohio

Morwood: The hobbit has many characteristics more similar to australopithecines than to H. erectus (in the brain, jaw, premolars, pelvis, body proportions, etc.). But H. habilis or a similar early species cannot be ruled out.

The stone artifacts associated with the hobbit are very similar to those found at Mata Menge, an 880,000-year-old site in the Soa Basin of central Flores. Mark Moore, who studied them for his Ph.D., also says they are like the "Developed Oldowan" found in Africa before 1.5 million years ago. Trouble is, most Southeast Asian stone artifacts throughout the sequence look similar, with recent changes usually being "add-ons" (e.g., bifacially flaked and ground adzes).

Q: Referring to the picture of the two hobbit mandibles, I am struck by their differences in shape. One has the parabolic shape to the dental arch typical of modern humans, while the other has tooth rows that are much more parallel, a trait typical of living apes and distant human ancestors such as Australopithecus afarensis.

As a graduate student in physical anthropology, I never saw this degree of variation in the mandibles of two individuals of the same species. Do the teeth of these individuals show a lot of variation as well? What is your explanation for the unusual parallel-sided mandible in an individual thought to be so closely related to Homo sapiens? Anonymous

Morwood: Depends which photos of the mandibles you saw. Originally the two jaws were very similar, but as a result of a botched attempt to cast them while they were in [the late Indonesian paleontologist] Professor Teuku Jacob's care, one was badly broken at the symphysis and is now much more narrower than originally.

Q: If evolution is now more like a bush than a horizontal line, and if in the past different types of species of hominids could live at the same time, is it possible that today, while we dominate, could there be other species still surviving in remote parts of the Earth still living? John W. Fisher, Baltimore, Maryland

Morwood: Yes, it is possible but extremely unlikely. It will be interesting, though, to see when hobbits actually became extinct on Flores. They disappeared from Liang Bua about 17,000 years ago but may have hung on longer in other parts of the island.

Q: Have any similar bones or artifacts been found anywhere else (for example, in Europe), possibly misidentified? Mike LaMar, Danville, Indiana

Morwood: The hobbit remains are most similar to some hominin species previously only found in Africa. The stone artifacts are simialr to those found in the Soa Basin of central Flores from 880,000 years ago, and also to some early African assemblages, e.g., the so-called "Developed Oldowan."

Q: Dr. Morwood, have the hobbits left behind any found evidence of wooden boomerang weapons or toys, such as simple "tumble sticks"? Robert Keen, Reno, Nevada

Q: Since the species lived for many centuries on Flores, is it likely that Homo floresiensis individuals created something more than stone tools? Like baskets, clay pots, clothing, cave paintings, pictures drawn on stone, etc.? Is anyone looking? Paul Polesky, Aliquippa, Pennsylvania

Morwood: There are no wooden artifacts in the associated deposits, but some of the stone artifacts have evidence for wood-working, including use of bamboo! So almost certainly they made a wide range of artifacts from organic materials.

Incidentally, if our assumption that the hominins of the Soa Basin in central Flores were the ancestors of hobbits is correct, then the hobbit lineage existed in isolation on Flores for about 880,000 years, i.e., about 35,000 generations.

Q: Do you find the idea of the "island effect" of gigantism and dwarfism of a species valid in this case? Or do you believe that the hobbit is really from another species of hominid?

Also, today, people who are the same size as the hobbit have the same-sized brain as normal-sized humans. With their smaller brains, how could hobbits have performed the same basic functions as early humans? Emma and Emily, St. Louis, Missouri

Morwood: We now believe that the ancestors of H. floresiensis who first colonized Flores were small in stature and brain size. There may have been some insular dwarfing over their 880,000 years of isolation, but probably not much. Stegodon [an extinct elelphant] on the island down-sized about 30 percent over that time, so this may provide a guideline.

Not too many people today are only 100 cm [40 inches, or about three and a third feet] tall. The studies by Dean Falk and colleagues [see Compare the Brains] indicate that the hobbit's brain was small but uniquely wired.

Q: I understood that brain size as a measure of intelligence had been thrown out long ago. Even birds are now challenging that less-than-useful tool. So why did it play such a part in the search for answers? Teresa Howard, Garrison, Montana

Q: The NOVA program emphasizes the puzzle created by the small brain size of H. floresiensis. However, I was under the impression that the ratio of brain size to body size was a better indicator of intelligence than absolute brain size. If this is true, how do various species of human, including H. floresiensis, compare in this ratio? Thank you. Anonymous

Morwood: The hobbit discovery challenges the idea that intelligence is directly proportional to brain size. The associated evidence definitely indicates that hobbits were smart, but significantly, there is no evidence for their use of pigments, decoration, or burial of the dead in the Pleistocene levels of Liang Bua—in contrast to lots of such evidence associated with modern human skeletal remains in the Holocene levels.

Q: Which do you think is the most plausible last common ancestor, with H. sapiens, for H. floresiensis? From an intermediate population like Homo georgicus (Dmanisi) or from an australopith? Or even further back? East Asian H. erectus seems unlikely as a progenitor. Could the current wisdom, that hominids sprang out of Africa into Asia be totally reversed? Could Asia be the source of mankind and his near relatives? Adam Crowl, Brisbane, Australia

Q: How do finds and interpretations of H. floresiensis impact the Out of Africa & Multiregional hypotheses of human origins? Or does the possible relationship of H. floresiensis to australopithecines make the above arguments moot? Thanks. Ollie, Mankato, Minnesota

Morwood: Many of the traits of H. floresiensis are more similar to australopithecines than they are to other early hominins. For instance, they comprise the only species known outside Africa with the primitive body proportions. Aspects of the brain, stature, jaw, premolars, pelvis, and feet have similar implications. But a H. habilis-like ancestor is still a possibility.

Q: A NOVA scienceNOW episode mentioned that the indigenous population of Flores has very recent folklore about these hobbit humans. Does this imply that they may still exist? Are there efforts to investigate this folklore or even search for potential living specimens? Kirill, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Morwood: No. Flores is now fairly densely populated, hence the drastic decline in wildlife in recent times. However, hobbits may have existed on Flores in isolated regions long after they disappeared from Liang Bua.

Q: Dr. Morwood:

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia ('63-'65) and was friend to the curator of Liberia's (then) President Tubman's zoo in Totota, Liberia—Harry Gilmore. Gilmore was a great storyteller, but what he told me I have every reason to believe. He once lived far into the bush on an island in Indonesia chasing a rare rhino (white or black or something). He told me of his encounter with a very small humanoid creature. He said it had long reddish hair and was about 3 feet tall. It ran as soon as it saw him, but he took a plaster cast of its footprint and sent it to a London museum for identification. I don't know which museum he sent it to.

He said that they couldn't identify it but told him that it was not a bear. Gilmore is now dead, but surely that plaster cast exists somewhere in England. He was very clear that the creature was not an orang; he had dealt with animals all his life. He said it walked on 2 feet and was humanlike, an adult but very small. I can't remember which island Gilmore was on, but it was Sumatra or Borneo or one of the well-known ones.

I think I still have a copy of the report he wrote about his experience, if I could find it. Apparently these "little people" are well known among the islanders. From what he said, these "people" inhabit Indonesia, and the islanders are afraid of them—bad luck or something. I have tried to interest some scientist in following up on this but so far no luck. I have no ulterior motive other than finding someone who will look into this. Gilmore indicated that they lived very deep in the interior of the island. He is written up in a (USA) Saturday Evening Post magazine article back in the '50s, I think. I found a copy in the library when I returned to the U.S. after serving in the Peace Corps.

I would welcome a reply if you have the time.

Many thanks, Janet (Reed) Pettit, Palatka, Florida

Morwood: There are consistent accounts of very small people from a number of Southeast Asian islands—e.g., the Orang Pendik accounts from Sumatra—and from the mainland as well. Most probably these represent small, isolated populations of modern humans.

Q: Given your observations [about the hobbit], what do they imply about the Irish and their preoccupation with "little people"? Does that suggest that Ireland should be the site for renewed archeological and anthropological investigations? Ed Robertson, Durham, North Carolina

Morwood: All round the world, people have stories of little people. In most cases, these are just stories, but in some cases they may be a folk memory of earlier hominin species. The stories on Flores, in particular, may have a factual basis.

Q: In Casper, Wyoming back in the 1800s, the mummified remains of a tiny adult human were found. The remains were such that an X-ray revealed the skeleton of the individual, and it was reported by many experts to be authentic and not a hoax. Stories told by the Indians associated with the find remind me of those tales associated with the hobbit.

Supposedly, from accounts back in the 1970s, this Casper, Wyoming tiny person's remains were lost in a museum(?) in Connecticut. Have you ever seen these remains, and now after seeing and studying the hobbit, do you place any significance on these remains, even though they now appear lost to further study and research? Thank you. Frank Benjamin, Chesapeake Community College, Galena, Maryland

Morwood: There are many credible accounts around the world of very small people. In most cases, these probably refer to isolated groups of small modern people, e.g., the stories of Orang Pendik people in Sumatra. There are also accounts of small human mummies being manufactured. For instance, in Sulawesi people sometimes mummify the corpses of shaved monkeys for sale as tiny humans—and they look pretty convincing.

Q: What is your response to the contention that the morphological features of H. floresiensis are indistinguishable from Laron syndrome [a disorder that causes dwarfism]? Dan Rahrer, London, Ontario, Canada

Q: What are the chances that this discovery is an example of heritable human morbidity and not speciation? That is, could these specimens be midget pygmy humans, in a clan that concentrated the trait? Dan Whitacre, Columbus, Ohio

Morwood: A paper has just been submitted by Dean Falk of Florida State University, Bill Jungers of Stony Brook University, New York, and colleagues showing how LB1 actually has almost nothing in common with Laron syndrome patients, as defined in the medical literature.

We have the remains of at least 14 H. floresiensis individuals now, including the almost complete skeleton, and they consistently have a whole range of very primitive traits—in their stature, body proportions, pelvis, shoulders, wrist, feet, mandibles, and premolars. Much of this evidence will be detailed in a coming special edition of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Q: Is it possible that when hobbits and Homo erectus came into contact with one another that H. erectus could have possibly given the hobbits' ancestors disease or infection, similar to what happened with American Indians and European settlers? Anonymous

Morwood: Hobbits represent an endemic species only found on Flores and are probably the product of some 880,000 years of undisturbed isolation there. Whether their Asian mainland ancestors ever encountered H. erectus depends on when they became extinct there.

Probably many hominin species will eventually be identified in Asia. Recent studies of "erectus" material from Sangiran in Java, for instance, indicate that the earliest population had some primitive traits not found in later "erectus" populations there. (This is work in progress by Japanese researchers Hisao Baba and Yousuke Kaifu.)

Q: Webster defines hobbit: "a member of a fictitious peaceful and genial race of small humanlike creatures that dwell underground." I suppose that's why I found it so confusing that the experts refer to the discovery of this species(?) as hobbits. Anonymous

Morwood: "Hobbit" is only a nickname, like "Lucy" is the type specimen for Australopithecus afarensis. It's never used in our scientific publications, but it has certainly raised the public profile of the find.

Q: Were Homo erectus wrist bones more like H. sapiens or more like early hominin and "hobbit" wrist bones? Michael Blonde, Port Angeles, Washington

Morwood: No H. erectus wrist bones have yet been found. A pity, because their morphology would have really significant implications for the phylogenetic history of H. floresiensis. Since H. antecessor from Spain, some 800,000 years old, had "modern" wrist bones, my guess would be that H. erectus also had "modern" wrists. But I may be wrong.

Q: The other day I read that the (partial) genetic struture of the man that was found in the ice in the Swiss Alps was not really a Homo sapiens. Would it be reasonable to assume that there may have been hundreds or thousands of branches in the human lineage that ended up being extinct? Sheldon Lebowitz, Silver Spring, Maryland

Morwood: Hundreds or thousands might be an over-estimate, but yes, the number of hominin species known now is probably only a small fraction of hominin species that once existed.

Q: Dear Dr. Morwood,

Question: more about role Father Verheijan played in informing search efforts? We met him in 1979 in Ruteng, have a few photos, concerned our work establishing Komodo NP with govt & FAO, his linguistic publications dictionaries Rinca/Kmdo/Flores; made overland trip to Labuanbadjo under his direction, passing near your site. We might have relevant info to check out on old human remains from Komodo itself collected by early Kmdo researcher Walter Auffenberg. Would enjoy corresponding about early Komodo Rinca situation; have remained involved in park to present.

Regards, Alan Robinson, Buena Vista, Colorado

Morwood: Many thanks for this additional historical information. I've never heard of Walter Auffenberg before and would be interested in finding out more about his work and findings.

Q: Can the DNA be compared between this species and us? It would be interesting to see how we are similar/different, and if we share any matriarchal DNA with them. Cecil Ashdown, New York, New York

Morwood: We undertook major excavations at Liang Bua, and a priority in this work was to get "fresh" H. floresiensis remains that may yield hobbit DNA. New finds include a premolar tooth that has been kept unhandled and cool.

Previous attempts to extract DNA from hobbit teeth by Prof. Alan Cooper and Prof. Svante Paabo were made a couple of years after the discovery and after the finds had been extensively handled, treated with acetone-based glue, and kept in hot, humid conditions in Jakarta. We now may have more luck with the new finds. (DNA has been recovered from pig remains from Liang Bua as old as 8,000 years.)

And if DNA was found it would not only confirm the species-status of hobbit, but would also allow the "split" between their lineage and ours to be dated, and provide evidence for the hominin genotype at that time depth—2 to 2.5 million years ago would be my estimate.

Q: What about the 700,000-year-old stone tools the program started with but never again mentioned? What's the connection, if any, to the much more recent hobbit? Andrew Leat, Marshall, Michigan

Morwood: Below are a couple of published papers that give much more detail. Also, in 2005 we excavated at Mata Menge again and found stone artifacts below siltstone layers dated to 880,000 years ago. We also found stone artifacts in a sandstone layer about 20 metres stratigraphically lower than Mata Menge, which we have not dated yet.

Given the evidence for long-term undisturbed phylogenetic continuity for the few other land animals that made it to Flores, it is very likely that the Soa Basin knappers were the ancestors of H. floresiensis.

Next week a team of my colleagues returns to central Flores to continue the work. We have already excavated thousands of stone artifacts at a number of sites in the Soa Basin and have large numbers of associated Stegodon remains. A small bit of hominin skeletal evidence would be nice!

Relevant references:

Morwood, M.J., P. O'Sullivan, F. Aziz, and A. Raza. 1998. Fission track age of stone tools and fossils on the east Indonesian island of Flores. Nature 392 (12 March): 173-6.

Brumm, A., F. Aziz, G.D. van den Bergh, M.J. Morwood, M.W. Moore, I. Kurniawan, D.R. Hobbs, and R. Fullagar. 2006. Early stone technology and its implications for Homo floresiensis. Nature 441: 624-628.

Q: I can't think of a single question, so would you recommend any books, articles, sites, etc. that would be good for a person who has not yet gone to college and uses relatively small words, or at least no more than one nine-syllable word per sentence? Not like a baby thing; I can handle pretty big words. Just not something that assumes you've gone to grad school to get your degree in homonids or something. Thank you. Anonymous

Morwood: Thank you for such an opportune question. In 2007, I published a book with Penny van Oosterzee on the history of the Flores research, the significance of the finds, and what happened subsequently. In Australia it was published by Random Books as The Discovery of the Hobbit: The Scientific Discovery That Changed the Face of Human History (a cringe-causing title that was forced on me). In the USA, Smithsonian Books published a slightly different version entitled A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the "Hobbits" of Flores, Indonesia (again, not my choice of title). The book was written to put the real hobbit story on record and to discuss the evidence in a wider context without scientific jargon.

Q: If this fossil is not a current Homo sapiens and is actually a species of its own, then it would have had to evolve from another branch of the Homo genus, by the dwarfism theory. It has been said it closely resembles H. ergaster or H. erectus (lived up to roughly 400,000 yrs ago), or even other early homonids.

My question is: How could it have survived being so close to Toba, the supereruption around 70,000 years ago, and other major geologic events and weather events, which may have caused genetic bottlenecks and multiple extinctions across many species of animals? Josh, Arizona

Morwood: There is a growing consensus amongst people studying the actual remains that the ancestor lineage of Homo floresiensis in East Asia predates the arrival of H. erectus, perhaps by a considerable margin, and that they arrived on the island as a small-brained, short hominin species with primitive body proportions, etc.

Concerning the Toba eruption, most of the ash seems to have been blown to the west towards India, with a bit going north towards Malaysia and the China Sea. We have found no evidence for distinctive Toba ash in the Liang Bua stratigraphy. But plenty of other volcanic eruptions are represented, one of which around 17,000 years ago probably had a role in the extinction of hobbits and Stegodon.

Q: The program starts out talking about stone tools, which you say are 700,000 years old, but then towards the end of the video, you say that Homo floresiensis was on Flores for about 80,000 years. Who made the tools? Edwin, Vacaville, California

Morwood: We have bits and pieces of H. floresiensis at Liang Bua from deposits spanning 95,000 down to 17,000 years ago. The species may have been around much longer, but the age of the deposits at Liang Bua will not provide evidence for this.

In the Soa Basin, we have evidence for stone artifacts associated with Stegodon fossils at 17 sites from 880,000 to about 650,000 years ago. We assume, but cannot yet prove, that the Soa Basin hominins were ancestral to hobbits. So finding skeletal evidence for the Soa Basin knappers is a real priority.

Someday someone will find Lower Pleistocene hominin skeletal remains in the Soa Basin. Hopefully it will be our team. A 300,000-year-old site on Flores containing hominin remains would also be useful.

Q: Thank you so much for all the work you are doing. There are a few artist drawings of the hobbit. Have you ever drawn a picture of them? If so, would you let us see it? Patrick, Collins, Georgia

Morwood: There are a number of reconstructions around, probably the best being that by Elisabeth Daynes in the Natural History Museum in Paris. Unfortuantely, I do not have a photo, but Kate Wong had some excellent illustrations of hobbits and Stegodons in the February 2005 edition of Scientific American.

Related Links

  • Alien From Earth

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  • Hobbits of Flores: Expert Q&A

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  • Jared Diamond on the Hobbit

    The evolutionary biologist explains why the little people shrunk, how they got to Flores, and more.