A MOOC on Homo floresiensis, the “hobbit” hominin

I just want to let you know about a new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Homo floresiensis that reader Dermot C. called to my attention. As you may recall, new dating methods have shown that this 3.5-foot diminutive hominin died out about 50,000 years ago rather than the 12,000 originally posited, and arrived in Flores (Indonesia) between 700,000 and 1,000,000 years ago. Also, new specimens have been found, making it pretty clear that the original specimen wasn’t a malformed or diseased individual, but was a member of a real and very tiny hominin species. (Their brains were about the size of those in modern chimps.)

Their phylogenetic relationship to modern H. sapiens isn’t yet clear (they haven’t been able to get good DNA from the remains), but it is clear the species went extinct without leaving descendants, like the “robust” hominins in Africa. They may have well have been descendants of Homo erectus that evolved a small size for reasons unknown.

Here’s the skinny from Dermot’s email:

I thought your readers might be interested in this free MOOC:

“Homo floresiensis uncovered: the science of ‘the Hobbit'”

The course concerns the discovery of Homo floresiensis, ‘the Hobbit’, discovered on Flores island in 2003. It started on 7th November but it is not too late to catch up. The aim of the course is to ‘discover the incredible world of ‘the Hobbit’ as modern archaeological science uncovers secrets hidden in time…Investigating a range of multidisciplinary approaches and techniques, we explore the contributions of modern archaeological science in challenging assumptions about human evolution and exposing secrets hidden in time.

This course has been developed by the Centre for Archaeological Science (CAS) at theUniversity of Wollongong in association with the Indonesian National Research Centre for Archaeology (ARKENAS), and Lakehead University, Canada.’

The course leader is Prof. Bert Roberts, the Director of the Centre for Archaeological Science at the University of Wollongong and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow. He was one of the archaeologists involved in excavations where Homo floresiensis was discovered. The Educator is Professor Zenobia Jacobs, Director of the Luminescence Dating Laboratory at the University of Wollongong and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. And the Mentor is Alyce Mason, an Educational Designer and researcher from the University of Wollongong.

The course lasts 4 weeks at 2 hours per week, although one can spend more time at it.

Anything for the Brits and Yanks to forget about Brexit and Trump!

Here’s a cast of a H. floresiensis cranium from Wikipedia (note the small brain case):

800px-homo_floresiensis

and where H. floresiensis remains were found.

800px-id_-_flores

If you ever get a chance to go to the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Evolution in Washington D.C. stand next to the reconstructed skeleton of this species and see how incredibly tiny they were. No wonder they were called “hobbits”!

Here’s a reconstructioncompared to a modern human female:

homo_floresiensis_with_modern_human

34 Comments

  1. Mike
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Couldn’t they be the result of as I believe they also found the remains of Dwarf Elephants on Flores , so if an Elephant can shrink over time surely Homo Erectus could.

    • Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      As PCC(E) noted, “They may have well have been descendants of Homo erectus that evolved a small size for reasons unknown.”

      Yes. And the elephant was also on Flores, as you note.

      • nicky
        Posted November 15, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that is a fascinating phenomenon, some types of animals, like elephants (Wrangel Sicily and SE-Asian islands), appear to get smaller on islands. Others, e.g. tortoises, mice, shrews and some birds, tend to Island gigantism. I’m sure some law, or at least rules, about that have been proposed.
        Just out of my hat, smaller animals may tend to gigantism (absence of regular predators?), while the really big ones tend to dwarfism (less ‘resources’ in times of shortage?).

  2. mikeyc
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I believe it is possible. Insular dwarfism is the name of the phenomenon.

    • mikeyc
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      oops. ^That was supposed to be for Mike @1

    • Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it could be insular dwarfism in the sense that the species probably became smaller, and on an island. But what I said was mysterious is, at least in the case of humans, WHY this happened.

  3. colnago80
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Although their brain sizes were small, so were there physical sizes so the the ratio of their brain size to their body size was considerably greater then for modern chimps or bonobos. What is apparently not known is the organization of their brains, which is of equal importance with relative brain size and absolute brain size. Neanderthals had equal or slightly larger brain ratios then modern humans but their brain organization appears to differ considerably which may account for their apparent intellectual inferiority.

    • nicky
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the convoluted wiring. Matt Ridley proposed the greater mobility and associated trade, and division of Labour, were the instruments of intellectual development of our species.
      That is not nescessarily in contradiction with the wiring, why would ‘moderns’ be more prone to mobility, trade, etc. in the first place? But it does give a credible explanation of the slow ascent of ‘intellectual prowess’ in ‘moderns’.

    • Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Took words from my mouth. I wouldn’t wonder if they turn to have been almost as intelligent as the full-sized Homo erectus.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      What is apparently not known is the organization of their brains, which is of equal importance with relative brain size and absolute brain size.

      Given that the original specimens were described as having the texture of “wet blotting paper”, one may be in for a long wait to see cranial endocasts or reliable brain reconstructions. There’s a strong risk of projecting theory onto measurements or reconstructions in such a situation.

      • loren russell
        Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

        I think this has been done, with some confidence by Dean Falk — the size/shape of the frontal lobes in particular were cited to counter the “microcephalism” hyposthesis, and as far as I know Falk’s reconstruction was not seriously questioned even by those who were sure the “hobbit” type skull [at least] was a modern human suffering from some pathology.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted November 18, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      There is no “apparent intellectual inferiority” in the archaeological record. They had the equivalent tools in their tool set as the OOAfricans when they met in Europe, they had the equivalent symbolism, et cetera.

  4. rickflick
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I’m checking out the Hobbit Class. Looks interesting.

  5. Jenny Haniver
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Perhaps I’m unusually brain fogged right now, but I don’t see a link to the course. Here, I found it https://www.mooc-list.com/course/homo-floresiensis-uncovered-science-%E2%80%98-hobbit%E2%80%99-futurelearn, but linking it in the body of the post would have been handy.

    • busterggi
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Thanks, I’ll sign up when I get home this evening.

    • Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      OMG How could I have left that out? My mistake, and thanks to Jenny for the link, which I’ve put in the main post above.

  6. Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I have no time to do such a course, but looks fascinating. (And something creationists should take! ;))

  7. Frank bath
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Returning to insular dwarfism – Flores is an island now but for how long has it been, or was, so?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      It should have been connected to mainland Asia many 1000’s of years ago when sea levels were lower. Their ancestors walked to the islands.

      • Dave
        Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

        I’m not sure that’s correct. All the papers and articles I’ve read on the subject state that Flores is an island of volcanic origin with very deep water on all sides, and that reaching it would certainly have required a sea crossing.

        • loren russell
          Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          Yes, Flores is beyond Wallace’s line, separated by deep channels from the continental islands of Indonesia. Humans had to boat or float on flood [?tsunami? debris].

    • nicky
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that is a very pertinent point. There is a big difference between ‘continental’ islands and ‘oceanic’ ones.
      The former have a more or less full plethora of continental animals that may evolve towards dwarfism or gigantism after being ‘cut off’. Oceanic islands generally have a kind of specific filter ‘beforehand’, most land animals are immigrants there: birds, arthropods and reptiles, but much less mammals or amphibians.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      Without detailed bathymetry, it’s hard to say. There are both shallow inter-island gaps and deep inter-island gaps in the chain. I don’t have a detailed bathymetric chart for the area and wouldn’t try to guess without it.

      • loren russell
        Posted November 15, 2016 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

        Or, you could accept the expert opinion that Flores is east of Wallace’s Line, that the island is indeed separated from the islands just to the west by narrow but very deep straits and that its fauna in hobbit days and now is consistent with these opinions…

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 17, 2016 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

          I know *of* the Wallace Line, but I’m not sure of it’s exact location. OTOH, I’ve been trying to find global bathymetry datasets for some time now (without much success).

  8. Billy Bl.
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I recall reading about a fairly recent study that concluded that H. floresiensis was likely descended from H. erectus. And whether they died out 12 or 50 thousand years ago is not important – they were still contemporaneous with modern humans. That’s what floored me when they were first found.

    • nicky
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      If they died out about 50000 years ago instead of 12000, it places their extinction closer to the arrival of modern humans in the area.
      Nothing proven, but feeding the hypothesis that modern humans eliminated -one way or another, possible details would lead us too far here*- other hominids, as they appear to have eliminated the Neanderthals, and much of the rest of the Pleistocene Megafauna.

      *Extinction, like losing elections 😆, rarely has a single cause.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Their phylogenetic relationship to modern H. sapiens isn’t yet clear (they haven’t been able to get good DNA from the remains)

    And given the warm ambient temperatures and moisture of the area, the odds of ever getting DNA are not good. Not impossible, but not good.

    • busterggi
      Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Just have to capture a live one.

  10. zackoz
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    If you want an inside story on the hobbit’s discovery, I can recommend “The Discovery of the Hobbit”, by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee.

    Morwood (now dead, alas) was the leader of the Australian side of the joint Australian-Indonesian team which excavated the Liang Bua cave where the remains were found. It’s quite a fascinating and dramatic story in its own right, and contains a very clear explanation of the aims and results of biogeographical research.

  11. ToddP
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Also, new specimens have been found, making it pretty clear that the original specimen wasn’t a malformed or diseased individual

    That raises a question for me, and hopefully I’m not forgetting something obvious, but has there ever been a case where a fossil creature DID later turn out to actually be a malformed/abnormal specimen? Unless multiple specimens of what are determined to be the same “form/type/creature” are discovered, what are the safeguards against making wrong assumptions about a singular unique fossil?

  12. Eduardo
    Posted November 16, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Nice update on floresiensis. Thanks.


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