Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Of Stone Giants, Missing Links, and Hobbits

There's a sucker born every minute. -- David Hannum (not P. T. Barnum, as is usually reported)

Homo Floresiensis has been found in Indonesia. This stunning piece of information might bring on a yawn until I mention that this early human is only between three and four feet tall, hence the nickname “the Hobbits.” Short hominids are not unusual, but this one dates to a time when the average human was about the size of, well, an average human of today (maybe a touch shorter, but not so's you'd notice).

There's been a lot of debate about this little sucker. It seems that the Hobbit's brain is way too small, proportionally speaking. It does turn out that there's a medical condition that can cause precisely the effect that was seen in terms of height and brain development, so many scientists and paleo folks were inclined to dismiss the Hobbit as merely a regular human suffering from a disease. There is a precedent for this in the discovery of the Neanderthals. The first one had bowed legs and stooped posture, based on analysis of his skeleton. Later on, it was determined that the bones belonged to a very old individual afflicted with arthritis. Neanderthals weren't stooped at all, although the image of the shuffling cave man has stayed with us to this day (not to mention those ridiculous Geico ads).

Ah, but wait, say the guys in Indonesia, we've found 9 more of these little people. What do you say to that? Well, I say, bring 'em home and let's have a good scientific look at 'em, because we've been fooled before.

For example, there was the Cardiff Giant. A farmer dug up what was ostensibly a 10 foot-tall petrified pre-Noah's-flood man. Some very intelligent (but apparently not very perceptive) people were taken in by this thing. Of course, it was a fraud. It came about as a result of an argument between an atheist and a preacher. The atheist, a man named Hull, decided he would show these bumpkins a thing or two. He managed to secretly create a statue, did some primitive aging of the stone and buried it in a cooperative farmer's field, where it was “discovered.” Even before it was exposed as a fake, P. T. Barnum and a man named David Hannum began to bid for it. Hannum won, but Barnum went ahead and had his own made, which people were just as satisfied to see, prompting Hannum's bitter remark quoted above.

And, then there was Piltdown Man. Found over a period of four years from 1908 to 1912, pieces of a jaw, teeth, and a skull were assembled to show that England had been home to the “missing link”, a creature with a jaw and teeth like an ape, but with a brain case like that of a modern human. This fraud, the perpetrator of which has never been clearly identified, was in the textbooks for years and wasn't exposed until 1953. Ironically, it was easily determined to be a fake; it was just that no one ever looked all that closely.

Piltdown changed the way archaeologists and paleontologists looked at new discoveries. There is now a considerably greater burden of proof on the discoverer to show that the find is what they say it is. I'm not saying that the Hobbit is a fake. On the contrary, it would be fascinating to find out that it's a real little person.

However, I'll believe it when it stands up to some serious scrutiny. And even then, I'll reserve judgment for a few years. Like the Who say, “Won't get fooled again.”

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