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Hobbit Saga Highlights a Science in Crisis

Painting by Peter Schouten supplied by the University of Wollongong

Homo floresiensis painting by Peter Schouten supplied by the University of Wollongong

By Darren Curnoe

The latest salvo in the ongoing Homo floresiensis battle has placed the science of human evolution in deep conceptual crisis.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

The 2004 announcement of Homo floresiensis – dubbed “the Hobbit” – marked the beginning of a saga all too frequent in the rarefied field of human evolution. Immediately upon its announcement, anthropologists divided along long-entrenched party lines to support or oppose the find as something novel to science. Is it a highly unusual new species? Or just a diseased modern human?

Last year saw articles clashing over whether the Liang Bua specimens were simply modern human cretins. Neither side gave any ground.

The latest cannonade from the “pro” camp marks the beginning of the 2013 battle – the highly unusual anatomy of the wrist bones of a second Hobbit individual.

The findings themselves are important, but the debate about Homo floresiensis is also fundamental because of what it tells us about the science of human evolution – a discipline in deep conceptual crisis.

A Peculiar Science

The science of human evolution – known as palaeoanthropology – is a rather odd field. It combines a mix of elements seldom seen in other disciplines. The subject – human fossils –is exceedingly rare and difficult to find, and specimens are often incomplete or damaged. Sample sizes are often too small to do any meaningful statistics. And, a single find can offer a major challenge, effectively sweeping away long-entrenched ideas.

The field has a...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.