Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Of Hobbits and Hoodies

By Simon Grose

The main critic of the view that a now-extinct human species inhabited the island of Flores has a good record for media coverage but not so good for scientific judgements that bear scrutiny.

The work of Prof Maciej Henneberg recently made the news on two different fronts.

Adelaide University’s Wood Jones Professor of Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy first gained media exposure with his latest tilt at the mainstream view that “hobbit” people who inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores up to around 18,000 years ago constituted a species – Homo floresiensis – distinct from Homo sapiens.

With co-authors from Pennsylvania State University and China’s National Institutes of Earth Sciences, he published a paper in PNAS arguing that the only one of nine hobbit skeletons with a complete skull was actually a Homo sapiens with Down syndrome, and that the other skeletons were also from “a normal small-bodied population from the geographic region that includes Flores”.

He was on this case from the beginning. Soon after the 2003 discovery was announced he led criticism of the Homo floresiensis theory, arguing that the key skeleton was a human with microcephaly.

Almost a decade later he has come up with the Down syndrome theory, based on selected measurements of the specimen’s skull. However, this theory ignores other characteristics of the skull – the weak chin, heavily boned eye sockets, sloping forehead and wide-based cranium – that are not found in humans with or without Down syndrome.

In the same week as this story got a run, Henneberg’s work on identifying blokes in hoodies also made news.

Anthony Charles Honeysett had been convicted of taking part in a 2011 armed robbery of a Sydney pub. CCTV footage of the crime showed “Offender One” with his whole body obscured save for a gap between the sleeve and glove on one hand. Honeysett was convicted of being that offender based on Henneberg’s evidence of anatomical characteristics that were common to him and Offender One after he compared the CCTV footage and photos of Honeysett.

Honeysett appealed to the NSW Supreme Court and got knocked back, so he took it to the High Court which found:

The Court held that Professor Henneberg's opinion was not based wholly or substantially on his knowledge of anatomy: his opinion regarding each of the characteristics of Offender One was based on his subjective impression of what he saw when he looked at the images... The Court held that it was an error of law to admit the evidence. The Court quashed Mr Honeysett's conviction and ordered a new trial.

Henneberg’s fans will also recall that in 2009 he said that risqué photos of a sullen young woman published by News Ltd papers were “99.2 per cent sure” to be of Pauline Hanson. A few months later News paid Ms Hanson an undisclosed sum and published an apology acknowledging that she was not the subject of the photos.

Based on his form, a wise punter would bet against the Adelaide professor.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).