Hobbit As Monkey?

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Well, here’s an idea I haven’t heard of before…

Last year scientists found the bones of what they recognized as a new species of hominid that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. They named it Homo floresiensis, and its three foot stature earned it the nickname the Hobbit. All of the reconstructions I’ve seen until now have shown the Hobbit standing upright–which you might expect of a hominid that descended from upright ancestors (perhaps Homo erectus or even the more primitive Australopithecus).

But in the November issue of the Dutch science magazine Natuurwetenschap & Techniek, paleontologist and Hobbit team-member Gert van den Bergh offers a new vision: the Hobbit on all fours.

Van den Bergh makes his case based on the long, strangely shaped arm bones of Homo floresiensis, which were recently described in the journal Nature. “The humerus of Homo sapiens (modern man) and Homo erectus (our ancestor) has a significant twist in the connection to the shoulder,” van den Bergh said in a statement issued from the magazine. “In the Hobbit, however, the humerus is connected to the shoulder without twist. You don’t see this in the even more ancient Australopithecus, nor in erectus or sapiens, nor in apes, but you do see it in gibbons and macaques! As a consequence, the Hobbit’s shoulder is less mobile. Probably she could freely move her arms forward and backward, but had difficulty moving them sideways, like we can.”

Van den Bergh speculates the Homo floresiensis might have adapted to climbing steep mountain slopes as well as trees, like macaques do. “This could be an adaptation to the inhospitable and rugged island of Flores, where the largest coastal plain is just fifteen kilometers wide. The larger part of the island consists of very steep mountain sides.”

The article is all in Dutch, but I received an image of the reconstruction with a lot of captions in English. I’ve posted it here.

Normally I’d let such a reconstruction pass by, since I’m not a big fan of science-by-popular-magazine. But given Dr. van den Bergh’s experience, I thought I’d post it–at least to get people’s imaginations going. I wonder if other signatures of quadrupedalism can be found on the fossils. The hole at the bottom of the skull where the spinal cord exits, known as the foramen magnum, is one clue. I’m going to see if I can find out what other members of the Hobbit team think. If I get a response, I’ll post it here.

UPDATE 10/27 5 PM: Well, Peter Brown, the anthropologist on the hobbit team, is not impressed. In an email reply, he wrote:

Absolute nonsense!

Completely inconsistent with the anatomy of the LB1 skeleton, which is consistent with that of an obligate biped. Simply no way the limbs could have functioned like this. Anatomy of the cranial base, pelvis, legs, feet, hands… all those of an obligate biped.

UPDATE 10/27 6:40 PM Another guffaw from Dan Lieberman, a Harvard anthropologist who has been a careful observer of H. floresiensis research:

Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I’ve seen regarding this odd skeleton. But I like the figure! Their idea its a monkey comes from the humeral torsion, but it really is clearly a biped in so many features that the idea is, well, silly.

Just goes to show that one can publish anything somewhere…

I suspect we’ve just reached the end of a very short, very weird side-story in the Hobbit’s saga.

UPDATE: Friday 10/28/05 12:40 pm: The Australian has picked up on the monkey business now. They even quote Lieberman here. While it’s nice to beat the papers (especially one that’s been on top of the Hobbit beat since the beginning), they seem to be ignoring the fact that the story was reported here first.

Dr van den Bergh’s claim is generating cyber ridicule. “Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I’ve seen regarding this odd skeleton,” wrote Harvard University anthropologist Dan Lieberman on Corante.com.

Excuse me, that was reporting. Another sign, I suspect, that some newspapers don’t like being beaten by blogs.