So, a few days ago I picked up a copy of the magazine SKEPTICAL INQUIRER (July/August 2009 issue), the cover story of which, about the Flores hominids, had caught my eye. The article itself ("Pathology or Paradigm Shift?: Human Evolution, Ad Hominem Science, and the Anomalous Hobbits of Flores" by Kenneth W. Krause, pages 31-39) turns out to be a nice summary of the claims, charges, and counter-charges about the early human remains discovered on Flores, one of the Indonesian islands, a few years back. Scientists are divided into two camps, those who believe these represent a new species of early human that tell us a lot of surprising things about the hominid family tree, and those who think the remains belong to relatively modern humans suffering from some deformity (microcephaly, cretinism, &c). For now the evidence seems to be leaning towards the first lot, who maintain that homo floresiensis are a genuine population that split off very early and survived a very long time (i.e., we're much more closely related to Peking Man than either Peking Man or homo sapiens are to H. Floresiensis).
I was particularly fascinated by the arguments that, despite much evidence to the contrary, the Flores People couldn't have used the stone tools found in their cave home alongside their remains because their heads were too small; only large-brained hominids could make tools and use fire. It reminded me strongly of my favorite Steven Jay Gould book, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, a large part of which is devoted to 19th and 20th century obsessions with brain size and false equivalences of brain-size to Intelligence.
But what impressed me even more, as a Tolkien scholar, was to realize that what had begun as a nickname of calling these little people 'hobbits' has now stuck -- not only does the article use Hobbit as the colloquial equivalent of the technical H. florensiensis, but so do several of the papers cited in the bibliography -- or so at least I wd judge from their titles. And these are not newspaper articles but pieces in journals such as SCIENCE and the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PHYSICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, not to mention three books, one of which I'm definitely going to have to get: THE DISCOVERY OF THE HOBBIT: THE SCIENTIFIC BREAKTHROUGH THAT CHANGED THE FACE OF HUMAN HISTORY by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee .*
What would Tolkien have made of all this, I wonder?
*I admit I rather like the idea of putting "The Discovery of the Hobbit" on the same shelf with "The History of The Hobbit"