|by Tim Flowers '06 • September 20, 2005|
Dr. Peter Brown charmed Salter Hall’s standing-room-only crowd Monday evening with his lecture on a small species of humans dubbed the "Hobbit people".
Brown, a Professor of Palaeoanthropology at the University of New England in Australia stressed the uniqueness of this find. Brown and his team of researchers found remains of the so-called "Hobbit people," also known as Homo floresiensis, on the remote Indonesian island of Flores. The race of humans, which probably became extinct about 12-13,000 years ago because of a wide-scale volcanic eruption, was no more than about 3-4 feet tall.
The skeletal remains showed marked differences from human fossils of the same time period. The brain cavity’s volume was only 460 cc, making it significantly smaller than humans. Furthermore, the facial bone structure lacked a human chin and possessed a much thicker bone.
Despite the differences, Brown stressed the extraordinary findings unique to the excavation site.
The excavation team discovered several man-made stone tools that, barring the presence of humans, which lead Brown and his colleagues to believe the Hobbit people were responsible for the tool’s construction.
Brown chose his words carefully during an interview but said most of his colleagues from around the world called the discovery the most important of the past 50-100 years.
Audience members sat mesmerized by the discovery’s importance — similar to the seismic wave it created in the scientific community. In fact, Brown's initial Nature article was peer reviewed 12 times, four times the normal number of pre-publication reviews.
"The idea that a small, but complex brain constructed those tools fascinated me," chemistry major Kimmer Graham ’06 said. "Obviously there is a good chance they made those tools; it’s just hard to believe."
Other audience members found the potential relationships to humans the most fascinating part. According to Dr. Brown, the Homo floresiensi stood on two legs and possessed a bone structure closely akin to humans, though more like common chimpanzees.
Like Chimpanzees, the floresiensi were heavily muscled, but differed from today’s modern monkeys because they stood upright and walked. The structure of their feet also indicated they spent most of the time walking, not climbing. Floresiensi's small brain cavity, when combined with their unique bone density, raised many questions for audience members.
"This was essentially human intelligence separated from the human species," biology major Austin Shurtz said in response to Brown’s lecture.
Dr. Brown’s discovery has been the subject of extensive debate and admiration within the scientific community. However, as Brown pointed out in his lecture, the media were quick to capitalize on the idea of a new, separate Hobbit-like race.
When it came time to name the discovery, Brown and the team of scientists disagreed. Brown refused to support giving their discovery the name of British author J.R.R. Tolkien’s diminutive, yet fun-loving race of humans.
"I was worried that a bunch of crazies would get together and want to talk to me about the name," Brown said. "Turns out, that’s exactly what happened."
Still, the widespread commercial interest in Brown’s discovery helped the scientists present their message to new markets. In fact, Wabash College was Brown’s first mainland United States college lecture.
National Geographic, Nature, and the BBC have all commissioned their own stories about the discovery. However, as Brown points out, these news media have been quick to characterize the discovery along the lines of "Tolkien’s Hobbits discovered."
In a Monday afternoon interview, Brown said his future work would include looking in more detail at where the Flores island race fits into society. He hopes to learn more about their culture, how they lived, and how they got to Flores.
Flowers is a Wabash College senior and past Editor of the student newspaper, The Bachelor.