We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

Hobbits Alive?

The Loom
By Carl Zimmer
Apr 29, 2005 10:20 PMNov 5, 2019 4:53 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

The feud over Homo floresiensis, the little people of Indonesia, centers on whether they were an extinct diminutive species that evolved from some ancient hominid, such as Homo erectus, or whether they were just pygmy humans, perhaps suffering from some disease. The leading skeptic, paleoanthropologist Teuku Jacob, has claimed that there are pygmies living not far from where the fossils were found, on the island of Flores. I came across a short item at Japan Today about a scientific expedition to study the pygmies, which was based on an article in Kompas, an Indonesian publication. The original article is here, and my intrepid brother Ben, expert on Indonesian anthropology (cultural, not paleo-), did an on-the-fly translation for me, which I'll run below. The team got back from Flores on April 25. While there, they went to a village called Rampasasa, made up of 77 families. About 80% of the people were pygmies. They measured 10 people who were a bit taller, with a height of 155 cm and 2 measuring 160 cm. Homo floresiensis was 130 cm. The researchers claim that these tall villagers got some extra height from having married non-pygmies from surrounding villages.

I imagine that we'll be hearing something more official about the grandly-named Rampasasa Pygmy Somatology Expedition in a couple months. I wonder if they'll have something more than height measurements to offer--just because living pygmies are close to H. floresiensis doesn't seem terribly compelling, since it's my impression that height changes can evolve relatively quickly in humans. (I can't find a paper to back up this recollection at the moment, I confess.)

Update at 3:50 PM: Apologies for the various typos, dead links, and missing facts in the first version of this post. I blame it on my Mac upgrade to Tiger today.

So here's the article...

The "Pygmy" Community of Flores

The existence of a community of pygmy people in the Manggarai Regency of Flores, East Nusatenggara, is quite interesting but also quite mysterious. In the context of the archaeological discovery of the prehistoric human skeleton from Liang Bua in Flores -- which has been published widely as belonging to the species named Homo floresiensis -- the existence of the pygmy community in the village of Rampasasa, Waemulu region, Waeriri subdistrict, could possibly shatter all previous arguments.

"The existence of the pygmy community there is quite interesting and also quite surprising. For many years, experts from various corners of the world have only had the chance to see their footprints, but it turns out we can now find them living in a society. This means that for hundreds or maybe even thousands of years, this pygmy community has remained settled in that place without ever moving around," said Prof Teuku Jacob, emeritus professor at Gadjah Mada University.

Jacob, who also leads the Bio- and Paleo-Anthropology Laboratory at Gadjah Mada, further explained, "Pygmy people have indeed been reported as existing in the Andaman Islands and New Guinea, but only a few remain and it is difficult to find them because they live in dispersed conditions. Now we can find them living together in one village."

Since the 1920s, the East Nusatenggara region has been an object of interest for anthropologists, especially those from Holland, after seeing evidence that the residents there have rather short body height. The results of the 1929 Biljmer study indicate that more than 50 percent of the residents of the region have body height of about 155 to 163 cm. Besides that, in Flores there have long circulated folk tales about short people with darkly colored skin (Negritos) who live in the hills, hiding in caves.

Dr. Theodore Verhoeven, pastor at the Ledalero Maumere Seminary, conjectured in 1958 that these short people were a Proto-Negrito community. This term refers to the Schebesta study in the Andamans, remote areas of Borneo (Kalimantan), and also the southern Philippines.

According to Teuku Jacob, if the height of the Negritos is roughly between 155 and 163 cm, they would be called pygmoid. But if the Rampasasa people are true pygmies their height would have to be less than 145 cm for adult males and 135 cm for adult females. The maximum weight would be 40 kg for males and 30 kg for females.

Pygmies are indeed different from dwarfs. This is because the term dwarf indicates a small body with proportions that are out of order. Pygmies, meanwhile, have small bodies that are proportional.

Since last year, the team working under the leadership of Prof. RP Soejono and Dr. MJ Morwood conducting an excavation in Liang Bua, Flores, has found human skeletons with an approximate height of 130 cm and with brains about a third of the size of modern humans. This discovery was later claimed to be a new species of humans called Homo floresiensis (Flores Man).

Worwood, an expert in cave paintings from Australia, in fact called the results of the discovery "hobbits" in a popular fashion, a group of pygmy people like those in the film Lord of the Rings. The picture of miniature Flores Man then appeared as a major report in the April 2005 edition of National Geographic.

The above claim about the discovery of a new species was rejected by a number of experts. Etty Indriati, a PhD from Gadjah Mada, called it a baseless tale. How could there be a new species from the discovery of just one skeleton which in fact was misidentified? They said it was a female while from the dental structure it was clear that it was a male, and also a modern one.

"What is more unreasonable, it is not possible that a brain that has already developed as Homo sapiens could then become small and develop into a new species, left behind as prehistoric remains," she explained.

Indeed, for mammals trapped in remote islands for hundreds of years -- and with insufficient food to eat -- bodies will become smaller as an adaptation to the environment. "But, for humans, their menu is not just one type of food. Despite being isolated, they will try to find other types of food, so their bodies do not become small," she added.

Teuku Jacob explained, "The pygmy people of Flores are not a prehistoric race. Our team has successfully found a community of pygmies living in the modern world." What is even more ironic, the community of pygmies mentioned by Jacob is only about 1 kilometer from Liang Bua, the dwelling place of the species given the name Homo floresiensis by Worwood.

Koeshardjono, an expert in biology who was the first to announce the existence of a pygmy community in Flores, stated, "This expedition was named the Rampasasa Pygmy Somatology Expedition. This is because the pygmy community of about 77 families resides entirely in the village of Rampasasa, Waemulu region, Waeriri subdistrict, Manggarai regency, south Flores."

The results of the team of physical anthropologists led by Teuku Jacob recorded that 80 percent of the residents of Rampasasa are classified as pygmy. The provisional findings indicate that there are 10 people with a height of 155 cm and two people with a height of 160 cm. It turns out that their body size is relatively tall because of marriage with residents outside of the village. The team of researchers from Gadjah Mada has been in Rampasasa since April 18 and returns to Yogya Sunday night (April 25).

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.