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Nature 446, 979-980 (26 April 2007) | doi:10.1038/446979a; Published online 25 April 2007

In a hole in the ground...

Henry Gee1

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What happens when you find a hobbit — or a unicorn?

BOOK REVIEWEDThe Discovery of the Hobbit: The Scientific Breakthrough that Changed the Face of Human History

by Mike Morwood & Penny Van Oosterzee

Random House: 2007. 326 pp. Aus $34.95. To be published as A New Human by HarperCollins/Smithsonian in May.

The unicorn, wrote Jorge Luis Borges (in Kafka and His Precursors), is universally regarded as a supernatural being of good omen. But there's a problem: despite its folkloric familiarity, we wouldn't know how to recognize a unicorn if we met one in real life. It "does not figure among the domestic beasts, it is not always easy to find, it does not lend itself to classification," Borges continues. "It is not like the horse or the bull, the wolf or the deer. In such conditions, we could be face to face with a unicorn and not know for certain what it was."

Most science consists of elaborations on well-tested themes. The discovery of something genuinely unexpected, however, kicks over the traces. Even the discoverers find it hard to accommodate the new arrival in a picture of the world that they have, perhaps inadvisedly, taken for granted.

In a hole in the ground...

REUTERS

Home to a hobbit: Homo floresiensis was found in Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia.

Many manuscripts received by Nature are full of the confidence of scientists who know precisely what they have found and why it is important. But a paper that landed unannounced on my desk on 3 March 2004 was surprising, not only for the extraordinary discovery that it reported, but for the matter-of-fact, almost muted, tones in which it was described. Reading between the lines, it seemed as if the discoverers of Sundanthropus floresianus weren't entirely clear in their own minds about what manner of unicorn they had unearthed.

The report, although hard to interpret, is easily summarized. Peter Brown of the University of New England in Australia and his colleagues described a hitherto unknown and extinct member of the human family from a cave called Liang Bua on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The skeleton was archaic in form and extremely small — smaller even than Lucy, the primitive, pre-human hominid discovered in Ethiopia whose species (Australopithecus afarensis) died out around 3 million years ago.

But there were two big surprises, as Mike Morwood, co-principal investigator of the joint Indonesian and Australian project on Flores, relates in his book The Discovery of the Hobbit. The first is that the Flores hominid lived as recently as 18,000 years ago. The second is that the form of the remarkably tiny skull, especially its teeth, suggested a more derived ancestry, not from Australopithecus or any other (unknown) primitive hominid, but from a form of Homo — perhaps a population of Homo erectus that was marooned on Flores a million years ago and had undergone the kind of endemic dwarfing seen in the native, pony-sized elephants already found on Flores. The prior existence of stone tools dating back 800,000 years from elsewhere on Flores suggested the second scenario. And yet the jarring anachronism of the Flores hominid — literally so, given its recent date and weird morphology — prompted the authors to place their creature in its own genus, at least for the present, as Sundanthropus, or Sunda man.

The referees responded with one accord. To be sure, the creature was strange, but the strangeness might be a consequence of its size. The skull, though, was clearly that of a member of our own genus, Homo. In addition, one referee commented specifically on the specific name, floresianus, noting that generations of students would dub it 'flowery anus'. The authors duly changed the generic and specific name to Homo floresiensis and, after several iterations, that was the name attached to the fossil when the discovery was published in Nature on 28 October 2004.

The rest, as they say, is history. In The Discovery of the Hobbit, Morwood and science writer Penny Van Oosterzee relate the discovery, its background and the fallout. To be fair, it's not great literature, but it is of vital importance, standing as the first, book-length, 'official' account of the discovery. Here you will learn how and why the researchers came to be in such a remote place, what they found, and the considerable logistical and administrative obstacles they faced.

Disbelief and doubt were not confined to the researchers and their circle. As Morwood recounts, hardly had the finds been made public than commentators queued up to declare Homo floresiensis not a new species, but a pathological specimen of modern humans, Homo sapiens, perhaps suffering from some form of microcephaly. This was despite the presence of not one specimen but several, now known to have existed perhaps as long as 95,000 years ago.

Such reaction is common in the wake of new hominid discoveries, which are routinely dismissed either as pathological humans (Homo neanderthalensis) or apes (Australopithecus africanus and Sahelanthropus tchadensis). Such reactions say less about the facts than the mindsets of commentators, who might be unwilling to have their comfortable views of the world so forcibly changed. Confronted with what might be a genuine unicorn, many would prefer to see a pantomime horse with a spike glued to its head.

After that, research fades into hypothesis, and thence into myth. It was perhaps inescapable that the researchers chose to name their find 'hobbit', after those small, secretive and entirely fictitious residents of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. It may be telling that the researchers couldn't even agree on this soubriquet, but it was wished upon them by the press.

And what of Homo floresiensis? Although the most parsimonious view is that it is Homo erectus writ small, Morwood reminds us that evolution is not obliged to be parsimonious, and that the very existence of H. floresiensis reminds us that much remains undiscovered. In which case, perhaps the researchers were right to begin with in supposing that their creature represented a hitherto unknown and primitive hominid that arrived in southeast Asia, from places unknown, long before Homo evolved.

The unicorn remains as it always did, frustratingly elusive. This year, the researchers will return to Liang Bua to see if they can discover more. But stories such as this demand a mythological beast altogether less serene. It is as if the researchers had set out to discover some new form of fossil mouse, only to find that they had grabbed a dragon by the tail instead. And as any devotee of Harry Potter will remind you: Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

  1. Henry Gee is a senior editor of Nature and the author of The Science of Middle-Earth.