Ira Flatow on Science: Indonesia's Hobbit Humans
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Did a new species of primitive humans actually live as recently as 12,000 years ago in caves in Indonesia? That's a question hotly debated among scientists, as they examine new skeletal remains dug up on the Indonesian island of Flores. Joining us is Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" on NPR and a regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.
Ira, what did the scientists find, and what is this argument about it?
IRA FLATOW reporting:
Well, this is a really interesting science sleuthing story, Alex, and it begins, as you mentioned, in a musty cave on an island in Indonesia. It was about a year ago that scientists reported that they had unearthed the jaw, the skull and some bone fragments of an individual who looked almost human when you put the fragments together but who was rather short, just three feet tall, and had a brain much smaller than that of modern humans, this one about the size of a chimpanzee. And what made the discovery controversial--that along with the bones that they found, there were tools, which showed that these little people could hunt and kill and eat animals with all the sophistication of modern humans.
CHADWICK: But they're not modern humans, right?
FLATOW: Well, and that's where the problem lies because humans, who look a lot different, were still alive at the time, creating an opportunity and a problem for scientists. Could they have stumbled on a new species of people that lived at the same time but died out later? The scientists who made the discovery said yeah. Critics said, `No, you haven't proven to us that you discovered a new race of humans. Perhaps they are just like regular humans but ill. Maybe they suffered from something called microcephaly'--that's an illness that causes small brain growth--`or perhaps something called island dwarfism, where people who live in isolated islands don't grow as big because of limited resources.' They made that argument.
CHADWICK: OK. Well, now there's been the announcement of the discovery of another bone from, I guess, this same group of original scientists. They've been doing more exploring on this island. What have they found?
FLATOW: This week they announced finding a second set of bones, and among it, a second jawbone in this cave and a jawbone that is almost identical to the first one they found, the one that caused the problems. But this one is 3,000 years older, which not only pushes back the age of those hobbit people, as they're being nicknamed, but makes it more difficult to argue that these little people suffered from microcephaly. If that were to be true, then the illness would have to have lasted through a hundred generations of little people, and that's not likely, they argue.
CHADWICK: So where does the argument stand at this point, Ira?
FLATOW: Well, this jaw has certainly proven to be a bone of contention among scientists. In science, you know, you generally stick to accepted wisdom until convincing new data overturns the apple cart. So do you believe there is convincing new wisdom? That's the question. Could there have been a race of humans who survived even after Neanderthals died out? Skeptics are still having trouble believing in their ability to make these sophisticated tools. It's not convincing. They still believe these hobbits suffered from some kind of abnormality. But there is a third view that's coming in--this is an interesting one--some new thinking that perhaps this line of prehumans goes all the way back three million years ago to Lucy. Do you remember Lucy that famous...
FLATOW: ...three-foot fossil? Maybe we're seeing descendants from the Lucy line. So, you know, we've got to get the "C.S.I." crew from television to come investigate this and solve it in 40 minutes.
CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY. Ira, thank you.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.