I have long nursed a wild and hopeful dream. A latter-day Wallace or Livingstone carrying a machete bursts into a sunlit glade, deep in the forest of a remote island. Incredulous, he is rewarded with the sight of living, breathing specimens of a second and very different species of human, intermediate between ourselves and chimpanzees.
This is not quite what the journal Nature recently reported from the Indonesian island of Flores, but it comes close. Homo floresiensis is clearly not a member of our species, Homo sapiens. But the remarkable LB1 skeleton, with its three-foot stature, bipedal gait and chimpanzee-sized braincase, has been found on Flores in close association with stone tools and evidence that it cooked its food. Its discoverers have placed it in our genus, together with the much longer extinct Homo erectus and Homo habilis. Flores Woman (for this tiny skeleton belonged to a female) died only 18,000 years ago, and that is very close to us by evolutionary standards.
In any species, the number of individuals with the good fortune to be fossilized is a tiny fraction of the population. And of those fossils, only a few are ever found. It follows that when a species goes extinct, the last known fossil is almost bound to predate the last individual by many millenniums.
LB1 isn't a fossil, but the same idea applies. The Flores "Little People" probably lived on for thousands of years after LB1 herself curled up and died. It has been suggested that a volcano finally wiped out her kind 12,000 years ago, which -- think about it! -- is around the time of Homo sapiens' Agricultural Revolution and the birth of city-states. But maybe Homo floresiensis survived the volcano, only to be extinguished by competition -- or worse -- from our own species. And, is it possible? Dare we hope that they still lurk in the forests?
Why call it hope rather than just disinterested scientific curiosity? Because we are human, and to meet another human species would be a soul-building experience. Besides, the live discovery I wistfully imagined would turn human complacency on its head. Our speciesism accepts a vast moral gulf between Homo sapiens and every other animal. Nice people will unquestioningly value the life of a human embryo above that of an adult chimpanzee. The chimpanzee thinks and feels, enjoys love and suffers fear, yet moral absolutists feel no unease at the killing, or selling, of a captive chimpanzee. Simultaneously, they see an infinite moral objection to the "murder" of a brainless, senseless human embryo.
What would become of such a double standard in the face of a living -- and perhaps suffering -- Homo floresiensis?
And if Flores Woman indeed belongs in the genus Homo, she might be capable of interbreeding with us -- and therefore of shaking absolutist morality to its ill-considered foundations. (Please, somebody, go out to Flores and search.)
Why was Flores Woman so small? And why was her brain so small? For reasons that we don't fully understand, when animals are isolated on islands they often evolve toward either very large or very small size. The dodo of Mauritius (a giant pigeon) is a famous example of island gigantism. An example of island dwarfism is the pygmy elephant Stegodon, one meter high, that existed on Flores at the same time as the Little People.
Flores Woman, perfectly proportioned but with a brain the size of a chimpanzee's, apparently evolved, getting smaller and smaller, from Homo erectus, who had somehow managed to reach Flores, perhaps by rafting.
Modern humans have an EQ (encephalization quotient) of about 6, meaning that our brain is six times as big as it "ought to be" for a mammal of our size -- that is, it's bigger than biologists would expect given our size. Homo erectus is believed to have had an EQ of about 4, and Australopithecus (our probable ancestor of about 3 million years ago) about 2.5 or 3, similar to a modern chimpanzee. Flores Woman fits into that range.
Did H. floresiensis have language? I suspect not. Some commentators have latched onto a local Flores legend of a little hairy people called the ebu gogo, which means "grandmothers who will eat anything." The ebu gogo are said to have conversed in strange "murmuring" tones. Is this just the local leprechaun, hobgoblin or fairy story? I suspect so; after all, legends of giants and werewolves are just as ubiquitous. But myths of this kind feed my hopes of finding surviving specimens.
In any case, let's not call these wonderful little creatures hobbits. I know that is the nickname chosen by their discoverers, but if ever there was a case where fact is stranger than fiction, this is it. Such a name from fiction only diminishes the wonder of this sensational discovery and insults the memory of these tiny cousins whom we have come tantalizingly close -- yearningly close -- to meeting.