On September 2, 2003, in a cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia, a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists discovered a tiny, nearly complete skeleton that resembled that of an early dwarf-sized human. Over the next year, they recovered more skeletons and some skeleton parts. In 2009, the number was fourteen individuals for whom archaeologists had found whole or partial skeletal remains. Because numerous stone blades have also been found and the faunal population of Flores does not include any non-human primates, scientists have come up with the idea that the organic remains discovered from 2003 are indeed those of somewhat sentient creatures. .
Initially, scientists said all skeletal remains were around 12,000 years old. Recently, the estimate was revised upwards. Some appear to be up to 100,000 years old. The youngest remains are thought to be around 60,000 years old. So goes science. Results change as measurement methods change.
Although the ancient creatures are officially called Homo floresiensis (or Flores Man), because of their dwarf stature, scientists nicknamed them “hobbits”. Although no remains less than 60,000 or possibly 50,000 years old have been found, unverified rumors abound that some hobbits are alive on the island, possibly living in the remote mountain forests. The Lio people, who currently make up most of the island’s population, describe him as bipedal, relatively hairy, and about the size of Flores Man.
In his new book Between ape and human: an anthropologist on the trail of a hidden hominoid, Gregory Forth sets out to unravel the mysteries of creatures that may or may not be descendants of Flores Man. Along the way, he finds many questions to consider. For example, are the modern hobbits of Flores, like Big Foot in the American West, perhaps entirely imaginary and based on myth? Were the original hobbits actually sentient humans or was their closeness to the stone blades incidental? Were they the direct ancestors of today’s much larger Lios? If hobbits didn’t evolve on Flores (remember, the island has no non-human primates), how and when did they get there?
between monkey and Human is fascinating reading for someone who understands that while archeology is about materials science and firm estimates of dates and purposes, anthropology is about conversations and culture. Forth did not bring a laboratory of calibrated measuring equipment to his task. He engaged the Lios in informal discussions about what they had seen and heard. Memory is imperfect, as Forth explains in his book, and encounters with a modern-day hobbit can scare anyone. As Forth further points out, strong emotions like fear can distort what everyone remembers. Perhaps the vagaries of memory itself are the reason why the stories reported to Forth by the people of Lio are wildly diverse.
Ultimately, and even with all the talk data teasing that Forth does, between ape and human definitely proves nothing. Which is to be expected because, like much of anthropology, the book doesn’t even attempt to arrive at definitive statements. Instead, he presents a record of the puzzling information Forth gathered, then lays out the anthropologist’s own ideas as to whether modern Flores hobbits are directly descended from the ancients. I will be doing Forth a disservice by disclosing his findings. I just think if you’re in the mood for adventure, you might want to read the book.
Pegasus, Hardcover $28.95 (336 p) ISBN 978-163-936-143-4. Also available in e-book. Publication date May 3, 2022.