Sunday, October 31, 2004

Darby O'Gill and the floresiensites?

We all liked Disney's Darby O'Gill, called "the definitive Leprechaun movie" by one source (from the 1903 novel by Herminie T. Kavanagh). It's not oh-so-very-young Sean Connery who captitivates, but Albert Sharpe as Darby himself and Jimmy O'Dea as King Brian. The family is also fond of the Hobbit movies.

The discovery of skeletal remains of chimp-size humans on a remote island in Indonesia has tempted headline writers to draw on this small-folk fantasy theme to a wonderful excess. As the Times account says, "the bones appear to belong to a new and unexpected species of humans, little more than 3 feet high, who lived among giant rats and pygmy elephants on the island of Flores until at least 13,000 years ago. That would make these miniature people contemporaries of our own human ancestors for tens of thousands of years, though no one knows if they ever met."

Here's a sampling of headlines

Obsessing about "Hobbits": "Indonesia may be teeming with Hobbits, "Are Hobbits Still Among Us?, "Hobbits: Fiction or reality?" "'Hobbit' Joins Human Family"

About "little people": "Skeleton Reveals Lost World Of 'Little People'"

And about a "lost world": "A lost cousin in a lost world," "Scientists unearth resident of the 'lost world',"

A bit cloyingly cute: "It's a small world after all," "Say you want an evolution," "A breed apart," "Good hair day for hobbit hunters"

Big themes, such as "rewriting of human history:" "Evolutionary Shrinkage: Stone Age Homo find offers small surprise," "Ancient, Tiny Humans Shed New Light on Evolution," "'Hobbit' Skeleton Could Rewrite Prehistory'Hobbit' Skeleton Could Rewrite Prehistory"

Take-offs for op-ed pieces on other topics: "Humans are getting taller, but we still weigh too much," "October Surprise II: Missing Link To Liberalism Discovered"

One of my favorites, for its alliteration: "Indonesia's Hobbit-Sized Humans Find Humble Home"

If you missed the story, here are some accounts: here, here, and here

And here is a nice take on the subject by Jonathan Dresner in Cliopatria:

Posted by Ralph E. Luker at 4:55 AM | Comments (0)

JONATHAN DRESNER: Humanity and Diversity

We can't even live with ourselves terribly well most days. How well would we co-exist with another sentient, or semi-sentient, species? Not very well, suggests anthropologist Desmond Morris [via Butterflies&Wheels], but the real crux of his argument is two-fold: did Homo sapiens sapiens kill off Homo floresiensis (I'm not terribly fond of any of the currently popular 'nicknames' for this species, and I won't use them), and does our relatively recent co-existence with this species of humans affect our definition of humanity? There's some stuff in there about religion and evolution, too, but that's not what I'm terribly interested in. The best "Floresiensis for dummies" I've seen so far is anthropologist John Hawks' [via Panda's Thumb], who speaks directly to an issue which came up in my mind immediately: is it a hoax, like Piltdown, etc.? He says no, with some authority.

The question of whether a 'lesser' human (floresiensis was certainly not as intelligent, on average, as well as being smaller, though we can't speak to their wisdom or judgment or culture) can or should have full civil and legal rights is, mostly, an abstract one at the moment. But in the not-so-distant past we did make stark legal distinctions based on relatively minor genetic variations (and we still do, in certain circumstances). [Side note: if other species of humans, with clearly distinct abilities and features, were more widespread, would there be less racial thinking among ourselves? Or would it have come up sooner and stronger? Would racial categories be more meaningful in that case?] Aside from the upcoming (you can call it science fiction, but it's just a matter of time) issue of artificial intelligences, we haven't dealt terribly well, overall, with the issue of rights or responsibilities for individuals with physical or developmental or mental disabilities, not to mention indigenous peoples with non-agro-capitalist lifestyles. Those models would suggest some form of protective custody arrangement....

The second, historical, question is: is this where elves come from? Dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, whatever you want to call them, but stories of forest-dwelling, elusive and irritable "little people" are deep rooted in our human civilization. Local folktales could very plausibly be the result of contacts as recently as 13-15Ky bp (This article also implicates Homo sapiens in the extermination of several other human species.). It's possible that these are just myths, imaginary tales with no basis in fact. It's also possible that they are based on contacts with non-human species like chimps and monkeys and apes. But this is a tantalizing find, and it suggests (proving anything at this distance is terribly hard) that some of our ideas, myths, etc., really do have roots that go back tens of thousands of years.

No comments: