Jared Diamond on the Flores “hobbits”

Jared Diamond is a behavioural scientist who specialises in birds of east Asia and the Pacific, but he has made a major contribution to the popularisation of anthropology through his books The Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel.  His vast knowledge of the west Pacific makes him an able commentator on the amazing find of tiny people on the island of Flores (see: The little people of Flores, Indonesia in November 2004 issue of EPN).  He writes of the sheer diversity of opportunities for colonisation of the archipelagos that separate New Guinea from mainland Asia by Homo erectus, who populated the Far East for around 1.8 Ma (Diamond, J.  2004.  The astonishing micropygmies.  Science, v. 306, p. 2047-2048).  There has been speculation that Homo floresiensis became so small in response to a limited biological productivity on Flores, but Diamond is not at all sure – the Indonesian island chain has luxuriant flora and fauna compared with the Asian mainland.  But islands have limits to any population. Homo floresiensis probably arrived as a tiny group that flourished because of negligible competition.  Soon reaching the limits of support by the island ecosystem, full-sized colonisers with a limited gene pool would either die out or quickly generate smaller offspring, larger numbers of which could be sustained and reproduce.  Another of Diamond’s insights concerns the matter of similar populations on the many equally attractive islands in the chain.  If there were, that would imply easy island hopping, and therefore no reason for miniaturisation through evolution.  Modern humans have done just that, on the scale of the entire Pacific basin over the last 45 thousand years with no sign of evolving as dwarfed island populations – they had boats. Homo floresiensis’ ancestors almost certainly did not.  They could have swum the short distances between the islands at times of low sea-level, indeed they could have seen one island in the chain from the next.  In the case of New Guinea, had they reached the nearest island to it in modern Indonesia, they could never have seen it in the distance.  Diamond’s greatest surprise is how the micropygmies survived later fully human colonisation from 50 to 18 thousand years, when large people would have colonised the entire chain with ease, before proceeding to Australasia and Oceania.  Perhaps they coexisted through having a complementary food economy, as do modern African and Philippino pygmies, by some form of trade.  They may even have been too dangerous to hunt or attack.  Intellectually attractive as Homo floresiensis might be to us, steeped in Tolkienesque lore, Diamond cuts out the fantasy – they were so unhuman as to make the possibility of their disappearance through interbreeding highly unlikely.  Like chimpanzees, they would not only have been unappealing but possibly too unpredictable and strong for cross-species sex to have crossed the minds of fully human colonisers.

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