Tuesday, July 27, 2010

 

Will the real “H. floresiensis” please stand-up?

Well, I’m going to go off the deep end this time with what some may consider an outrageous proposal. Visions of giant rats dancing in my head have led me back to meditations on the enigmatic “hobbit.” Could the beloved “hobbit” aka “Homo floresiensis” actually be a descendant of Lufengpithecus? The edifice I will build is most likely a house of cards, but venues such as this allow for flights of fancy, if not fantasy.

Back in 2006 I posted an approving comment on Gary Richard's take down of Homo floresiensis. He had written a well-reasoned refutation of the idea that H. floresiensis was a distinct species descended from some form of archaic human. He instead argued that the population being sampled were insularly dwarfed modern humans. In the interim the study of the post-cranial anatomy of H. floresiensis, in particular its wrist and ankle, have convinced most informed observers that the so-called hobbit is in actuality a distinct archaic hominan species and not an insularly dwarfed population of H. sapiens or some congenitally deformed modern human of small stature. Its wrist and ankle are so archaic looking that comparisons have been made with the extant chimpanzee, as well as australopiths. Other aspects of its anatomy such as its hip, shoulder and limb proportions also hearken back to early hominans such as Australopithecus or H. habilis. The suggestion that H. floresiensis is descended from an early African hominan that dispersed into Southeast Asia nearly 2 mya is thus taken seriously by many paleoanthropologists.

There is, however, another possibility. There are cryptozoological tales from throughout Southeast Asia that refer to an elusive, small bipedal orangutan-like creature called Orang Pendek in Sumatra and Ebu Gogo on the island of Flores. Much speculation has equated H. floresiensis with these diminutive cryptohumanoids. There are also tales of giant bipedal orangutans that have recently resurfaced. Crompton et al. have published on aboreal bipedality in extant orangutans as a model for the origin of terrestrial bipedalism in early hominans. Descriptions of the orang pendek and the similar ebu gogo, tell of a small, dark furred, short legged, terrestrial biped that walks with an inverted heel. Its upper torso is said to be very powerful, its mouth compact, its eyes set wide apart and its nose distinctly humanoid. While not a perfect match with H. floresiensis the similarities are such that speculation has run rampant regarding their identity with one another.

The orang pendek has traditionally been thought of as a small relative of the orangutan. There is, however, another potential hominoid in the vicinity. Although extinct it is thought by some, myself included, to have survived into the early Pleistocene of southern China (where fossil orangutan teeth are numerous). This is Lufengpithecus, the so-called mystery ape of Mio-Pliocene China. According to research I’ve reviewed in this blog, Lufengpithecus had many traits long thought to be diagnostic of early hominans. It has been variously identified as a stem hominoid, a primitive pongine, a basal hominine or an early hominan. Given its close proximity, persistence in the fossil record, and mix of characteristics Lufengpithecus is a good candidate for the ancestor of the orang pendek and similar Southeast Asian cryptoids. And if the orang pendek/ebu gogo is synonymized with the “hobbit” logic dictates that the latter's ancestry can be traced to Lufengpithecus as well. This would suggest that the “hobbit” may actually be a faux or pseudo-human that evolved in parallel with us “true” humans. A very interesting proposition indeed, and one that would necessitate a new genus name for the species, perhaps something along the lines of Microanthropus floresiensis.

 
 H. floresiensis vs Lufengpithecus proximal femora
To left: dorsal view H. floresiensis - Lufengpithecus
To right: ventral view H. floresiensis - Lufengpithecus

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