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Bones Don’t Add Up For Palauan Hobbits

on September 6, 2008

ScienceDaily: “Bone Parts Don't Add Up to Conclusion of Hobbit-like Palauan Dwarfs” News broke last week of the misinterpretation of Palauan bone fragments, which had led to the misidentification of a modern human as something else. It isn’t the first time!

The original interpretation of the bone fragments was news less than a half-year ago (not to be confused with the Indonesian hobbits, by the way), when we reported in News to Note, March 15, 2008, item #2:

“Thousands” of human bones have been unearthed on the Pacific island Palau, reports National Geographic News. The bones belonged to “numerous individuals,” some of whom were “of particularly small size.” More hobbits, perhaps?
Berger “failed to review existing documentation.”

Now, scientists from three universities have joined to refute the hobbit conclusion, devised by research Lee Berger and colleagues at the University of Witwatersrand. The new team of researchers scathingly critiques Berger’s conclusion as a misinterpretation of “modern, normal-sized hunters and gatherers.”

Greg Nelson of the University of Oregon, Scott Fitzpatrick of North Carolina State University, and Geoffrey Clark of Australian National University point out three main criticisms of Berger’s research, in addition to alleging that Berger “failed to review existing documentation.”

First, Berger used small femoral heads—the “balls” that attach the thighbone to the hip—as evidence for hobbits. However, Nelson, Fitzpatrick, and Clark have discovered thigh bones from modern humans (albeit somewhat shorter, with females averaging just over 5 feet [152 cm] tall) with femoral heads smaller than those Berger discovered.

Second, Berger used “fragmentary cranial evidence” in an attempt to show that his hobbits had brow ridges, similar to Neanderthals. Nelson, Fitzpatrick, and Clark argue that all the cranial measurements they analyzed pointed to modern-size heads. Furthermore, they point out that limestone in the island’s water can create “the easily misinterpreted lumpy appearance on brow ridges.”

Finally, Berger used the large teeth he found as evidence for megadontism, “a condition common in the pre-modern, small-bodied hominins.” Nelson, Fitzpatrick, and Clark dispute this, countering that large teeth are common in hunter-gatherer societies, such as ancient Palau.

“Our evidence indicates the earliest inhabitants of Palau were of normal stature, and it counters the evidence that Berger, et al., presented in their paper indicating there was a reduced stature population in early Palau,” explained Nelson. “Our research from whole bones and whole skeletons indicates that the earliest individuals in Palau were of normal stature but gracile. In other words, they were thin.”

It’s crucial to remember the great deal of skeletal variation even within existing human populations.

So what was yesterday’s evidence of premodern apemen has now been thoroughly refuted—by scientists we presume are evolutionists, no less—as evidence that easily fits within the framework of modern humans. When looking at alleged apemen, it’s crucial to remember the great deal of skeletal variation even within existing human (and ape) populations, in addition to the differences in populations that may now be “extinct” (e.g., the fully modern Neanderthals)—not to mention the fallibility of humans, whether scientists or not, when interpreting the data they’ve collected.

Nelson also said that two of Berger’s “primary mistakes were his not understanding the variation in the skeletal population in which he was working [and] using fragmentary remains again in a situation where he didn’t understand variation.” There are so many lessons a careful reader can learn from this whole scenario, but here is at least one case-in-point for a need for caution that we would like to point out to all who are interested in human/“hominid” fossils. Often minor skeletal differences are interpreted as evidence for new species or a new transitional form even when the differences can be explained by skeletal variation. And a great deal of the time, the actual skeletal evidence is scant and contested, meaning the conclusions may be long on interpretation and short on fact.

Remember, if you see a news story that might merit some attention, let us know about it! (Note: if the story originates from the Associated Press, Fox News, MSNBC, the New York Times, or another major national media outlet, we will most likely have already heard about it.) And thanks to all of our readers who have submitted great news tips to us.

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