Lord of the Tools

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“How could a hominid with a brain the size of a grapefruit craft tools?” asks ScienceNOW’s Elizabeth Culotta.

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It seems the hobbit is still a hot news item. We last reported on the diminutive human remains in January, but two news stories this week bring us back to the question of just what the hobbit was.

For those not familiar, the hobbit story began when scientists found tiny human remains in an Indonesian island cave in 2004. Their initial report kicked off an ongoing debate between two basic views: whether the remains belonged to a true human, or whether they represent a new species, Homo floresiensis, that was a “cousin” to modern humans. Supporting the former view are a variety of hypotheses about what could have led to the hobbit’s small size (e.g., disease or malnutrition). Because the cave also contained the remains of stone tools as well as evidence of hunting and the controlled use of fire, we too stand behind this explanation.

ScienceNOW’s Elizabeth Culotta brings us up to date on the latest question:

Thousands of small, sharp-edged flakes of volcanic tuff and chert have been unearthed from the cave of the “hobbit” . . . . The stone tools have puzzled researchers: How could a hominid with a brain the size of a grapefruit craft tools? Now a detailed analysis sheds light on the hobbit’s technological capabilities and raises a new mystery: Why did the modern humans who arrived later on Flores make tools the same way hobbits did?

A team led by Mark Moore of Australia’s University of New England has been trying to answer those questions. The researchers examined nearly 12,000 stone tools discovered from the hobbit’s cave. Many of those tools were thought to have been crafted by the hobbit, while the team connects the rest of the tools with Homo sapiens buried in the cave—who supposedly lived thousands of years later.

Yet the tools made by the H. sapiens indicate they were not only manufactured identically to the tools made by the hobbit, but that the toolmaking process occurred in the same physical locations (first outside the cave, then in it). So the mystery is not simply about hobbit intelligence (i.e., how were hobbits able to make the same tools that modern humans made); the coincidence of hobbit and H. sapiens toolmaking methods is an apparent mystery.

The team eventually concluded that when H. sapiens arrived on the island, they made contact with the hobbits and copied their toolmaking techniques, using them even after the hobbits went extinct. “I can see how different hominins might converge on the techniques themselves, but I find it more difficult to understand how those permutations could be so similar without more direct observation or interaction,” Moore said.

The cave also contained the remains of stone tools as well as evidence of hunting and the controlled use of fire.

Moore also justified his hypothesis by arguing that, based on the evolutionary timeline of human migration, it would be no more “surprising” to think that H. sapiens copied the hobbit toolmaking behavior than to think that H. sapiens was in the region thousands of years earlier to have made all the tools.

But Moore’s evolution-based model is far more circuitous than what the creation model suggests. Moore has the sophisticated hobbits making tools for tens of thousands of years, then (before going extinct) passing on that exact technique to a completely different species of humans, who made tools the same way for ten thousand years more. In the creation model, all inhabitants of the cave were modern humans living just a few thousand years ago, though some of the humans were either genetically unique, affected by disease and malnutrition, or all of the above. Nevertheless, all the humans lived in one toolmaking, fire-wielding, animal-hunting civilization, and all were interred in the cave.

Even humans today have a wide range of variation in size and in other characteristics.

For creationists, determining the nature of the hobbit is ultimately a question of intelligence, not morphology. Even humans today have a wide range of variation in size and in other characteristics, yet we are clearly all modern humans. In the past, variants such as Neanderthals, H. erectus, and the hobbit all appear to have been fully intelligent (and thus made in the image of God and descendants of Adam), even if their bodies were not identical to ours today.

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