Strange Creatures Beyond Count

People are sometimes hesitant to refer to the tiny collection of bones uncovered on the Indonesian island of Flores as the “hobbit.” It is a serious scientific discovery, after all. The steady stream of tourists who visit the cave of Liang Bua, where the discovery was made, is no exception. “These,” I tell them, showing them around the excavations “are the modern human layers,” pointing to the layers of dirt closest to the surface. Shifting my gaze lower into the excavation pits, sediments buried deeper underground, I add “and these are what we call the hobbit layers.”  A wave of relief comes across a tourist’s face. “I didn’t know whether we could call it that.”

Liang Bua, the ‘hobbit’ cave

The nickname helped capture public imagination, allowing the discovery to appear in newspapers and magazines all over the world. But the nickname didn’t come from a clever journalist or news editor. Instead, it came from the team itself. And the truth is, the team just loves the nickname, to this day. It’s a group of scientists that tend not to take themselves too seriously (an admirable quality, in my opinion), at the field site, laughter, pranks, and jokes are constant. One of the team leaders, Thomas Sutikna, giggles so hard he can barely get the words out as he tells me that they almost considered naming it Homo hobbitus instead of Homo floresiensis almost twenty years ago. The nickname has crossed continents; if you visit the Smithsonian human origins exhibit, you’ll see a ring placed on the finger of the hobbit replica, courtesy of one of the Liang Bua team leaders, Matt Tocheri.

The ‘hobbit’ of Indonesia, Homo floresiensis. Courtesy Smithsonian

It makes sense, the creature that became known as LB1 (Liang Bua 1) surprised the scientific world largely through her tiny size. She was also found in a hole in the ground (but not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat). Ahe even had big feet, relative to her legs. There are many Tolkien quotes that ring strangely accurate in the scientific hobbit story. Take, for example, his reminder that “There’s nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.” What could be more apt for a team of archaeologists who had been looking for evidence of Homo sapiens and found an entirely new species?

There’s one, in particular though, that has long stood out:

The beginning of Hobbits lies far back in the Elder Days that are now lost and forgotten. Only the Elves still preserve any records of that vanished time, and their traditions are concerned almost entirely with their own history, in which Men appear seldom and Hobbits are not mentioned at all. Yet it is clear that Hobbits had, in fact, lived quietly in Middle-earth for many long years before other folk became even aware of them. And the world being after all full of strange creatures beyond count, these little people seemed of very little importance. But…they suddenly became, by no wish of their own, both important and renowned, and troubled the counsels of the Wise and the Great.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Much of this is so prophetic it’s almost eerie. In 2004 we found out that the previously unknown subfossilized hobbits, Homo floresiensis, had lived quietly on the island of Flores for many long years before we even became aware of them. But that one line. The world being after all full of strange creatures beyond count... What a marvelous thing to contemplate. While this world was, of course, a fictional one (middle earth), the science of human origins has been asking: what if our world was once like that, too?

My book traces a shift that has occurred in paleoanthropology over the last twenty years. As the hobbit and its place in the human family tree was heavily debated, something bigger was happening. The linear chain of evolution that once characterized the human story has been replaced by complexity and species diversity. Discoveries like the hobbit have shown that modern humans are less unique and – until recently – less alone than we long believed. We once shared the planet with hobbits, stocky Eurasian Neanderthals and Denisovans, South African Homo naledi, late-surviving populations of Homo erectus, another island species named Homo luzonensis–and depending on which experts you consult, the list goes on.

One of my favorite places to contemplate the diversity of hominin species, NHM London’s human origins hall

Imagine what that would have felt like. Following a herd of mammoth or other large game across a landscape, cresting a hill to look across a valley, only to see another group of vaguely-human-looking creatures gazing back at you. Perhaps they have a heavy brow ridge, casting their eyes in shadows. Perhaps they are strong and muscular. Perhaps they are tiny. They look different but not entirely. Imagine what that might have felt like. It’s a staggering thought.

And then imagine how this understanding of our wider place in nature might shape our view of ourselves about our history. To remove our own species, Homo sapiens, from some sort of inevitable evolutionary pinnacle, instead recognizing that in this species diversity is notes of humbling contingency.

So that’s where the title of my first book just announced this week, Strange Creatures Beyond Count: The tiny people who showed us who we are, is derived. Because the debates around the “scientific” hobbit, Homo floresiensis, were about so much more than one individual of one species uncovered in one cave on one island. Embedded in its analysis has always been, and continues to be, a bigger reflection on the family tree and those ever-present questions of who we are and how we came to be here.

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