Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Richard Roberts and the Little People (deblathified)

Legends around the world talk of various human-like characters, from giants -- like the original version of "Sasquatch" -- to small beings such as Leprechauns. Some of these 'little people' have turned out to be based on real pygmies -- but what if there was a legend based on an extinct species of human?

According to professor of archaeology Richard Roberts, some natives from the island of Flores talk of hobbit-sized 'cave people' called Ebu-Gogo, where Ebu means 'grandmother' and 'Gogo' means 'he who eats anything.' 'Anything' in this case includes dishes made of gourds, as well as raw human babies.
` These creatures were said to be no taller than three feet with long hair, pot bellies, ears that stick out a bit, longish arms and fingers, and a slightly awkward gait. They were clearly built for walking, yes, but could also climb slender trees very well.
` Ebu Gogo women were noted for slinging their long breasts over their shoulders: As the western village of Labuan Baju is known for women with longish breasts, the 'LBJ' villagers are made fun of for allegedly interbreeding with the Ebu Gogo.

Supposedly, they were capable of speech, but if you tried to talk to them, they would only repeat what you'd just said. Apparently, they did not understand very well when the villagers kept telling them not to raid their crops.
` As the story goes, the villagers put up with this thievery until one day, when the Ebu Gogo seized an infant and ran up to a cave at the foot of the local volcano, some tens of meters up a cliff face. No one could stop them from eating the baby, so the humans tossed them some delicious bales of dry grass to eat.
` A few days later, the humans came back with another bale of grass, which was burning, and tossed it into the cave. The Ebu Gogo, singed and fearing for their lives, were last seen headed west toward Liang Bua, which was the cave where the ancient remains were found.
` The natives say that the last time anyone saw one of these creatures was just before they packed up the village and moved it farther away from the volcano, and that this was shortly before the Dutch settled in the sixteenth century.

So, you may ask, did three-foot tall, human-like creatures actually live on Flores? Actually they did, as Roberts and his team discovered last year at a dig site at Liang Bua. It was so controversial that advertised a picture of the little skull and a modern human skull with the words: This is Not a Hoax!
` These hominids, dubbed Homo floresiensis, were three feet tall and probably weighed fifty-five pounds or so, with longish arms and hands, faces somewhat like our own, and tiny, grapefruit-sized brains. Their long feet would have resulted in a somewhat bent-kneed gait, although they would have probably been really adept at climbing trees.
` Thus, it is somewhat startling to think that native people [the Nage] could have such accurate descriptions of a recently-extinct species unless they already knew about it in some way. Did they?

Before getting to that, I should discuss how it is that a primitive-looking human (something like a Homo erectus) could have evolved to such a small size to begin with -- at least that part is not so mysterious:
In an environment where resources are limited, as on an island, there may not be enough resources to support a breeding population of relatively large animals. So, the smallest individuals -- requiring the least amount of food -- would be most likely to survive and thus create the next generation.
` Small body size means that more individuals can live comfortably in the same amount of space, and it also shortens the gestation of a developing embryo so that the next generation comes sooner. In this way, the evolving population improves its chances to increase its numbers.
` This phenomenon, common in lineages of large animals that have moved to small islands, is called insular ("island-ar") dwarfism. It has been seen in many 'large' animals such as ground sloths, 'big cats', bovids such as water buffalo, elephants, emus, pythons, hippopotamuses, and even sauropod dinosaurs.

Not surprisingly, this is quite common among various lineages of elephants since they are quite large to begin with, and are known to swim many miles out to see, even to visit offshore islands. With a population staying on any one island, the larger individuals would tend to lose out in the reproductive game until the average body size is drastically smaller.
` This has happened in Columbian mammoths of the Channel Islands of California; various elephant and mammoth species of many islands in the Mediterranean sea; and on Wrangel Island, four-foot tall Wooly Mammoths existed until about 2,000 to 2,500 years B.C. (Miniature reindeer, however, persevere to this day.)
` Various Stegodon elephants of the Sunda islands, which includes Flores, have done this a few times. 
Sometimes, they apparently went extinct, when a population of large Stegodons found the island full of uneaten greens, and then over several generations, gave rise to a new species of dwarfed Stegodons.

Now, here's a curious thing: Many young dwarf Stegodon remains are found in caves on Flores, along with tools such as points, blades, and microblades, which are practically identical from 92,000 years B.C. to maybe 12,000 B.C. Although even Homo erectus did not make tools this advanced, Homo sapiens did -- and yet there is no evidence that modern humans lived on the island at that time.
Some more of these tools were found in a cave, and alongside these were the several moisture-softened skeletons of the species we now call Homo floresiensis. Although they were similar in brain and body size to an Australopithecus, they had much more advanced tools, and a braincase more similar in shape to that of modern humans. (Interestingly, the largest genetic differences between humans and chimps seems to be in the way the brain functions, independently of its size, so perhaps their brains were that much more advanced than those of Australopithecus?)
` As a bonus, there are some clumps of hair that appear to be from these little people, dated at 14,000 years ago. Who knows how much closer to the present they could have lived? Mere centuries ago? Were these people what the natives of Flores mean when they say Ebu-Gogo?

In late March, I heard that these unusual bones had been compared to examples of human microcephalism, dwarfism, pygmyism, as well as other human-like species, and have been determined to be their own species.
` Not everyone agrees, however, and just in front of me are some transcripts from an Australia Broadcasting Corporation program called Lateline. Apparently there was some really crazy Unwholesomeness going on. It's enough to make a whole other post, which I have!

Though many people call Homo floresiensis the "hobbit", I think that calling it "Ebu Gogo" is much more appropriate. It certainly does match the description closely enough, even if the legend is thousands of years older than the natives say, or even if they had simply made up stories based on the remains of these creatures. Could that be the case?
` There are Native American legends of creatures that are based on actual bones of mammoths, giant bison, and other extinct animals. Some Native Americans considered dinosaur footprints to be sacred, believing them to have been left by sky gods or thunderbirds. Sometimes, these peoples carved their own three-toed trackways, or incorporated them into sacred art, for example, the dinosaur footprint motif on the lower part of the Hopi snake dance costume.

Clearly, legends based on the remains of extinct creatures is possible, and have probably happened a lot around the world. For example, it seems quite possible that ancient Scythian mythology of griffins guarding mines could have begun if miners had dug up a Protoceratops skeleton -- which are common in China and Mongolia.
` Also, you may have heard that ancient Greeks could have based their legends of cyclops on the skulls of dwarf elephants that evolved on the Mediterranean islands: Not knowing what an elephant really was, they may have interpreted the large, rounded nasal opening as an eye socket.
`  It also could be that bones of some species of strange and now-extinct marsupials have inspired some native Australian mythological creatures such as the Bunyip. It is even worth noting that the South American tale of the Mapinguari, shepherd of white-lipped peccaries, has some resemblance to the well-preserved remains of giant ground sloths, who had huge claws and were covered in stinking and shaggy armored hides.

Although some of these connections are quite tenuous, the Ebu Gogo does not seem so far-fetched when it comes to matching legend to extinct species: If some humans on ancient Flores had found a skeleton -- one much more solid than wet blotting paper -- it is perfectly plausible that they could have made up legends about it without ever seeing a living individual.
` Still, I would prefer the legend to be based on living people, although that seems vanishingly likely. I could only dream of this species being alive today -- clearly not us, and clearly not chimpanzee. Anyone who wanted to think of our species as being uniquely deserving of 'human' status, or as being separate from the rest of nature, would have a much harder time.

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