Discoveries of early human remains tell us much about ourselves, the commentators on TV science shows say portentously. They do indeed, and the light is often not flattering. . . .
Once upon a time in 2003, an international archaeology team was excavating the Liang Bua limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, between Sumatra and East Timor. At a six-meter depth, they unearthed the skeleton of a tiny ancient woman, about thirty years old. She was a meter in height, with the brain capacity of a small chimpanzee.
The discoverers, R. P. Soejono, Michael Morwood, and their colleagues, identified her as Homo erectus, an extinct primitive human. If their identification was correct, their find was remarkable because she lived only 18,000 years ago, which would make Homo erectus contemporary with modern humans (Homo sapiens).
Not surprisingly, she was dubbed the "hobbit." The Return of the King was released that year, and hobbits were, well, big for once.
Her unfossilized bones were as soft as mashed potatoes. The tale they told was a confused noise, like a babble of competing voices in a far-off room. Did we hear what was said or only what we expected?
When the discovery was announced, in October 2004, the science media had no doubt that the hobbit represented a new human species. She was "extreme," "spectacular," "startling," and "incredible."
Peter Brown, a colleague of Morwood's, hoped that a male would turn up . . . and his wish was immediately granted. The National Geographic editors promptly offered the world an imaginative drawing of a "male" returning from the hunt, looking impressively feral, and distinctly less than human.
To Henry Gee, writing in Nature, the hobbit posed "thorny questions about the uniqueness of Homo sapiens." Just why is unclear. The cave turned up stone tools, remains of fires, and the bones of pygmy elephants and other feasts. So she and the twelve other individuals later unearthed—the oldest dating from 94,000 years ago—apparently followed the same lifestyle as other ancient humans.
Almost immediately, a competing narrative appeared. In November, leading Indonesian scientist Teuku Jacob announced that the Flores hobbit was an "ordinary human" and "just like us," though possibly with mental defects. Jacob took the bones to his own lab, and returned most of them the following February, amid charges that he had severely damaged them.
Much worse, he had damaged the orthodox narrative. Well, Nature News wasn't having any of that! In March 2005, the journal triumphantly reported the results of a computer simulation: "Critics silenced by scans of hobbit skull." Silenced, one feels, as Zacharias was silenced by St. Luke's angel, for the sin of doubt.
But doubt about the "new species" label lingered. Indeed, one analyst, Tabitha M. Powledge, worried that the controversy might be good for creationism: "We certainly make it easy for them when we have disagreements like this one. I think that a lot of what has been said is going to have to be retracted. Given the amount of media attention, it just makes the field look incompetent." The conclusion: "Everybody wants a piece of this. Nobody is on the side of the angels now."
Not even the angels, it seemed.
A key paradox was this: The hobbit had a normal human lifestyle for the period despite a grapefruit-sized brain. That, some argued, showed that she must belong to a new species. That and an odd-shaped wrist bone. Quoth Physorg (September 20, 2007), following the Smithsonian's interpretation of the Icon of the Wrist: "It demonstrates further that the hobbit indeed represents a different species of human. . . . It is not a modern human with some sort of pathology or growth disorder."
Subsequent science news stories continued to reassure the faithful, in language reminiscent of religious groups fighting doubt. In August 2007, Science called the dig "hallowed ground." And in that same year, we modern humans emerged as the serpents that brought death into the garden. Discoverer Morwood assured the Sydney Morning Herald that modern humans "were responsible" for the hobbits' disappearance.
Then suddenly, in March 2008, everything changed. The New Scientist lead, "Researchers have uncovered bones that could drive another nail into the Homo floresiensis coffin," signaled far more than mere information: Doubt was now fashionable, not forbidden. Why? Apparently, diminutive humans had "overrun" a nearby island as recently as 1,400 years ago—"but despite their size these people clearly belonged to our species."
The article then admitted what Professor Jacob and most other people know—that short stature is common in southeast Asia. And apart from skull-squishing deformities such as microcephaly, human brain size and intelligence are not necessarily related, though that admission will probably be slipped in later.
Defenders of materialist science "versus religion" insist that they, unlike religious believers, change their minds on the basis of new findings. Perhaps, but only when new findings make treasured myths unsustainable.•
Ancient "subhuman species" just aren't cooperating with Darwinists these days. First, the little people of Flores, whose existence would have shown that humans do indeed evolve, turned out to be just a bunch of short Homo sapiens. And now, that archaeological mainstay, the Neanderthal, is likewise proving quite similar to his human counterparts.
The assumption has always been that the Neanderthals were a subhuman species that preceded—with some overlap—early Homo sapiens, chiefly because they were ostensibly less intelligent than the more evolved humans. Research published this past summer, however, indicates that this was probably not the case at all. Building on a series of studies that have already shown not only that Neanderthals were as good at hunting as Homo sapiens, but also that they could communicate just as effectively, scientists from the University of Exeter, Southern Methodist University, Texas State University, and the Think Computer Corporation have pretty much debunked the myth that Neanderthals were as dumb as a bag of hammers.
Published in the Journal of Human Evolution, their discovery centers around the stone tools that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens used for hunting and foraging for food. Where Neanderthals employed tools known as "flakes," which are wide and primitive in appearance, Homo sapiens wielded "blades," which are much narrower and supposedly more efficient. What researchers found in using the tools themselves, however, was that the flakes were every bit as effective as the blades—if not more so. Thus, Metin Eren, an Experimental Archaeology student at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study, writes that "when we think of Neanderthals, we need to stop thinking in terms of 'stupid' or 'less advanced' and more in terms of 'different.'"
So what does this mean for Darwinism? Not much—yet. But if evidence continues to accumulate showing that early man was no different from the men of today, it's going to get harder and harder to make a scientific case for human evolution. •
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