Walking along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico here on Marco
Island naturally stirs an interest in maritime topics. Perhaps you
were as excited as I was by recent news reports of the discovery
of a “sea of ice” on Mars. The reports came from a team of
researchers involved with the High Resolution Stereo Camera
onboard the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.
The European workers interpret photos from the orbiter as
indicating a frozen sea hundreds of miles across, comparable to
the size of the North Sea here on Earth. A layer of volcanic ash
and sediment covers the frozen “sea”. At least that’s the
interpretation of the European team.
Not so fast, say a number of scientists here in the U.S., according
to an article by Richard Kerr in the March 4 issue of Science.
Planetary scientists Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona,
Laszlo Keszthelyi and Michael Carr, both associated with the
U.S. Geological Survey, are skeptical of the claim and maintain
that the sea of ice is really just a sea of lava. McEwen says
we’ve been through this seven years ago when the Mars Global
Surveyor first imaged these areas on Mars. He says that if you
lay images of the purported sea on Mars next to images of lava
flows in Iceland they look the same. I’m disappointed that there
may not be an icy sea on Mars but, hey, controversy is part of the
search for the truth in science.
One of the most controversial and shocking findings in science
last year was the discovery of the skeletal remains of remarkably
small humans in the Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores in
Indonesia. We discussed this hobbit-like human, only about
three feet tall, back in November (11/10/2004). The Australian-
Indonesian team, led by archaeologist Mike Morwood, that
discovered the fossil was convinced that this was not a modern
Homo sapiens and dubbed it a new species, Homo floresiensis.
Aside from the size, the surprising thing was that the fossil was a
mere 18,000 years old. To have a type of human that size and
that was not one of us modern humans living among us so
recently was a true shock to the scientific community. As we
mentioned, the finding generated immediate controversy. One
view, shared by a fellow named Teuku Jacob, was that our little
guy was not some archaic human that survived until recent times
but was actually a modern human pygmy with a disease known
When we left the story, the Center for Archaeology in Jakarta,
repository for the bones, had agreed to let Jacob, an Indonesian
paleontologist, take possession of the bones for study in his lab at
Gadjah Mada University in the city of Yogyakarta in Indonesia.
Morwood and his discovery team colleagues cried foul when the
bones were handed over to Jacob in November last year. Jacob
claimed that for decades archaeologists had brought bones from
the Liang Bua to his lab for anatomical analysis. Articles by
Elizabeth Culotta and by Michael Balter in the February 25 and
March 4 issues of Science, respectively, shed light on the
continuing saga of the tiny bones.
The controversy continues. Three paleoanthropologists, Maciej
Henneberg (University of Adelaide), Alan Thorne (Australian
National University in Canberra) and Robert Eckhardt
(Pennsylvania State University) examined the bones and agreed
with Jacob’s view that they are the bones of a diseased modern
pygmy. Offhand, this sounds like a devastating critique, which
Morwood called mind-boggling.
Morwood seems to have good reason to disagree. Balter’s
Science article discusses a study of the cranium of Homo
floresiensis just published online by Science. I was taken by the
fact that the lead author of the cranium study, Dean Falk, is here
in Florida at Florida State University in Tallahassee. How did
Falk become involved? It seems that, prior to the bones being
turned over to Jacob, Morwood and his colleagues did manage to
have the skull of our hobbit scanned at a hospital in Jakarta.
Why is the scan important? The inside surface of the skull
preserves the surface features of the brain. Normally, to get a
picture of a brain’s surface from a fossil skull one pours liquid
rubber into the skull to make a cast of the inner surface of the
skull. However, the discovery team considered the skull too
fragile for that procedure. Falk’s team, one of whose members
was Charles Hildebolt of the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology
in St. Louis, took the CT scans from Jakarta and made a “virtual
endocast” of the hobbit’s brain surface.
They compared their endocast with virtual endocasts of a
microcephalic modern human, a modern woman, a Homo
erectus, a pygmy and a chimpanzee. The Homo floresiensis
brain is no bigger than the chimp’s. The Falk team also had latex
casts of the brains of other primates and extinct hominids.
Comparison of these various casts convinced the researchers that
the hobbit skull is not that of a microcephalic pygmy.
One troubling aspect of Homo floresiensis is that small brain.
Conventional wisdom has been that brain size matters. Yet, the
researchers found advanced types of stone tools in the same area
as the fossils of Homo floresiensis. How could that small brain
come up with these tools? Well, the virtual endocast shows that
our little hobbit’s brain has large temporal lobes, as well as
highly convoluted and folded frontal lobes. These areas of the
brain are those which are involved in such activities as
understanding speech, undertaking initiatives and planning future
actions; in other words, just the characteristics that could lead to
the ability to visualize and create sophisticated tools.
Falk is quoted as saying that he hasn’t seen swellings (under the
forehead) like this in any extinct hominid endocasts, including
those of Homo erectus, one of our early relatively advanced
human relatives. One postulated origin of our hobbit is that an
earlier hominid, perhaps the tall Homo erectus, came to the
island and, because of the limited island resources, gradually
shrank in size in order to be able to exist on those resources.
You may recall that Flores was home to a miniature elephant as
well. The fact that the endocast doesn’t match Homo erectus
leads Falk to suggest that our little guy may have evolved from
an ancestor that predated H. erectus.
Finally, the microcephalic crowd has not thrown in the towel.
Although Falk contends that the skull is “totally the wrong
shape” to be a microcephalic, Alan Thorne counters that a single
European microcephalic skull doesn’t say anything about the
global range of microcephalic virtual endocasts. I may be
mistaken, but I seem to recall that Thorne himself is no stranger
to controversy and was involved in a fossil find that led him to
contradict the prevailing view that all modern humans came out
Wouldn’t you know? I had just finished this column when I
logged onto AOL and spotted a headline, “Fresh Scandal Over
Old Bones” on the USA Today Web site. Sure enough, the
article by Dan Vergano dated March 22 was about the hobbit
bones. On February 23, Jacob returned all but 4 leg bones to the
Jakarta center. The “scandal” includes the fact that there was
“irreparable damage” to the bones. Apparently, Jacob made
rubber casts of the bones “for display” and in the process there
were teeth broken off the skull, missing eye sockets, a smashed
pelvis, a broken off chin on another skull glued back on
misaligned and other damage. Jacob claims the damage must
have been done in transport.
In addition, Jacob also gave a piece of bone to a German
researcher for genetic analysis, which apparently violated a 1999
agreement that original hominid fossils would not be transported
to other countries without “compelling scientific reasons”.
Jacob’s action was described as “completely unethical” and
“freeloading on our discovery” by a member of the discovery
team. I’m sure we’ve not heard the last of Homo floresiensis!
Allen F. Bortrum