H. floresiensis or H. sapiens with Down syndrome? Plus landing on a comet

Lords of the zings

I don’t know why the new papers about the “hobbit,” the 2003 find of tiny ancient bones from the Indonesian island of Flores, have made such a splash. No, I take that back. I do know. But it’s still depressing.

The researchers posit that the tiny hominin, designated LB1, suffered from developmental abnormalities, probably Down syndrome specifically. But from almost the first moment of the fossil’s discovery, a vocal contingent of paleoanthropologists, more than a few and not fringe scientists, declared that the hobbit was probably not the new human species its discoverers claimed, Homo floresiensis. Instead, they argued, LB1  was H. sapiens with some kind of developmental disorder.

LB1 in three different views to illustrate facial asymmetry. A is the actual specimen, B is the right side doubled at the midline and mirrored, and C is the left side doubled and mirrored. Differences in left and right facial architectures are apparent, and are meant to illustrate growth abnormalities of LB1. Credit: A, E. Indriati; B & C, D.W. Frayer. Those who argue that the find is a new human species say the deformities result from deep burial for thousands of years.

LB1 in three different views to illustrate facial asymmetry. A is the actual specimen, B is the right side doubled at the midline and mirrored, and C is the left side doubled and mirrored. Differences in left and right facial architectures are apparent, and are meant to illustrate growth abnormalities of LB1. Credit: A, E. Indriati; B & C, D.W. Frayer. Those who argue that the find is a new human species say the deformities result from deep burial for thousands of years.

By and large, the journalism I’ve read about the new papers, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 4, includes none of that background. One exception is the piece by John Noble Wilford, at the New York Times, who has covered this story from the outset. Another is by Bianca Nogrady, writing at ABC Science. (This is the Australian ABC; see below for why Australia has a special interest in this story.)

Most news stories treated the new studies as an entirely novel and startling bolt from the blue. I know I should probably cut today’s journalists a bit of slack because they are operating under frantic constraints of time and space. But it’s distressing that hardly any bothered with the dead-simple step of googling LB1′s history. Or even Wikipedia. The Wikipedia entry seems to have been written by partisans of the new species hypothesis who are declaring the question settled, which it isn’t. But at least the entry describes the dispute.

Blogging, con and pro

Not a lot of blogging yet, but I guess it’s early days. Two of the researchers, Maciej Henneberg and Robert B. Eckhardt, crowed about their new PNAS papers at The Conversation. They do acknowledge that there were doubters from the beginning, but their chief purpose is to taunt the opposition. Example: “Analogies with characters in works of literary fiction are marketing devices.”

Chris Stringer, star paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum, London, rose to the defense of H. floresiensis at the Museum’s blog, NaturePlus. “In my view this paper does not provide a sound basis to challenge the basic conclusion that a primitive human-like species persisted on the island of Flores within the last 100,000 years.”

Paleoanthropologist Alphacaeli posted a brief riposte at The Memory Palace, arguing that LB1 couldn’t have had Down syndrome because “it’s phenomenally improbable that it would have lived to adulthood.” (From tooth wear, LB1 is believed to have been about 30.) I agree that it would be unusual, but by no means impossible. Like most disabilities, Down syndrome is quite variable. Many people with Down syndrome hold simple jobs, live fairly long lives, and fit into their communities just fine.

Alphacaeli also says, “Don’t even get me started on the discussion of humeral morphology. . .” I very much wish she had gotten started. She specializes in shoulder biomechanics, and could presumably provide expert commentary on the paper’s analysis of LB1′s arm bone.

I should add a geographical footnote here. Alphacaeli is Australian, as is Henneberg. LB1 was discovered in an expedition led by other Australians. Some of what we’re seeing here is an internecine feud among Australian paleoanthropologists.

I am privy to no details, but as you may know, there’s no more combative scientific discipline than paleoanthropology. The rest of us can only look on in awe and delight. I am myself most grateful for the controversy because it has contributed several deposits to my checking account over the years. Here’s one of my pieces, a 2006 feature from open-access PLOS Biology. It’s a roundup of the many theories about LB1. As you will see, the dispute has not advanced a whole lot in the last 8 years.

Are we there yet?

Yes, we’re there. Well, nearly. After a 10-year 4 billion-mile journey, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe got near enough to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko early this year to wake up and start shooting pics. Rosetta is now about 100 km from its target and will send a lander to the comet’s surface in November.

The lander, called Philae, is supposed to tether itself to 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in order to keep from flying back into space due to the comet’s low gravity. Philae is scheduled to examine the comet’s surface composition and structure, and even take samples to study up close.

Meanwhile, in other comet news, NASA has decided that its Mars orbiters are probably not in danger from comet Siding Spring after all. That comet is due to fly near Mars in October. Karl Battams explains at a Planetary Society Guest Blog. There’s said to have been some worry about a close call. But given its recent public relations history–remember the arsenic bug?–I can’t help wondering if NASA is engaging in headline-concocting to compete with the ESA plan to actually land on a comet.

The most crazy bonkers comet in the solar system

Rosetta is in orbit around the comet, although it’s not really an orbit, Phil Plait tells us at Bad Astronomy. At present the two are somewhere between Jupiter and Mars. It’s been a roundabout journey for Rosetta, taking so long because it involved slingshot maneuvers around the Earth and Mars to save fuel, John Timmer explains at Ars Technica.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Charlie Petit says, “The mission is clever, difficult, complex, and inherently appealing.” Yup. He’s got links to several stories and other resources. The photos taken a few days ago are spectacularly sharp, and we are told they will be even higher-res soon. Marc Boucher has posted several at On Orbit.

Image of the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta probe on August 4, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team

Image of the Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by the Rosetta probe on August 4, 2014. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team

Photos also, plus a video, at io9. Observers keep likening 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko’s shape to a rubber ducky. I don’t see it myself, but the shape is certainly odd. Robbie Gonzalez quotes ESA senior scientist Mark McCaughrean as calling it “the most crazy bonkers comet in the solar system.”

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4 Responses to H. floresiensis or H. sapiens with Down syndrome? Plus landing on a comet

  1. Ricki Lewis says:

    Nice post, Tami! The new (11th!) edition of my human genetics textbook is to be published in about 3 weeks, and “The Little Lady of Flores” leads off the chapter on human ancestry and evolution, as she has for several editions now. Each time I rewrite I re-read the literature. The Down syndrome suggestion is, as you write, nothing new, and I did not include it in my coverage. I do remember, from the last edition, having to take out Hobbit (as she was at first called) because of a lawsuit from the Tolkein family or some such. Lawsuits and anthropology — what a concept!

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    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      11 editions. Wow. I’m impressed. Also envious. Congratulations! BTW, Robert B. Eckhardt, one of the proponents of the Down syndrome hypothesis, has a blog post in which he argues that even the accepted sex assignment is wrong. He thinks LB1 might be male.
      http://liangbuacave.org/

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  2. MIchele says:

    “I agree that it would be unusual, but by no means impossible. Like most disabilities, Down syndrome is quite variable. Many people with Down syndrome hold simple jobs, live fairly long lives, and fit into their communities just fine.”

    Yes…very true today, however, it’s only because proper accommodations are made. We are talking about tens of thousands of years ago, not today.

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    • Tabitha M. Powledge says:

      Tens of thousands of years ago we mostly lived in small, tight-knit groups, often kin to each other. I’m not sure what you mean by proper accommodations. No heart surgery, to be sure, but not everybody with Down syndrome needs 21st century medical care. Community support would have been available in abundance, and many such people are perfectly capable of contributing–fetching wood, gathering food, etc.
      This does not, by the way, mean that I buy the Down syndrome explanation; I just don’t know. But I do think the argument that people with Down syndrome could not have survived to age 30 in a small community 17K years ago is not persuasive. Unusual, yes. Impossible, no.

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