When Hobbits Were Real

When Hobbits Were Real

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we'd like to thank rake on wireless earphones for supporting PBS in October 2004 our understanding of the human family tree was turned upside down that's when anthropologists reported that they discovered the bones of a tiny unknown hominin on the Indonesian island of Flores this little creature stood only about a meter tall and had a brain about the size of chimpanzees but that wasn't what was so shocking we already knew about small bodied small brain hominins in the human fossil record like the australopithecines what was really striking about this skeleton is that at first at least it appeared not to have been very old and yet it had features of
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much older more basal hominins the original description of the bones dated them to between about 35,000 and 14,000 years ago which means that they would have lived at the same time as us but the last time a hominin with her brain that small is around was millions of years ago not thousands well before modern Homo sapiens was on the scene and the rest of its skeleton was equally baffling its shoulder joint wasn't like that of any modern human it had short collarbones which meant that the shoulders were rotated forward in a way that hadn't been seen since early specimens of Homo erectus for Mervan 1.6 million years ago the three bones of its
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risk that were found were also strangely archaic looking they were shaped like the bones of African Apes and australopithecines not like ours and its feet were really long at least compared to the length of its legs we're talking ape-like not human-like proportions and yet it had short big toes and was probably an effective bipedal Walker its discoverers named this puzzling hominin Homo floresiensis but it's often called the hobbit for a short stature in oddly proportioned feet and it's been at the center of a major controversy in the field ever since it's been 15 years since the discovery was first announced and we're still exploring what this
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little puppet can tell us about the shape of the human family tree and what it means for our own evolutionary history and the questions that this little creature raises are big was it its own species or was it really just one of us or could it even have descended from a whole lineage of hominins that we don't even know about the partial skeleton that started the whole controversy is called lb-1 and it belonged to an adult female Homo floresiensis based on the shape of her pelvis and the fact that her wisdom teeth had come in but she's not the only Hobbit that anthropologists have found since her discovery the remains of as many as 11
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other members of her species have been recovered although lb-1 is still the only one with the skull and all of these hobbits come from a single site a limestone cave called lien boo located in the western part of the island of Flores so when lb1 was discovered in 2003 one of the first things that scientists had to figure out was how to explain our tiny size and strange mix of features what branch of our family tree could have produced such an odd hominin hominin by the way being a primate that's more closely related to us than to chimps the team suggested that her species had evolved from a population of Homo erectus that became isolated in the island of Flores and
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then thanks to evolutionary pressures their bodies got smaller over time now there are fossils of Homo erectus from other Indonesian islands and they cover a wide range of time from 1.6 million to just 143 thousand years ago so we know that homo erectus made it to that part of the world and we know that mammals on Islands can change dramatically in body size over time thanks to a phenomenon known as Foster's rule which we've talked about before this rule says that big mammals on islands often get smaller and smaller moles tend to get bigger as they adapt to limited resources and fewer predators so in the original paper about the
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hobbits discovery the researchers proposed that a group of Homo erectus somehow got stuck on Flores and they eventually evolved into a new species the smaller Homo floresiensis and fleurs would have been a terrible place to be stranded today it's a forested tropical island and it seems to have been pretty similar if more variable when the hobbits were around now a stuck clear whether the hobbits actually lived in the cave where their remains were found but based on the number of animal bones and stone tools found in different layers of the site they seemed to have used to cave more when the environment was wetter and less when it was drier and less forested and the hobbits seemed
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to have had a rather exotic diet at least by our standards the animal remains found in the cave include a lot of very young pygmy stegodon an elephant relative that like the hobbits seems to have evolved into a smaller version of its mainland cousins a number of these bones have cut marks on them and some are even burned so homeless residences seems to have been able to use fire and there are also lots of bones of Komodo dragons which are still formidable predators today it's not clear whether the hobbits were hunting the Komodo dragons or just scavenging them but it's possible that the hobbits might have been hunted by the Dragons interestingly enough they
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don't seem to be any bones of adult pygmies egged on in the cave which suggested the hobbits might not have been able to take down a full-grown elephant the hobbits also left behind a number of simple stone tools like coarse flakes and points some of which seem to have been used not only for hunting but also for processing plant materials but other experts weren't convinced that these artifacts have been made by a new species of hominin instead they thought the so-called hobbits were actually modern Homo sapiens but from a population of very small bodied people like some groups of tropical hunter-gatherers today and they argued lb-1 likely had some kind of
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pathological condition to support their case these scientists compared the bones from lb-1 with the skeletons of various indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Australia their thinking was that the best populations to compare them to would be ones that lived in the same region and environments as the Hobbit and they said more than 140 features of lb-1 skull matched those of modern humans from the area but the researchers who thought that Homo floresiensis was a new species countered this argument they said that there are a number of groups of people from around the world that have adapted to their environments by becoming smaller but none of them ended up with the same tiny brain in odd limb
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proportions as The Hobbit so that just left the claim that lb-1 was an individual with some kind of pathological condition in a series of papers the supporters of this hypothesis proposed a number of different conditions that might explain lb ones very small skull short stature and other features these included laronne syndrome which is caused by an insensitivity to certain growth hormones as well as microcephaly or having a much smaller than average head circumference and Down syndrome and every time the scientists who thought Hummel floresiensis was a new species put it out that none of the proposed disorders quite matched lb ones Anatomy
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plus they didn't explain all the hobbits features that resembled those of older hominids like it's archaic looking wrist bones the two camps went back and forth publishing paper after paper questioning each other's arguments and not always in civil terms and while one group of researchers still thinks lb one is a pathological modern human some recent work has suggested a third theory of where the hobbits came from the Shire now just kidding instead of being a dwarf version of Homo erectus or a modern human with a developmental disorder maybe the Hobbit actually evolved from another earlier hominins
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species when we don't know about yet in this scenario Homo floresiensis is still its own new species but his ancestor wasn't Homo erectus and in 2017 some experts tested this hypothesis they collected a whole lot of skeletal data from the 11 different hominin species and then built two kinds of evolutionary trees that showed how the species might be related one tree was designed around the notion of parsimony the idea that the simplest path for one species to diverge into another is the one with the fewest changes and features the the model was built using statistics analyzing how likely a path might be
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based on different models of evolutionary change and both methods came up with pretty similar results in one scenario the hobbits shared a common ancestor with Homo habilis a hominin that lived in Africa between 2.4 million and 1.4 million years ago in the other scenario the hobbits are their sister group - the branch that includes Homo habilis Homo erectus and us what all this suggests is that homo erectus might not have been the first hominin to leave africa even though that's what the current fossil record shows it also suggests that there are probably a lot of ancestors on the hobbits branch of the family tree that are still out there waiting to be found which is amazing to
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even think about there's so much we don't know now where does the debate about the hobbits stand today well the consensus among most experts is that Homo floresiensis is probably its own unique species this was helped along by the publication of revised dates for the bones and stone artifacts that were found in the cave instead of dating to between 35,000 and 14,000 years ago as we first thought the deposit that the skeleton came from was more like a hundred thousand to sixty thousand years old and the stone artefacts were between a hundred and ninety thousand and fifty thousand years old so the odd little skeleton was older than we originally thought
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which made us archaic looking Anatomy somewhat easier to understand and it looks like there are changes in the island's climate and volcanic eruptions around fifty thousand years ago which might explain what the species disappeared but who the Hobbit is descended from is still a wide-open question and the more digging we do in Southeast Asia the more complicated our evolutionary story seems to be for example in 2019 scientists working in the Philippines announced their discovery of teeth and bones from a new species of hominin dated to about 50,000 to 67,000 years old it was named Homo Luzon Ensis and it overlapped in time with the hobbits and
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us along with some of our other extinct relatives and it had a different mix of ancient and modern features than the Hobbit like very small molars but with larger premolars and curved finger bones this discovery of another new hominin on a remote island in southeast asia just reinforces how much more we have to learn about our family tree excavations at the cave where the original Hobbit was found are ongoing and anthropologists are trying all the latest genetic techniques to try to unravel the mystery of the hobbit at the molecular level but so far our attempts to extract DNA from the hobbits bones have failed because hot humid caves are
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just terrible for preserving DNA but even newer methods like extracting aging protein such as collagen from the bones have yet to be tried so maybe there's still some hope for figuring out where Homo floresiensis fits into our family tree and maybe that will help us better understand this particular chapter of human evolution back in the time when hobbits were real thanks to Ray Con for supporting PBS Digital Studios Rickon makes wireless earphones that come with bluetooth pairing a portable charging capsule in six hours of play time instead of traditional single channel distribution rekon uses true
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at all hosted by two supremely talented musicians have also have kicked my butt in trivia battles Arthur Ellie Buckner and nari Seoul every episode is one part video essay and one part musical performance so go subscribe to sound field link in the description below big thanks to this month's Yount ologists Patrick Seyfert Jake Hart John Davison Inge and Steve to join the unite to go to patreon.com slash yawns and pledge your support and another big thanks to you for joining me in the Constantine houses studio if you like what we do here subscribe at youtube.com slash Aeons thanks
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you

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