A few years ago, everyone was in a tizzy over the discovery of Flores Man, curious hominin remains found on an Indonesian island that had a number of astonishing features: they were relatively recent, less than 20,000 years old; they were not modern humans, but of unsettled affinity, with some even arguing that they were like australopithecines; and just as weird, they were tiny, a people only about 3 feet tall with a cranial capacity comparable to a chimpanzee’s. This was sensational. Then on top of that, add more controversy with some people claiming that the investigators had it all wrong, and they were looking at pathological microcephalics from an isolated, inbred population, and then there were all kinds of territorial disputes and political showboating going on, with the specimens taken out of the hands of the discoverers, passed off to a distinguished elderly scientist whose lab damaged them, etc., etc., etc. It was a mess of a story, and the basic scientific issues are still unsettled.
Now the leader of the investigators who found the specimens has written a book, A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mike Morwood and Penny Van Oosterzee. I’m coming to this a bit late — Afarensis reviewed it already this spring — but finally got far enough down in my pile of books to encounter it.
I’m of mixed feelings about the book. It is not the book I wanted to read: I want a thorough overview of the details of the fossils, even from an author with his own predispositions about it (maybe especially so — a solid work of advocacy can be very entertaining and informative). I really want a good discussion of the various competing hypotheses, of the science in this discovery, but all too often this particular book seems to take a superficial view, and at times the fossils themselves seem to be wrapped in paper, boxed, and tucked away in a locked room while the real focus of the story is put on the front stage.
And that focus is on the politics. We learn far more about the politics and details of getting an Australian grant funded than we ever wanted to know. We get the personality clashes and diplomatic battles necessary to get research carried out across national borders. We meet a few prima donnas and mandarins of australasian anthropology, and we get all the juicy details of the infighting within the research group … all those important issues of divvying up the work and the all-important credit, sorting out authorship and possession, and all these thousand petty matters of priority and ownership and locking down the data. I have to say, it drove me nuts with frustration at times. I didn’t want to know about how authors argued over the species name, I want details of the characters used to link it to the human lineage. Less administrative dissection, more analysis of the biology.
It’s a good book if you go into it expecting what it actually is, a description of the sociology of science through the lens of one particularly discovery, by someone who is square in the middle of it all. It might be an excellent book for someone considering a career in anthropology, too — if you aren’t frightened off by hoop-jumping and paper-shuffling needed to just get started, you might actually be able to do the work without going insane.
I’m still looking for the Flores book I want to read, though. It’ll be a synthesis of various hypotheses with all of the skeletal details, all of the methods, and with lots and lots of pictures to illustrate exactly what the author is talking about. I’m still curious about that story and want to know more. A New Human, unfortunately, is not that book.