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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

« A Rough Grunt Dictionary | Main | Monkey Business »

October 27, 2005

Hobbit As Monkey?

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

Hobbit Cover NW&T nov 2005.jpgWell, here's an idea I haven't heard of before...

Last year scientists found the bones of what they recognized as a new species of hominid that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. They named it Homo floresiensis, and its three foot stature earned it the nickname the Hobbit. All of the reconstructions I've seen until now have shown the Hobbit standing upright--which you might expect of a hominid that descended from upright ancestors (perhaps Homo erectus or even the more primitive Australopithecus).

But in the November issue of the Dutch science magazine Natuurwetenschap & Techniek, paleontologist and Hobbit team-member Gert van den Bergh offers a new vision: the Hobbit on all fours.

Van den Bergh makes his case based on the long, strangely shaped arm bones of Homo floresiensis, which were recently described in the journal Nature. “The humerus of Homo sapiens (modern man) and Homo erectus (our ancestor) has a significant twist in the connection to the shoulder," van den Bergh said in a statement issued from the magazine. "In the Hobbit, however, the humerus is connected to the shoulder without twist. You don’t see this in the even more ancient Australopithecus, nor in erectus or sapiens, nor in apes, but you do see it in gibbons and macaques! As a consequence, the Hobbit’s shoulder is less mobile. Probably she could freely move her arms forward and backward, but had difficulty moving them sideways, like we can.”

Van den Bergh speculates the Homo floresiensis might have adapted to climbing steep mountain slopes as well as trees, like macaques do. “This could be an adaptation to the inhospitable and rugged island of Flores, where the largest coastal plain is just fifteen kilometers wide. The larger part of the island consists of very steep mountain sides.”

The article is all in Dutch, but I received an image of the reconstruction with a lot of captions in English. I've posted it here.

Normally I'd let such a reconstruction pass by, since I'm not a big fan of science-by-popular-magazine. But given Dr. van den Bergh's experience, I thought I'd post it--at least to get people's imaginations going. I wonder if other signatures of quadrupedalism can be found on the fossils. The hole at the bottom of the skull where the spinal cord exits, known as the foramen magnum, is one clue. I'm going to see if I can find out what other members of the Hobbit team think. If I get a response, I'll post it here.

UPDATE 10/27 5 PM: Well, Peter Brown, the anthropologist on the hobbit team, is not impressed. In an email reply, he wrote:

Absolute nonsense!

Completely inconsistent with the anatomy of the LB1 skeleton, which is consistent with that of an obligate biped. Simply no way the limbs could have functioned like this. Anatomy of the cranial base, pelvis, legs, feet, hands... all those of an obligate biped.

UPDATE 10/27 6:40 PM Another guffaw from Dan Lieberman, a Harvard anthropologist who has been a careful observer of H. floresiensis research:

Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I've seen regarding this odd skeleton. But I like the figure! Their idea its a monkey comes from the humeral torsion, but it really is clearly a biped in so many features that the idea is, well, silly.

Just goes to show that one can publish anything somewhere...

I suspect we've just reached the end of a very short, very weird side-story in the Hobbit's saga.

UPDATE: Friday 10/28/05 12:40 pm: The Australian has picked up on the monkey business now. They even quote Lieberman here. While it's nice to beat the papers (especially one that's been on top of the Hobbit beat since the beginning), they seem to be ignoring the fact that the story was reported here first.

Dr van den Bergh's claim is generating cyber ridicule. "Very amusing and one of the silliest ideas yet I've seen regarding this odd skeleton," wrote Harvard University anthropologist Dan Lieberman on

Excuse me, that was reporting. Another sign, I suspect, that some newspapers don't like being beaten by blogs.

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Evolution | Hobbits (Homo floresiensis)


1. Gerard Michael Burns on October 27, 2005 12:08 PM writes...

Fantastic! Even if it turns out to be a wild goose chase, it is great that you are checking this out. We cannot let ourselves be prisoners of precedent.
After all, if the vegetation on Flores was as it is now(?) some of the suspected drivers for bipedalism vanish. Floresiensis could (among many possibilities) have reverted to cuadripedalism or knuckle-walking (or never have left those practices). Some suspect that chimps and gorillas had upright ancestors.

Keep up the good work.

G. Michael Burns

Permalink to Comment

2. afarensis on October 27, 2005 01:30 PM writes...

What Van den Bergh is refering too is humeral torsion. In humans and apes there is a large amount of it - although least in the gorillas, which spend a lot of time on the ground. It should be pointed out that gibbons are not quadrupedal. The exact relationship between humeral torsion has not been worked out. For more info Aiello and Dean's "An introduction to human evolutionary anatomy" and references their in for more details.

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3. Johan Richter on October 27, 2005 04:29 PM writes...

The hobbit would not be a monkey just because it walked on four legs. It would just be a quadridupal ape.

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4. Elliot Kennel on October 27, 2005 11:37 PM writes...

I have no idea how the bones of homo floresiensis should be reconstructed. Still, I find it a bit disturbing that the oral traditions of the natives are dismissed so readily. In particular, they refer to an advanced bipedal ape known variously as ebu gogo or orang pendek. Would it be totally shocking if this creature bears some relation to homo floresiensis? If orangutangs can survive and co-exist with humans in the area, why not orang pendek? I can only hope that some credible people are searching for it in a serious way.

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5. Tabitha M. Powledge on October 28, 2005 10:41 AM writes...

Weird perhaps, but this idea is not dead simply because the discoverers have jeered at it. One of my sources raised this point in my October 13 story in The Scientist:

Schwartz is a major expert on hominid remains who says he has examined many of the actual examples of hominids, not casts. (Those of you with FT access to Science, see his review on Homo erectus in the July 2 2004 issue.)

Until someone publishes a serious critique of Liang Bua stratigraphy, Schwartz's speculation that the bones may represent different taxa is not so easily dismissed, IMHO. It's very easy to forget a crucial aspect of this site. It's not a living or burial site. All those bones and other artefacts washed into the cave during tropical rains and flooding. No one knows where they came from.

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6. Peter Brown on October 28, 2005 05:59 PM writes...

Schwatz's speculation about multiple taxa makes absolutely no sense. Is he, for instance suggesting that the arms of LB1, belong to a different taxa to the rest of the body. Or, the postcranial bones which share numerous features with the first skeleton, belong to different taxa. Its not as if there were even any other primate taxa on Flores during the Pleistocene. As for articulated skeletons being washed into the cave...

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7. Chris on October 31, 2005 11:21 AM writes...

Could there be any connection with the Humanzee, Oliver? Oliver is/was a chimpanzee that exhibited human characteristics, such as a preference to walk upright, a more human shaped skull and a disdain for the chimpanzee species which treated him as an outcast.

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8. Tim on October 31, 2005 04:17 PM writes...

Look at the size of that nose! Has anyone seen any Homo floresiensis reconstruction artwork that is actually good?

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9. ライブチャット on October 31, 2005 09:44 PM writes...

its very interestign opinion!

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10. Emily on November 2, 2005 02:31 PM writes...

They haven't tried another theory - this species could be locked in a 'in between stage'. Basically, on the verge of heading off from ape to humanoid.

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