May 15, 2009

Hobbit I’m Not

Part One

By Michael-John J. Davis

In 2003 the discovery of Homo Floresiensis created a stir in the international academic community. Widely contested, the species was allegedly a sort of dwarf man with a small skeletal structure and brain. It was this small size that led to the species being nicknamed Hobbits. Many supporters believed that they must have had a moderate intelligence because at no time in the probable history of the species was the island connected to any other land mass. This led to the conclusion that they might have built rafts to travel between islands, which meant they must have had technology and more than likely had language.

The most interesting part of the discovery was to me the time frame in which they were believed to have existed: up to 12,000 years ago. If this was correct, it would make them the most recent relative of Homo Sapiens to survive. Thus, surpassing even the Neanderthals by up to 12,000 years.

While all this interested me, the part of the story that truly drew me in was the legend of the Ebu Gogo. Members of the Nage, a tribe local to the island of Flores, claimed that there were a race of little cave dwelling men sharing the island with them up until around 300 years ago. At this time their tribe disposed of the Ebu Gogo by presenting them with palm fibers to make clothes. However, the Nage ignited the fibers. According to the legend, once the Ebu Gogo had taken these palm fibers back to their cave, all of them perished in fire that day. Some say that perhaps one pair, which retreated into the deepest forest, managed to survive.

I was twenty-one years old and a student of Anthropology at Florida State University when the discovery was announced in 2004. I followed the controversy closely. I was enraptured by the thought of finding the cave where the Ebu Gogo had been burnt and proving that H. Floresiensis had existed side by side with modern man. I wanted to prove the H. Sapiens might not be the only man around. In 2012 I graduated from FSU, and with the ink still wet on my PhD, I had no question where I was headed. You can call me a hopeless romantic, but there was no place but Flores for me.

I secured funding and authorization from the Indonesian government to study not H. Floresiensis but the Nage tribe. I was going to study their customs before the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century . Not much was know about the Nage. THey had not been studied except sparsely in the 1940’s by a Portuguese colonial officer. After that by a professor from the University of Alberta in the late twentieth century.

In my time on the island, I labored at my research on the Nage people. However, my personal time was spent hiking in the forests on the island, ducking into every cave I could find, and hoping I would get lucky. I did all this to no avail.

Five years after I had arrived on the island, I began to despair of ever finding anything even related to H. Floresiensis. Oh, I had seen stone tools and even on one occasion the actual skeletal remains of LB1, the first specimen discovered. Alas, I saw them in the museum in Jakarta. I longed to find anything in the field that might be related to H. Floresiensis. I drove deeper and deeper into the forest. It was nothing but sheer desperation that led me to the greatest discovery ever.

On one of my trips into the forest I came upon a large rock and decided to take a break from all the hiking. As usual, I began to day dream about what it would be like to be the one who discovered a living hominid outside of our own species. I realized in my day-dreaming that if H. Floresiensis hadn’t been found yet then they probably didn’t want to be found. How do you find someone who doesn’t want to be found? I realized that if they were still around that the Ebu Gogo would be hunter/gathers and most likely scavengers. On a whim I dug into my backpack and pulled out my extra canteen. I placed it on the rock and left it with the intent to come back and see if it was missing. Now that I had made my shot in the dark, I headed back to civilization.

Two weeks passed before I could make it back to the rock. When I did make it back ,much to my surprise, the canteen was gone. I ran through the possibilities. Someone from the village might have come by and picked it up. However, the villagers tended to stay away from the deep forest. Legend held that the spirits of the slaughtered Ebu Gogo haunted the forest and expressed ill will and bad luck towards any who ventured too deep. An animal might have carried it off but that too was unlikely as Flores is one of the few islands in the south pacific without monkeys. Lastly, the most unlikely scenario and the one that I dared not let get my hopes up -- a member of H. Floresiensis had acquired it.

Really I had only one option: to carry on with the experiment. Thus, out of my pack I pulled the hatchet I had brought with me. I placed it on the rock with the determination that I would return in exactly the same amount of time that it had taken me to return the first time. As I hiked out of the forest, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being watched. To be honest, it excited me.

When I returned to the village I ordered a motion sensing camera from Jakarta and set about documenting what I had done so far. I was after all, a scientist. Now that the excitement had bled out, I hit the second phase commonly associated with discovery, doubt. I began to wonder why I had just spent much of the meager salary I received on the camera. Even more so, I began to ask myself what if? What if my wildest dreams were true and I had begun to make contact? I had broken a cardinal rule of first contact. I had introduced them to tools and workmanship far beyond their capacity to make. I wondered if I should call it off, but the schoolboy in me refused to do so. I knew I would take flak for the mistake if I had truly made contact. Nonetheless, the damage was done and there was nothing I could do about it.

Posted by deg at May 15, 2009 5:00 PM


I'm liking the story. Kind of reminds me of the story of "littlefoot".

Posted by: Dwayne at May 15, 2009 9:19 PM

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