Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Politics of Pygmies

Pygmy Politics

All the excitement in the news about finding a new race of Hobbits is obscuring a deep conflict in the paleontology community, and causing the replaying of similar disputes that popped up a few years back when the Kennewick Man was discovered in Washington State:

Since the discovery of the hobbits was announced in October the extraordinary find has turned into an extraordinary feud, with its roots in national pride and an Indonesian reverence for age. (link)

It seems that the head Indonesian Paleoanthropologist isn't too keen on calling this find a new species, and apparently isn't very concerned about preservering the bones:

A jawbone that is crucial to the discovery team's claim that more than one hobbit lived in the Flores cave had also been cracked and badly repaired while in the care of (Indonesian anthropologist) Professor Jacob.

What's going on here is the concern, similar to the Kennewick finding, that modern science will break taboos and somehow reflect poorly on the heredity and lineage of one's ancestors. In the case of Kennewick Man, assigning Caucasoid or Asiatic/Ainu lineage to the 8,400 B.C. bones disrupts the myth of a pristine American-Indian race, and the claims of eminent domain that emanate from that belief. To this day the Kennewick man remains in legal limbo.

With Homo floresiensis, the new Hobbit species that measures three-feet tall, presumably the Indonesians aren't too keen to suggest that their ancestors looked like anorexic Willy Wonka munchkins. But how can anyone, regardless of their sensibilities, not be blown away with wonder at this new find?

Despite recent tests that suggest the Hobbit skull was not microencephalic but representative of a normal adult, it's far from certain that these early finds will fully validate the Hobbit theory. But hopefully scientists will keep the pressure on for full disclosure, and keep the politics and national sensibilities out of the equation.