She's short, hairy and over 12,000 years old. Say hello to a very special lady

November 26, 2004

LB1 has thrown our idea of what it means to be human into turmoil. Erica Fudge explains

The announcement in the journal Nature of a newly discovered skeleton of a "small-bodied hominin" - a new species of human - on the Indonesian island of Flores has created much media interest. Here, from perhaps only 12,000 years ago, is evidence that the human was not always so singular a being as millennia of philosophy might have us believe. Thinkers across the ages have made claims for the uniqueness of man (and he was man for a long time): man was the political animal, the only animal who laughed; he had language and a self-awareness that animals lacked. But this female skeleton, named LB1 after Liang Bua, her place of discovery, raises the possibility that such claims for human uniqueness are misplaced. If there was more than one kind of human, doesn't that imply that there might be more than one way of being human?

The discovery on Flores has implications that go beyond the realms of evolution. It is not only science that has to be modified to include LB1; our ideas about our status in the world must also change.

"What is a human?" is a question not only about DNA, it is also a question about perception. LB1 forces us to ask: how do we begin to understand ourselves as human if the concept "human" includes this tiny lost being? A question such as this is most disturbing to those schools of thought that base their truth-claims on the concept of human uniqueness. These philosophies can be broadly termed "humanist" in that they operate on the assumption that human status is a natural given that needs no analysis. LB1 throws such assumptions into disarray, and the albeit comic categorisation of this new human by those who discovered her reveals just how problematic her status is. She was named the "hobbit" when she was first unearthed. The archaeologists turned from science to fiction in their search to make sense of this being.

The use of the term hobbit has not been to everyone's taste. In a Sunday Times article, evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins argues: "Adopting a name from fiction... will diminish the wonder of this sensational discovery and insult the memory of these tiny cousins." Such a desire to uphold the boundary between science and fiction is, I think, similar to attempting to uphold the human of humanist thought in the light of LB1. And I wonder if this new human might be a prompt to think about a new humanities in which such a boundary is undone.

For scientists, the discovery of LB1 is a massively important addition to human knowledge - Robert Foley, the director of the Leverhulme Centre of Human Evolutionary Studies, Cambridge University, used the words "startling", "unexpected" and "astonishing". For writers of fiction and their readers, however, LB1 seems a somewhat belated arrival; we have, in various ways, been expecting her for centuries. We have been imagining her, even as we have been constantly trying to imagine ourselves. When we recognise the significance of imagining the "other" human - the monster, the alien - to our understanding of LB1, we can begin to use the discovery of her to reassess not only the status of humanity, but also the history of ideas about ourselves. Texts such as Edward Tyson's Orang-Outang , sive , Homo sylvestris , the first ever comparative anatomy of a human and a chimpanzee, which was published in 1699, or Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species of 1859 offer new and important visions of the natural order.

But it is not only scientific writings that reveal the shifts in the meanings of the concept "human". We can also turn to works of fiction such as H. G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). In this novel, gentleman traveller Edward Prendick survives a shipwreck and ends up on a mysterious island where the infamous vivisectionist Moreau has his "biological station - of a sort". Prendick's first horrified impression of the "evil-looking boatmen" is that they are the human victims of Moreau's obsession: that they have been under his knife and emerged less than human but more than animal. As his knowledge of the reality of Moreau's experiments grows, however, Prendick comes to realise that the "evil-looking boatmen" are in fact animals that Moreau has cut into human form. But it is not merely the physical body that he has cut: "The possibilities of vivisection do not stop at a mere physical metamorphosis.

A pig may be educated," Moreau argues. Moral education, what might be termed civilisation, is seen by this scientist as "an artificial modification and perversion of instinct". What makes the human unique is revealed to be artificial (and therefore reproducible) and to be a perversion. This is hardly the image of God on earth.

When Prendick escapes from Moreau's island, however, he does not leave behind the horrors he has seen, he takes them with him. Of London he states: "I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me... weary pale workers go coughing by me, with tired eyes and eager paces like wounded deer dripping blood."

Recognising the possibility of an animal-humanity, Prendick can no longer see the difference between humans and animals.

Wells' fable tells of the potential horrors of scientific discovery. The story emerging from this other island, Flores, can be read in a very different way. LB1 need not be interpreted as a horrifying vision of our own animality. Instead, we can embrace this little late arrival as a reminder of our reliance on our environment, and we can view her as the embodiment of our imagined worlds.

But we can read into this archaeological discovery something else. Where LB1 challenges the assumptions of humanism and where her status might best be understood by breaking down the boundaries between science and fiction, such conceptions of self and scholarship can be traced in the field of animal studies in the humanities. Those of us working in this field argue that the status of animals and humans can be understood fully only when both are analysed from the perspectives of science, certainly, but also from those of history and culture. LB1 becomes a paradigm of animal studies: through her we come to realise that we - humans - are not transcendent; that we have not always been the beings in splendid isolation we might assume we are.

We can also see that in naming her the hobbit, we seek to understand ourselves and the world around us not only through science but through the imagination. LB1, from this perspective, reinforces the sense that the human is a creature not whole unto itself, but constantly in the process of being made. The notion of the human as a timeless being - as a species without history - is thrown into disarray by LB1. This disarray is one that we should be celebrating.

Erica Fudge is reader in literary and cultural studies, School of Arts, Middlesex University.

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