The key fossil's small brain was taken by many researchers as evidence that the Floresians must be a separate species. That and an odd-shaped wrist bone. But almost immediately, a competing narrative appeared. In November, leading Indonesian scientist Teuku Jacob (1929-2007) announced that the Flores hobbit was an "ordinary human" and "just like us," but possibly with mental defects. Jacob took the bones to his own lab, and returned most of them the following February, amid charges that he had severely damaged them.
He also damaged the orthodox narrative. And Nature wasn't having any of that "just like us" stuff. In March 2005, it triumphantly reported the results of a computer simulation that bolstered the new species claim, in a story titled "Critics silenced by scans of hobbit skull." But the critics' silence did not dispel lingering doubt about "Homo floresiensis."
Concern was raised that the ongoing controversy might be good for creationism. One researcher offered that "we certainly make it easy for them when we have disagreements like this one. I think that a lot of what has been said is going to have to be retracted. Given the amount of media attention, it just makes the field look incompetent." He concluded: "Nobody is on the side of the angels now."
Not even the angels, it seemed. …
Earlier we saw how much present-day evolutionary biologists needed and wanted to believe that we had found a new human species in Flores man a decade ago. But it quickly became clear that the ancient inhabitants of Flores were not appreciably different from other humans of their era, apart from very small stature.
The story was different back when Neanderthal skeletons, first unearthed in 1856, began to be studied. As Britannica puts it, "Using those skeletons as a basis, scholars reconstructed the Neanderthals as semi-human, lacking a full upright posture and being somewhat less intelligent than modern humans." The story grew legs and was admirably suited to demonstrating the fashionable, then-new idea of Darwinian evolution. As a result, "Neanderthal!" is now a term of abuse. The man himself does not protest, of course, for his type is extinct.
Thus, until very recently, Neanderthal man has been explicitly treated as an extinct, separate human species -- the status sought for Flores man -- in so highly politicized an environment that classification likely depends not on the persuasiveness of facts but the power of factions. More.
There has been a significant change in his status in recent years, as researchers began separating what we see from what we think ought to be or must be true. … In fact, quite apart from the fact that Neanderthals appear to have been part of our own families, they have persistently failed to be as stupid as Shermer's account needs. Increasing numbers of finds are breaking down the supposed differences between them and other early humans. As one paleontologist puts it, "The historical downgrading of our Neanderthal cousins has gone well beyond the scientific."
It's not clear, however, that "the scientific" was driving the need to downgrade Neanderthal man so much as a Darwinian anthropology that is at odds with the archaeology. More.
Villa and colleague Wil Roebroeks carefully studied explanations for the extinction of the Neanderthals as a separate human group based on the assumption that they were inferior. Such hypotheses include the idea that they did not use complex, symbolic communication, were less efficient hunters, had inferior weapons, or were not omnivorous. As we have seen, none of these hypotheses panned out.
In any event, the current human genome incorporates Neanderthal genes; it's at least possible that they were just assimilated, the way many tribes in millennia past were assimilated into larger groupings, empires, or nation states, and lost their separate identity. One question the new assessments raise is, was there ever more than one human race? More.