Probably the most exciting paper I’ve ever handled at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N was this one – on Homo floresiensis, a diminutive and very peculiar hominin from the island of Flores in Indonesia. The creature was very primitive – in many ways, a throwback to hominins that lived more than three million years ago. But the surprise was that it survived on the island until around 14,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption appears to have done for most of Flores’ unique, fairy-tale fauna, in which the wee folk cavorted with giant monitor lizards and pygmy elephants.
The story caught the public consciousness like nothing else I’ve ever been involved with. In scientific terms, the ‘Hobbit’ was the cause of much drama and controversy. First, the creature lived well into modern times, when modern Homo sapiens was already widespread in the region. How could this strange species have remained so isolated, for so long? Was it, perhaps, not a new species, but a weird offshoot of Hom. sap., crippled with some kind of rampaging microcephaly? Perhaps the most interesting idea of this kind was that the Flores hominins were the result of endemic cretinism. On the other hand, or possibly foot, the Flores hominins still look way too odd, even to be diseased humans.
And rather than being dwarfed versions of Homo erectus, the most parsimonious solution, it seems increasingly likely that Homo floresiensis represents an earlier – and completely undocumented – exodus from Africa. And what with entirely new species of hominin being discovered simply from their DNA, it is becoming clearer that the history of human beings on this planet was much richer and more varied than anyone suspected.
Could this be good news for yeti hunters? In principle – yes. If Homo floresiensis existed until almost modern times before becoming extinct, the idea that strange hominins might remain to be discovered in remote parts of the world doesn’t seem quite so outlandish. That’s not to say that every – or any – rumour about yetis, sasquatches and so on should be any less subject to scientific scrutiny than any other discovery. Extraordinary claims being what they are, extraordinary evidence will be required.
And yet the rumours persist, particularly from the Indonesian archipelago, which is, in essence, one great limestone plateau, its many islands riddled with caves, many of them unexplored. And I know I should probably keep this under my hat, but I’m afraid that if I do, my head might burst, which would be especially bad news for my hat. The cryptozoology grapevine is beginning to buzz again. Something about a cave on an island called Halmahera. Of remains preserved, Pompeii-like, in an ash fall from Dukono, an active volcano at the northern end of the island. The eruption is dated reliably to 1550. And the remains? They aren’t human. Oh no, precious, not very human at all.