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William Harcourt-Smith

CUNY Lehman College

There and Back Again: new research on the “hobbit” remains from South-East Asia, and why it matters.

Monday, February 22, 2010
Science I 149, 5:00 PM


The last twenty years has heralded a significant change in the way researchers view human evolution.  For instance, the powerful new field of molecular genetics has shed considerable light on the taxonomic relationships of living species (like humans, chimpanzees and gorillas).  However, such work can only go so far in actually reconstructing the evolutionary history of our lineage.  To go further one has to turn to the fossil record, and in that respect the last two decades have produced an equally dazzling array of new scientific discoveries.  Spectacular new finds from Georgia to Spain to Indonesia have opened up the human family tree, and in turn have pointed to levels of taxonomic diversity deemed hitherto improbable.  Most of this reported diversity has been argued on the basis of cranial and dental remains, with little attention being paid to the rest of the skeleton.  However, paleontological evidence now firmly indicates that upright walking (or bipedalism) was the first major adaptation to occur in the hominin lineage.  My work has involved placing the skeletal structure and function of the lower limb within this context of taxonomic diversity, and previous results have indicated that early hominins may have been experimenting with different forms of bipedalism. Most recently, exciting new finds have added a peculiar and fascinating twist to the story.  Remains of the diminutive “hobbits” (real name Homo floresiensis) were discovered in Indonesia in 2004, and have elicited controversy and debate ever since.  Although a handful of researchers still view these remains as pathological modern humans, the predominant view rests that they belong to a different species.  Being as young as 18,000 years old, this would make them the youngest extinct species of hominin in the record.  Many researchers have worked on different components of the H. floresiensis skeletal remains, and in my lecture I’ll present some fascinating new results pertaining to its lower limb morphology and function.


William Harcourt-Smith received his Ph.D in Vertebrate Paleontology in 2002 from University College London, his M.Sc. in Paleoanthropology in 1997 from University College London and his B.Sc. in Physiology from King’s College London.  He is currently Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Lehman College and the Graduate Center at CUNY, and a Research Associate in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.  He co-directs the Early Miocene field site of Rusinga in western Kenya.  Research interests include the origins of hominin bipedalism, paleoecology and hominoid evolution, primate cranial evolution and geometric morphometric techniques.

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