Hobbits and Lice

HOBBITS AND LICE:

In late 2004 the media was all agog with the small hominids found on Flores Island where I had written about artifacts showing sea travel technology must have existed. I had argued with many people about the issue and their argument had some merit in that we had no proof of a connection to humans or the nearby Mungo Man. However, once we found these creatures which some researchers even think could be part chimpanzee the issue became clearly in my favor. I think the divergence of human lice proven through DNA technology going back 1.18 to 1.8 million years ago is even more telling and I look forward to the further research on pubic lice that might prove hominids cross-breeding. Here is one source for further review.

"It was astonishing and exciting enough to have discovered a new - and wholly unexpected - hominid species last week. The discovery of the partial skeletons of three-foot tall "hobbits" on the Indonesian island of Flores would have been front page news however old they were. But what made them really extraordinary was their age. They weren't fossils. These were bones rotted to the consistency of blotting paper, less than 18,000 years old; and there are grounds for hoping that the creatures lived on into historical times. Some might even be alive in sufficiently remote island jungles today. The native legends about "Ebu Gogo" suggest that contact between Homo sapiens and Homo floresiensis took place within the last century on Flores.

The idea that our ancestors had contact with other human species is a profound and disturbing one. The whole term "human species" begs the question. If they are other species, can they really be what we mean by "human"? Human is a moral category as much as a biological one. That's why it is such a useful weapon word in the debates about abortion. To call someone or something human is generally meant as praise, and implies that they should be treated as we treat ourselves.

This interpretation of "humanity" is not, of course, a necessarily human trait. It's certainly not encoded in our genes. Most cultures, in most of history, have had no trouble in treating other human beings as domesticated animals or very much worse. But we, who speak English, call this process "dehumanisation".

The skeletal fragments, and the legends from local people, make this story far more vivid than the other evidence for human encounters with other humanoid species. That shouldn't obscure the fact that this is the second such story this autumn, and the first one is far more chilling.

The evidence there came from lice. As the parents of almost any school age girl will know, human lice are extraordinarily tenacious and well adapted to life on our scalps. They don't survive for more than a few hours away from human flesh.

The war between lice and their hosts has continued for billions of years - there are species of louse adapted to almost every sort of primate and many species of birds. In humans, they infest our head, our clothes, and our bodily hair. Curiously, the body lice are the same species as head lice - although they behave quite differently, living in clothes, and coming in to feed on skin once or twice a day. Head lice live in hair and feed more often.

But it turns out that DNA analysis shows there are two distinct sub-species of head lice in humans. All over the world, except in western North America, they are the same. But there is a population of lice along the Pacific coast of North America which have been evolving separately from the rest of the world for about 1.8m years. The only way to make sense of this is to assume that their separate development took place on Homo erectus, who also split off from our hominid ancestors about that time ago.

So how could these lice have reached their present, wholly human hosts? It seems to me that this could only have happened through some act of primal genocide when Homo erectus met Homo sapiens somewhere in eastern Siberia. Lice can only travel between living bodies, or very freshly dead ones. If the transmission had been from living bodies, we would expect the same pattern in bodily lice. It isn't there. Nor is there any trace of Homo erectus in our DNA. So the lice must have come from very fresh corpses and it is hard to suppose that they had died peacefully just before the intruders turned up.

The story of "Ebu Gogo" sounds more improving. According to local villagers, these creatures were around until about a century ago: three feet tall, hairy, and speechless, though they could imitate human speech, like parrots. The villagers tolerated them and even fed them, though they would only eat raw food, until they stole and ate a baby. They drove them from their cave with blazing bales of grass. Shortly thereafter, the villagers themselves moved off and western settlers arrived. The cave where the Ebu Gogo lived has not been found. But if it is - and scientists are looking - it might yield some extraordinary remains.

These wouldn't be technological. Perhaps the saddest aspect of the whole story is the slow loss of technology it implies. Ebu Gogo seems to have been a descendent of Homo erectus, also known as Java man, who reached the island about 840,000 years ago. This was almost certainly something that required boats, which seem a pretty human-level technology." (1)

Author of Diverse Druids Columnist for The ES Press Magazine Soon to be featured with Philip Gardiner

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