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Last Updated: Friday, 29 October, 2004, 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK
Eton or the zoo?
Desmond Morris
By Desmond Morris
Author and anthropologist

The discovery of a new species of human poses exciting questions about who we are. How would we treat this close relative if one were found alive today?

Every time an intrepid anthropologist discovers an old tooth or part of a jawbone that might possibly have come from one of our ancient ancestors, there is a flurry of excitement.

Before long a whole skull, then a whole body and finally a whole human society has been deduced from this tiny fragment.

Artist's impression of 'ape man'
A male Homo floresiensis may have looked something like this (Image: National Geographic)
We are so desperate to know where we came from that this game of inventing the past has been played over and over again.

The truth, if we are honest, is that there still remains a huge gap in our knowledge of what happened between the time of our remote ancestors and our more recent ones.

What occurred in that "great gap", several million years ago, is anybody's guess - and guesses there have been aplenty.

But the new discovery of a tiny, one-metre-tall, flat-faced, bipedal "ape-man" on the Indonesian island of Flores is rather different.

Here, the skeletal remains are not only much more detailed, but they are found in caves along with delicate stone tools and evidence of fire-making and the hunting of large game.

What is more, these hunters existed as recently as 12,000 years ago and, who knows, living groups of them may still be lingering on in odd corners even today.

This is shattering news and will create fascinating problems for both political and religious leaders.

Pet cemetery?

Suppose for a moment that a living tribe of these beings is discovered, how should they be treated?

Are they merely advanced apes, or are they miniature humans?

If an explorer brought back one of their infants to study, would you put him down for Eton or the Zoo?

A cast of the 'Hobbit's' skull
A cast of the 18,000-year-old 'Hobbit's' skull
If he died, would he be buried in consecrated ground or a pet cemetery?

His very existence among us would make us question all over again what it is to be human.

We are not used to this because our ancestors successfully killed off all our close relatives.

This has created a chasm between us and the other animals, a chasm so big that religion went as far as to say that we are not even related to them. Humans have souls and they do not.

Darwin put a stop to this nonsense with his theory of evolution, but amazingly the blindingly obvious truth he discovered is still resisted by large sections of the human population.

They stubbornly continue to insist that we are some kind of special creation.

The arrival of "Mini-Man" is going to give them nightmares.

How can he be "semi-special"? That won't make sense. He can't very well have a semi-soul.

So Mini-Man might just be the evolutionary jewel that, once and for all, sets human beings firmly in the animal kingdom, where scientifically they belong.

Experimental cages

A great deal will depend on what happens when we first meet living examples of this new species.

If, when we greet them, they go OOARGH, OOARGH, like chimps, they will doubtless be classified as rather advanced apes.

In theory, the existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion, but I can already hear the fanatics claiming that he has been put on earth by the Devil
And the poor things may even end up in experimental cages. They would have no more rights than the chimpanzees do to this day.

If on the other hand we discover that they have some kind of spoken language and we can learn that language, or alternatively they can learn ours, then we are into a whole new ball-game.

When it comes down to it, being able to talk is really what defines humanity.

If Mini-Man talks, then, let's face it, there are two species of human beings on this planet and not one, as we always thought.

If you shot a Mini-Man it would be murder. If you cooked one and ate it, it would be cannibalism. If you experimented on one it would be torture.

Test of faith

Personally, I long to be told that he can talk.

It will make him a much more effective bridge between us and the apes, forcing religions to re-examine many of their basic beliefs.

Mount Keli Mutu, Flores
Flores can expect to host teams of scientists eager to learn more
In theory, the existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion, but I can already hear the fanatics claiming that he has been put on earth by the Devil simply to test our faith.

Which brings up an even more intriguing question: does Mini-Man perform special burial rituals and does he therefore believe in an afterlife?

This is something that field workers should be able to discover even without encountering a living tribe.

If the island of Flores is not quickly awash with teams of eager investigators I shall be very surprised, and I can't wait to hear the results of their explorations.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Far from "destroy religion", I think the discovery of a surviving advanced species would for many reinforce the wonder of creation and the improbability that it all exists by pure chance.
Colin Morris, Manchester

I am a priest in the Church of England and have no problem - indeed delight in - evolutionary theory. The interesting question for me is whether or not Homo floresiensis was/is self aware.
Wyn Beynon, Potton, Beds

As a Christian, the discovery of this new species is perplexing - I will have to rethink some of my assumptions again. This does not mean my religion is wrong - the Bible isn't a scientific textbook and doesn't attempt to answer our questions. It is God's word to us about the things that he thinks we need to know; it is not a repository of our thoughts about God.
David Potter, Sheffield, UK

One thing I have personally never understood is that through the course of the evolution of one species into two, where is the line drawn? A horse and a donkey can mate, but they are considered separate species.
Joshua Isom, Maryville, MO, USA

I long for Mini-Man to be discovered alive, the challenge to religious fundamentalists will be welcome and earth shattering. It will also allow us to fully comprehend our part in nature and thus hopefully lead us to respect other primates as part of our heritage and being.
Dom Games, Buckingham

I think we need to be careful in favouring science over religion and vice versa. As these new discoveries have proved, our knowledge of the world as we think we know it can be turned around in one day. Who knows what discoveries are yet to come that could prove that religious belief and science can also co-exist together.
Priscilla Brunet, Chichester

Perhaps they were more intelligent than us - and were therefore peaceful creatures. Were they made extinct by a more brutish and aggressive species - namely us ?
Kevin Urben, Oxford

Recently an alleged new species of chimpanzee was discovered. There is allegedly an additional species of orang-utan in Indonesia. Perhaps indeed we may yet find Homo floresiensis surviving. How much would I love to talk to them!
Michael Kilpatrick, Cambridge UK

I too have long despaired of the unwillingness of some people to accept the evidence of evolution. It is really alarming that creationism is given any credibility and hopefully this discovery will help put a final nail in the coffin of superstition.
Carole, Bristol, UK

I am a Christian who believes in evolution as are most of my Christian friends and relatives. I resent your implication that we, scientific-minded Christians, do not exist.
Nicholas Lehane, Pittsbugh, PA, US

Desmond Morris' statement "the existence of Mini-Man should destroy religion" is a rather unfortunate one, given the fruitful attempts to bridge the gaps between science and religion that have happened since Darwin.
Alex Robinson, Oxford

If we can communicate, what are they going to think to our calling them Hobbits?
David Bradley, Cambridge, UK

I'd be extremely surprised if there any still alive, but the possibility of them having the ability for even limited speech opens up to so many questions.
Steffan John, Cardiff, Wales

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