Measure Your Giant Carefully And His Size Will Shrink

Ongoing controversy over a hobbitlike hominid.

Read the full article (PDF)Search archives     

February 24, 1934 | Vol. 25 | No. 672

Measure Your Giant Carefully And His Size Will Shrink

The American public may scoff a bit at fairies, but it would like very much to believe in giants.

At least, so it appears from the thin but steady stream of letters received at the Smithsonian Institution.

Every month in the year brings these letters. They come from people eager to tell that they have found the bones of a race of seven or eight foot giants that stalked about the countryside in the ancient times.

. . .

If you come across something that looks mightily like a giant, therefore, pause and consider these points on the anatomy of giants vs. ordinary mortals, as explained by Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, the Smithsonian’s curator of physical anthropology:

“The estimate of stature,” he explains, “is usually based on the thigh bone of a man of ordinary size. But the person unfamiliar with human anatomy does not know that the upper joint of the femur is several inches higher in the sacral region than would appear from superficial examination of the living body. The finder makes a hurried comparison of the length of the fossil thigh bone with his own, applying the specimen usually to the front of his body, and from this calculates roughly the size of his hypothetical ‘ancient giant.’ ” 

. . .

The Smithsonian will tell you, at any rate, that there was no prehistoric race of giants — or pygmies either — among the wonders of America’s past.

UPDATE | April 7, 2012

Ancient oddballs in Indonesia

To date, Homo sapiens (aka modern humans) are the only people known to have ever resided in the Americas. Any fossil evidence pointing to a new, unknown class of Western Hemisphere hominids would be a huge surprise probably requiring scientists to reconsider human evolutionary history and the peopling of the planet.

The femur of a species dubbed Homo floresiensis (bottom) is much smaller than the same bone in Homo sapiens. Credit: Kenneth Garrett/National Geographic Stock

But such surprises do occur, if rarely. In 2003, for example, researchers uncovered a partial skeleton of a half-size Homo species on the Indonesian island of Flores (SN: 10/30/04, p. 275). The team reported that the skeleton belonged to a female adult who probably stood 3 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed as little as 35 pounds. Because her brain size would have been similar to that of a chimpanzee, and because of other anatomical differences, the ancient lady was pegged as a member of a new species, not a pygmy version of H. sapiens.

Most puzzling for anthropologists, the recovered fossils dated from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago, meaning the new species — dubbed H. floresiensis — lived alongside H. sapiens. H. floresiensis also appeared to make sophisticated stone tools.

Backlash came swiftly. The new hobbitlike hominid didn’t fit within the existing framework of human evolution. Soon after the Flores fossils were announced, another team argued that the partial skeleton came instead from a modern human with a genetic growth disorder. A condition called microcephaly, for example, could have made the head smaller than usual. The argument has shifted back and forth, back and forth since. A report published last August found that the proportions of the hobbit skull fit within the range of microcephalic H. sapiens (SN Online: 8/8/11).

Because getting DNA from the Flores bones is extremely difficult, there’s no end to the debate in sight. No doubt anyone who makes claims about ancient giants or hobbits elsewhere on Earth would face a similar fight. 

Elizabeth Quill is the executive editor. She has overseen collections on topics ranging from consciousness to general relativity, and recently took a deep dive into the periodic table of the elements.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology

From the Nature Index

Paid Content