Book Review: Gregory Forth’s ‘Between Ape And Human’

On September 2, 2003, in a cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia, a team of Australian and Indonesian archeologists discovered a tiny, nearly complete skeleton that looked like it might have been that of a dwarf-sized early human. Over the next year or so they recovered more skeletons and some parts of skeletons. By the year 2009, the count was up to fourteen individuals for whom archeologists had found whole or partial skeletal remains. Because many stone blades were also found and the fauna population of Flores includes no non-human primates, the scientists entertained the idea that the organic remains found beginning in 2003 are indeed those of creatures that were somewhat sentient.

Initially, scientists pronounced all of the skeletal remains as being around 12,000 years old. Lately ,the estimate has been revised upwards. Some seem to be as much as 100,000 years old. The youngest remains are believed to be about 60,000 years old. So goes science. Findings change as methods of measurement change.

Though the ancient creatures are officially called Homo floresiensis (or Flores Man), because of their dwarfish stature scientists nicknamed them “hobbits.” Even though no remains younger than 60,000 or maybe 50,000 years have been found, unverified rumors abound that some hobbits are alive on the island, living perhaps in the remote mountain forests. The Lio people who currently make up most of the island population describe them as bipedal, relatively hairy, and about the size of Flores Man.

In his new book Between Ape and Human: An Anthropologist on the Trail of a Hidden Hominoid, Gregory Forth sets out to disentangle the mysteries of the creatures who may or may not be descendants of Flores Man. Along the way he finds many questions to consider. For example, are the modern-day hobbits on Flores like Big Foot in the American west, possibly entirely imaginary and myth-driven? Were the original hobbits actually sentient humans or was their proximity to the stone blades incidental? Were they direct ancestors of today’s much taller Lio people? If the hobbits didn’t evolve on Flores (remember, the island has no non-human primates), how and when did they get there?

Between Ape and Human is fascinating reading for someone who understands that, while archeology trades in materials science and in firm estimates of dates and purpose, anthropology is about conversations and culture. Forth did not bring a laboratory of calibrated measuring equipment to his task. He engaged the Lio people in informal chats about what they had seen and heard. Memory is imperfect, as Forth explains in his book, and encounters with a modern-day hobbit can scare the willies out of anyone. As Forth further makes clear, strong emotions like fear can distort what anyone remembers. Perhaps the vagaries of memory itself are the reason that the stories reported to Forth by Lio people are wildly diverse.

In the end, and even with all of the teasing of conversation data that Forth does, Between Ape and Human conclusively demonstrates nothing. Which is to be expected because, like much of anthropology, the book doesn’t even attempt to arrive at definitive statements. Instead, it presents a record of the puzzling information that Forth collected and then sets out the anthropologist’s own ideas about whether the modern-day Flores hobbits descend directly from the ancient ones. I won’t do Forth the disservice of disclosing his conclusions. I just think that, if you’re in the mood for an adventure, you might want to read the book.

Pegasus, Hardcover $28.95 (336 p) ISBN 978-163-936-143-4. Also available as an e-book. Pub date May 3, 2022.

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