Little Species, Big Mystery by Debbie Argue

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Little Species, Big Mystery is the story of Homo Floresiensis – in other words, the hominid. 2004 was a special year for mankind for until then we remained in ignorance of the knowledge that our little cousin, the hominid, lived, until 52500 years ago, in our backyard. Specifically, he flourished on the island of Flores in Indonesia. His diet? Would you believe me if I told you stegadons?

Debbie Argue is the right person to write a book like this. First, she is a specialist in the discipline of archaeology in human evolution. Second, she belongs to a university with a dynamic archaeology department who publish widely in USA Today and on the BBC. Third, Debbie Argue has studied collections of million-year-old fossil hominid bones in museums in Africa, Europe and Indonesia. She has contributed to international journals and books. She wears the title of expert with pride.

The most attractive part of this study is its comprehensivity. The story begins with details of the discovery, telling how a team of Australian and Indonesian researchers announced to the world that bones representing archaic-looking individuals one metre tall had been found. Their location was the neighbourhood of Australia a mere 18000 years ago. This discussion is replaced by the controversy that descended around the ears of the promoters. Some believed in a different species but others found reasons why these little guys fitted the model science had grown used to.

Argue’s usefulness as a reporter forms chapter 3 where she was given a chance to study the bones in detail, to work out which of the current theories about H. floresiensis’s origin might fit the evidence. Her enthusiasm for the task is unhidden and adds to the excitement of the moment. She unashamedly reports that her feeling of fulfilment could only be expressed by a jig – a perfect way to place the reader onside.

The first three chapters had attempted to explain the discovery. Chapter Four becomes more speculative. This chapter addresses a highly significant issue. Who were the ancestors of Homo floresiensis, and what was the significance of the fossil bones of the So’a Basin, a basin that revealed a plethora of stegadon bones and stone tools? While these chapters are undoubtedly academic in nature, their presentation is warmed by the good humour and levity of the author.

The chapters become relevant and suited to an audience of lay readers. While retaining its academic tone the author has eased her presentation to include quips of dubious humour. While asking how Homo floresiensis got to Flores in the first place, float, walk or swim, a student quipped, “The Thorp factor!” When one remembers Ian Thorpe’s size 17 shoes, the reference is obvious. Levity aside, this is a serious question. How did the hominids come to live and rest on the island of Flores? The effects of tsunami aside, the most favoured means was via the Indonesian throughflow. However, as Argue reports, that body of water flows 200 metres underwater, an impossible thoroughfare for hominids. Other means of transport are considered in Argue’s book but must be discarded.

In treating Chapter Six, Argue becomes coy. She calls her chapter ‘Big Surprise is the Philippines’. At this point Argue is faced with more question than there are answers. A rhino with blade marks in the Philippines? The discovery of H. luzonensis…no evidence for any hominids in the Philippines during the 659000 years between the rhino hunters and H. luzonensis.

The book concludes with a fine chapter called ‘Let’s go digging’ which pulls together much of the knowledge referred to elsewhere in the book. This is followed by a considerable amount of summary material that makes it very easy for the general reader to grasp what it is the experts are talking about.

It is a fine way to conclude this delightful book.

Little Species, Big Mystery


By Debbie Argue

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 978 052287 791 5

$39.99; 217 pp

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