(Image by Ryan Somma used under CC 2.0 via)
Homo floresiensis or “Florian Man” is an extinct species of hominin, named after the Indonesian isle of Flores on which remains have been found. Its precise evolutionary origin and relation to humans remains an issue of ongoing debate, most recently continued in this week’s issue of Nature. Reports in the mainstream media refer to Homo floresiensis not only as “little humans” but as “Hobbits,” on account of their characteristic short stature.
Wikipedia attributes this nickname to the ubiquity of Tolkien fans in the scientific community, while the Tolkien estate has sued scientists for using the name in lectures and documentaries on the grounds of copyright infringement. Despite court rulings, the pop science media as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History continue to refer to Homo floresiensis as Hobbits.
There are plenty of cases of scientists tending toward the glib rather than the professional when it comes to naming. The famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis was dubbed “Lucy” after the Beatles song that was playing on the archaeologists’ radio as the remains were discovered. But Homo floresiensis qualifies as having dwarfism according to scientific, medical and social definitions. Dwarfism can be identified in humans, animals, and plants, but referring to them as “Hobbits” implies an Otherness that is non-human. Does this work as long as they remain mere relatives of humans, and not fully human?
Plenty will protest that “dwarfism” itself also has its origins in mythology. Which is why there are those who seek to dissociate all human medical conditions from fantasy jargon. The German Federal Association for People of Short Stature never uses “dwarf” (“Zwerg”) to avoid connotations brought on by fairy tales. The Intersex Society of North America rejects the ancient Greek term “hermaphrodite” because it spreads scientific misinformation and attracts fetishists.
Yet others embrace these terms in an effort to confront the confusion brought on by the mythological terms head-on. It is a means of declaring: We are the freaks you read and write about. Why are you so interested in making up stories about us? Are you willing to listen to our real-life stories? Humans with dwarfism have been around a lot longer than any of our known myths and legends, regardless of how we define Homo floresiensis.
Many have rightfully argued that when it comes to grouping people, labels often cause more trouble than they’re worth. But others also correctly argue that the words we use to talk about something or someone demonstrably shape the way we think about them. And the desire to study Homo floresiensis and all humanoids is rooted in a desire to understand ourselves and our place in the world.