Tracing the incredible human journey

Flores Man (or Woman)

Those of you resident in Britain may have recently seen a television documentary series presented by Bristol University anatomist Alice Roberts. In The Incredible Human Journey, Roberts looked into the origins of the human species, and our colonisation of the planet.

Yesterday, in the Grant Lecture Theatre* of University College London, Roberts gave a lecture based on the documentary and accompanying book. Having watched the programmes I didn’t learn anything new from the talk, but it was interesting to hear Roberts speak live rather than to camera. She has a voice that captures and holds the attention, and is a very effective science communicator.

As I was cycling afterwards through a snow blizzard in Southwark, dodging taxis and buses seemingly driven by homicidal maniacs, something came to mind based on what Roberts said in her talk about Homo floresiensis, the so-called “hobbit” found on the Indonesian island of Flores. My thoughts were only half serious, but I was at the time concentrating on staying alive.

In her talk, Roberts spoke of the “hobbit” as being part of our human club, on the basis that Flores Man (or Woman) used stone tools. But the more ethologists study non-human animals, the more examples of tool use they find. And I’m not referring to octopuses arsing around on the sea floor with coconut shells.

Personally, I’m happy to find kinship with any inquisitive animal that has a sense of fun, no matter how many legs they sport. That said, I fully understand the scientific significance of the Flores discovery, and share Roberts’ palpable wonder at such things.

* The Grant Lecture Theatre is housed in the same building that hosts the Grant Museum of Zoology, which you absolutely must visit if you find yourself in London’s Bloomsbury district with an hour or so to spare. Drop in, behold the walrus penis bone contained therein, and, if you are normally proud male, weep at your relative diminutiveness.