Fun with Fossils

Welcome Dear Reader. First, a quick introduction. My name is Raymond Steyn. I’m the author of the recently published science thriller ANCESTOR (also my debut). My posts will concentrate on paleoanthropology and evolution, although other areas of science (and life) might also feature occasionally. My fascination with prehistory is difficult to explain. Perhaps it’s the human desire to unravel the fabric of nature – to explore our role, past and present, in the tapestry of the cosmos – or perhaps I just like woolly mammoths and hulking cavemen! For my first blog post, I present an extract from my new novel, THE FOSSIL KING, due out later this year (also the follow-up to ANCESTOR) and exclusive to Ariana’s website.

***
Despite his uncompromising management style, Brian Muldoon could turn on the charm when circumstances demanded it. A switch from ‘kick-ass’ to ‘kiss-ass’ his subordinates described the transformation. Which is what he currently tried to channel as he escorted investor representative Horace T. Cummings around the facility.
“I believe you’ve already seen our Homo floresiensis population?” Muldoon said to his companion.
They’d just reached a section of the facility dubbed ‘The Pen’ by some resident scientists. As the metallic sliding doors hissed open, the reason for this became quite evident. Within a fully enclosed glass-walled space, small hirsute hominoid creatures – measuring about one metre in length – milled around a carpeted room.
“Yes,” Cummings said. “One of your colleagues took me on a tour yesterday and the day before. But I have some questions.”
Of course he does, Muldoon thought as they entered the room. Little pissant wants to show initiative.
“This way please,” he said out loud, guiding his guest towards a row of wooden benches on the left. They sat down in the viewing area and observed the scene in front of them for a few moments.
The roughly ten small figures seemed to pay the visitors no attention. Some of them were grooming each other, furiously digging their small fingers into hairy coats, others were playing with an assortment of cushions, wooden blocks and plastic containers. One older-looking individual sat in a corner, chewing on what seemed like a large animal bone.
“Smart little buggers,” Muldoon said. “Tested above C-grade level in numeracy, problem solving, tool use, concepts and category, as well as memory and attention. Roughly equivalent to a seven-year-old human child. Which means we’ve finally corroborated the sophisticated stone tools that were discovered alongside the original Flores skeletal remains. Just a pity we can’t enlighten the paleoanthropologists.”
Cummings frowned. “But your colleague told me their brains aren’t much larger than those of chimps?”
Muldoon nodded. “That’s right. But intelligence – as we currently understand it – is in large part linked to the size of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which for Flores hominins are comparable to modern humans, despite the much smaller overall size of their brains.”
“So it’s just a compact version of our own brains?”
“No, there aredifferences. But it’s amazing what evolution can accomplish given the necessary pressures. We see the same miniaturisation effect in other species found on their original island habitat, like the dwarf elephant for example.”
“But if they’re almost human, why are they running around…naked?”
Muldoon smiled. “If youhad a luxurious angora pelt, would you want to wear clothes?”
Cummings grinned sheepishly. “Guess not.”
Suddenly a commotion erupted inside the glass-enclosed structure and Muldoon and Cummings switched their attention back to the pen. Two hominins have seemingly become embroiled in a heated disagreement. It involved hair pulling, screaming and back-and-forth hand slapping. Judging from the differing sizes and one’s fleshy chest, the individuals appeared to be male and female. After a lengthy argument, the female abruptly turned her back to the male, leant forward and presented her buttocks. Without hesitation, the male mounted the female and proceeded to engage in coitus.
When Muldoon saw the shocked look on Cummings’s face, he said, “Oh yes, one of the more interesting discoveries we’ve made thus far, is their very Bonobo-like social customs. The whole ‘make love, not war’ thing. Not something you’ll pick up from fossils.”
“Jesus,” Cummings said, apparently transfixed by the amorous display in front of him and mostly ignoring Muldoon’s explanation. “Horny little rascals, aren’t they?”
Muldoon shrugged. “Best form of conflict resolution I’ve ever seen.”
Cummings winced as the male erupted with high-pitched screams of apparent ecstasy. “So is this instinctive behaviour?” He grinned mischievously. “Or did someone slip them a nature documentary?”
Muldoon resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Well, since they’re first generation clones, it’s obviously not learnt. Which doesn’t mean it’s necessarily novel conduct for their species, either. Over time, behaviour does influence biology. Female Bonobos’ clitorises, for example, are larger and more external than in most mammals and three times the size of the human equivalent.” Muldoon paused. “You see, we all carry genetic remnants of our ancestors’ behavioural patterns, whether it’s brain chemistry, hormonal signals or physical traits. Long-term muscle memory, I call it. So they could’ve been predisposed. Primed. But we can also not exclude the possibility that it was simply a spontaneous, random act that gained traction.”
“Nature versus nurture,” Cummings mused.
“Or nature as nurture,” Muldoon said.
The two men gawked openly as two more couplings ensued, the first hookup a seeming trigger for further social interaction. Looking at his companion’s semi-disgusted expression, Muldoon suddenly felt uneasy. Although he’d initially been amused by the hominins’ antics and Cummings’s reaction, he was starting to have second thoughts. The man was here on a fact finding mission after all. Anecdotes like this, when informally conveyed by a non-scientist to a room full of investors – out of context – could damage the project’s credibility and provide easy fodder for cynics. Because nothing dispels accusations of frivolity better than an archaic-human orgy, he thought.
He prodded Cummings, breaking the man’s trance. “You’re familiar with the works of JRR Tolkien, Mr Cummings?” He paused. “Middle-earth? The Lord of the Rings?” Muldoon desperately wanted his guest focused on something else. Anything else.
Cummings shrugged. “Kinda. I mean, I’ve seen the movies.”
“Okay. And you know the Flores hominins have been nicknamed hobbits too?”
“Sure,” Cummings said with raised eyebrows while slowly nodding, as if the scene he’d just witnessed had somehow tainted the connection.
“Wanna hear something really amazing?”
Cummings frowned. “Besides the resurrection of a human species that’s been extinct for thousands of years?”
Muldoon leant forward conspiratorially. “Oh, this is much better.”
“Yeah?”
“You see, whilst Tolkien readily acknowledged the role of existing mythology and lore in major parts of his work, he claimed that the hobbits sprung from nothing but his imagination, simply noting that a few subconscious influences may have been at work. But we know the Orang Pendek myth from Sumatra – reports of a one-metre tall, ground-dwelling furry hominoid inhabiting the forests – was already familiar to Europeans at the time Tolkien penned his books, and may, in turn, have been based on actual sightings of late-surviving Flores populations.
“Now, Tolkien never explicitly stated that all hobbits have disproportionately big feet, but that’s how most artists interpreted his various descriptions. So when large, flat feet were found to be a defining characteristic of the Flores hominins, the obvious connection was made.”
Cummings chuckled. “You know what they say about hominins with big feet? Because from what I’ve just seen…”
“Here’s the really amazing thing,” Muldoon quickly cut him off, not wanting to revisit recent events. “Tolkien himself described hobbits as a ‘separate branch of humans’ and their average height as 1.07 metres. Curiously specific, is it not? Now consider that the average height of our current Flores population is – wait for it – 1.06 metres!”
Cummings smiled. “Fascinating coincidence, Mr Muldoon. But please tell me that our hundred billion euro investment isn’t being used to authenticate fantasy literature.”
Swallowing his natural instinct for verbal retaliation, Muldoon shrugged. “Of course not. Just an interesting little factoid. Thought you’d want to leave the serious stuff for later.”
Cummings shook his head. “Look, it’s amazing what your people have accomplished. First time I saw these creatures, it totally blew my mind. But I’ve been here two days now, and frankly, the novelty is wearing thin.”
Muldoon eyed the MBA graduate’s finely tailored suit and slicked-back hair. Okay, so at least I’ve got his mind out of the gutter and focused back on business, he thought. Not sure if that’s a good thing, however.
“Sure,” Muldoon said out loud. “You want to know how we’re monetising this.”
“That’s right,” Cummings said. “For the Neanderthals, we had detailed business plans, feasibility studies, budgets – you name it. But the later additions – these other hominins – bit of a black box, I’m afraid.”
“A non-material black box, though.”
“Meaning?”
“A minor part of our total budget. The Neanderthals are, and will remain, our focus.”
“That may be so, but investors fear a slippery slope if the scientists aren’t held on a tight leash. They don’t want the project veering off course. The current payback period is already a stretch.”
“Not to worry,” Muldoon said, trying to recall some MBA jargon. “They can rest assured we’re keeping our eyes on the ball. Sticking to our knitting.” He paused. “It’s just, now that we’ve attained critical mass, it seems a waste not to leverage other opportunities.”
Cummings seemed to dismiss his sales pitch. “You’ve proven to be extremely dependable, Mr Muldoon, but our investors want surety. And a man’s word means little when billions of dollars are at stake.” He paused. “If it wasn’t for the enforced secrecy of this project, you’d have faced plenty more audits and due diligence investigations. But, trust me, if my investors get nervous, they won’t hesitate to swarm this place with accountants and lawyers. Not something you’d want, right?”
Muldoon grinned. “I’d rather face a room full of angry Neanderthals.”
“Good.” Cummins paused. “So can you provide me with more colour on the monetisation plans then?”
Muldoon cleared his throat. “First off, the Flores hominins might help us better understand the mechanics and genetic interplay of dwarfism. After all, unlike modern dwarfism that’s mostly caused by non-hereditary spontaneous genetic mutations, the traits of the Flores population was shaped by evolution over thousands of years. And there’s no better instruction manual than Nature’s own laboratory.
“Second, it’s most curious they’ve retained advanced cognitive functioning despite severe microcephaly – downsizing of the brain. If we can find the mechanism behind this, it may lead to new therapies for various brain diseases.”
Cummings frowned. “Sounds very speculative to me.” He paused. “Not that it’s a license to force the issue, though. If opportunities don’t materialise, there’s no need for your team to get creative. The last thing investors would desire, is for someone to dream up some cockamamie scheme where…heck, I don’t know…they decide to use the Flores genome to breed jockeys for horseracing or…create stunt doubles for child actors or something.”
Muldoon bit his lip. Does this little runt think I’m a buffoon?
“No horse jockeys or children stunt doubles,” he said, not without a hint of sarcasm. “Got it.”
“I’m serious, Mr Muldoon,” Cummings said. “Overreach can backfire.”
“I’m well aware of that, Mr Cummings. Our terms of reference strictly forbid any scheme that might lead to public exposure. Which is why all applications developed at this facility for later commercial use require multiple degrees of separation. No enzymes, hormones or genes directly harvested from subjects are allowed as ingredients in any pharmaceutical process. We utilise the insights we gain, not the biological matter.”
Cummings nodded. “Good. I’m glad to see you’re familiar with our corporate governance rules.”
For a few moments silence reigned. Then Cummings turned towards the glass enclosure. “Perhaps we can go inside? I haven’t had the opportunity to study them up close yet.”
“Sure,” Muldoon said. He motioned towards the two guards stationed in front of the glass door. “Can you please unlock that for us?” Then he rose from his seat and headed for the entrance. While they were walking, he said to the man behind him, “Just be careful.”
“Why’s that?” Cummings asked.
Muldoon stopped and turned around.
“They bite.”

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