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The Hobbit: When scientists disagree about the evidence

Nancy Ruggeri, University of Wisconsin-Madison (based on an exercise from PBS's NOVA website)
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This activity provides an excellent example of an active debate within the scientific community regarding a relatively recent human fossil find, Homo floresiensis. The activity highlights the ways in which scientists can interpret scientific evidence in different ways, how scientists build arguments to support their claims, and how assumptions can influence interpretation. Students watch part of a NOVA program on the fossil find, and take notes on the evidence discussed. They then discuss in small groups and then as a large group which argument they consider more convincing and why.

Learning Goals

In addition to learning about dating techniques and interpreting fossil evidence, students will consider the hominid ancestors from the past 2-4 million years that are relevant to interpreting whether Homo floresiensis is a modified modern human or a separate species.

Students will hear different scientists interpret a variety of scientific evidence that both supports and calls into question the evolutionary relationship of Homo floresiensis to modern humans. Students see that is it possible for scientists to look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions, and that prior assumptions (e.g. the Out of Africa hypothesis) can influence the ways in which scientists interpret scientific evidence.

Context for Use

This exercise was used at the undergraduate level, but could be relevant at the secondary level as well. This was taught in the context of a general science course on the process of science, but would be valuable for any biology course.Students can either watch the video together or prior to coming to class, as it is available online.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Hobbit activity: Instructor's Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 123kB Jul7 09)
What is the Hobbit? (Acrobat (PDF) 667kB Jul7 09)
Skeptics and the hobbit (Acrobat (PDF) 205kB Jul7 09)
Evidence Chart

Teaching Notes and Tips


Students write a brief paragraph summarizing the evidence put forward for both arguments (Hobbit is a modern human or a separate species) and explain which argument they would accept and why.

References and Resources

  • PBS program NOVA,online at:
  • Powledge, 2006. What is the Hobbit? PLoS Biology Vol. 4 (12): 2186-2189
  • Culotta, E. 2006. Skeptics seek to "slay" the Hobbit, calling Flores skeleton a modern human. Science 313:1028-1029.