SUBHEAD: Could hobbits from Indonesia be the stuff of Menehune legends?
By Juan Wilson on 11 May 2009 in Island Breath -
Image above: Still from video on Homo floresiensis discovery in Liang Bua Cave in Indonesia. From http://www.npr.org/templates/player/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=103934319&m=103943549
Did Menehune Discover Hawaii?
Since moving to Hawaii I have heard many stories of the Mehehune. Some are fantastic tales that involve legend and mystery. Others are more practical explanations of the Polynesian historic experience.
The stories seem to share on several characteristics about the Menehune. They were small in stature, but strong. They were industrious and clever. They were reclusive and secretive. They were mischievous.
Another common theme in stories about Menehune is that they could be relied upon to do heavy labor tasks, beyond what could be expected from their small stature. The Menehune were clever craftsmen on civil engineering projects. They worked through the night.
Legendary stories about "wee" people are not uncommon throughout the world. The Irish have their Leprechauns and many cultures have their dwarfs, elves, sprites and fairies.
One thing different about Menehunes is that they seem to have some historic reality. Some stories place Menehune living on Kauai until recent times, hiding out in closed valleys along the Na Pali and isolated locations in the upper reaches of the island.
There are records indicating that Menehune were counted in the first population census in the mid 19th century.
My opinion about the historic reality of Menehune has been that they may have been the earliest discoverers of Hawaii. I agree with those who believe that the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii in the 3rd century from the Marquises and were followed by Tahitian settlers in AD 1300 who conquered the original inhabitants.
It is well documented that the Polynesian culture evolved from Southeast Asia. Our ancestors spread from Africa, crossed Asia and eventually found their way throughout what is now Indonesia and New Guinea, before developing the Polynesian culture that discovered Hawaii.
That culture spread an agrarian package of chickens, pigs and dogs as well as sweet potato, taro and breadfruit.
This was a hearty and resilient package for sailing off to distant undiscovered tropical islands. However, this package included no metal or draft animals. That meant that no matter how sophisticated their culture, the Polynesians were limited by doing work within the bounds of manual labor, using stone-age tools.
(Read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" and "Gun, Steel and Germs" for background on the role of domestication of animals and plants in the development of civilizations.)
Were these Hobbits the Menehune?
Something I heard on the radio this weekend has added a new wrinkle to my thoughts on Polynesian history and the legends of the Menehune.
A recent National Public Radio Broadcast of "Science Friday", updated a fascinating story that featured Stony Brook University anthropologist Bill Jungers, who discussed the skeleton of a recently discovered humanoid species.
The discovery was made in 2003 on an Indonesian island named Flores (Flower Island). Flores lies southeast of Java, and Sumatra and west of East Timor.
A team of Australian anthropologists (Peter Brown and Michael Morwood) conducted a dig in the Liang Bua Cave. About twenty feet below the current floor of the cave they unearthed a new species of hominid they named named Homo Floresiensis. It was soon nicknamed The Hobbit.
The nickname stuck because of the diminutive height (three feet) and large feet of H. floresiensis.
The feet are chimpanzee-like while the arms and hands more human-like. The bones discovered in Liang Bua Cave were about 17,000 years old.
The species is thought to have survived on Flores until as recently as 12,000 years ago making it the longest-lasting non-modern human, surviving long past the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis) which became extinct about 24,000 years ago.
Due to a deep neighboring strait, Flores remained isolated during the last glacial period. This has led the discoverers of H. floresiensis to conclude the species, or its ancestors, could only have reached the isolated island by water transport, perhaps on bamboo rafts around 100,000 years ago.
This idea of H. floresiensis using cooperation and technology on a modern human level has prompted the discoverers to hypothesize that the Hobbit almost certainly had language. These suggestions have been some of the most controversial of the discoverers' findings.
One thing seems clear from the time line. The Hobbits of Flores coexisted with some the modern humans in Indonesia. Some of those humans migrated on and eventually became Polynesians. There may be oral legends about H. floresiensis that are based on historical facts and personal contact. These oral histories may be the basis of our Menehune legends.
Could humans have used draft hominids?
Let me throw in another idea. This, obviously, is not supported by any anthropological evidence. And this is not meant to be a scientific argument - just a socio-anthropological thought experiment to explain some of the content of the Menehune legends.
What if H. floresiensis were used by early Indonesian modern humans as domesticated animals?
There are not many species of animals that have ever been domesticated.
There are only a few large draft animals that include the horse, ox, camel and llama. One key to human domestication of another species is that the animal grouped itself in herds or packs and is obedient to an alpha-leader.
Is it possible that H. floresiensis and humans learned to share a language and were domesticated by humans? Is it possible that H. floresiensis traded its independence for safety as the laborers for a larger dominant parental species? Certainly, humans have been able to rationalize the use of slave-labor of their own species to this day.
Island Breath: TGI#11 - The Future Polynesian Package 8/24/07
Island Breath: Legend of the Menehune Fish Pond 6/14/2004