When the ‘hobbits’ were discovered in 2003 they made news worldwide, sparking visions of a world our small relations lived among giant rats, dwarf elephants, and lizards bigger than the Komodo dragon. The small hominin fossils discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia proved just how little modern humans knew about our deep ancestry. While researchers instantly claimed that the ‘hobbits’ were a new species of hominin other scientists disagreed: they argued that the ‘hobbits’ were modern humans that had been dwarfed by disease. A new study published in Significance hopes to put the controversy to rest.
Employing statistical analysis on the skeletal fossils of a female hobbit, researchers from Stony Brook University Medical Center have determined that the Flores hobbits Homo floresiensis are in fact a new species, and not homo sapiens suffering from a disease known as microcephaly, which dwarfs human’s body and brain.
“Attempts to dismiss the hobbits as pathological people have failed repeatedly because the medical diagnoses of dwarfing syndromes and microcephaly bear no resemblance to the unique anatomy of Homo floresiensis,” co-author Dr. Karen Babb told Wiley-Blackwell the publisher of Significance.
Analyzing the female hobbit, nicknamed ‘Flo’, the researchers found that her cranial capacity, measuring just over 400 centimeters, was most similar to chimpanzees. Turning to the shape of Flo’s skull, the researchers found that it fit most with ancient hominin species and not modern humans or humans suffering from microcephaly.
When the researchers reconstructed the body of Flo, they found it was unlike any known modern human. They determined that Flo stood approximately 106 centimeters, or 3 foot 6 inches, tall: far shorter than adult modern pygmies. In addition, they found that the thigh and shin bone of Flo were shorter than the modern pygmies both of Africa ad Southeast Asia. The researchers believe that these short bones were not an evolutionary response to being confined to an island, a process known as ‘island dwarfing’ where species shrink in order to survive in an enclosed and small ecosystem.
“It is difficult to believe an evolutionary change would lead to less economical movement,” explains co-author Dr. William Jungers. “It makes little sense that this species re-evolved shorter thighs and legs because long hind limbs improve bipedal walking. We suspect that these are primitive retentions instead.”
Time will tell if the controversy is truly put to rest by this new study, but the burden of proof now seems to rest on those who doubt that the hobbits of Flores were a unique species of hominin.
CITATION: “The geometry of hobbits: Homo floresiensis and human evolution.” William Jungers and Karen Baab. Significance; Published Online: November 19, 2009 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2009.00389.x); Print Issue Date: December 2009.
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