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"Hobbit" Brains Were Small but Smart, Study Says

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic Channel
and National Geographic News
March 3, 2005
 
The recently discovered "hobbit" fossils do in fact represent a new human species, according to a new study of a hobbit braincase. What's more, the little humans seem to have been more intelligent than expected, given their extremely small brains—a finding that may completely change how scientists view human evolution.

Last October a team of Australian and Indonesian archaeologists reported the discovery of the18,000-year-old bones of an adult female hobbit. The only known hobbit skull is from this female, though archaeologists later found partial remains of seven other individuals.

Formally known as Homo floresiensis, the fossil skeleton has a unique combination of features not seen in any other humans or human ancestors. (See photos of the "hobbit.")

Flores, an isolated island in Indonesia, was colonized by early humans as far back as 800,000 years ago. But from at least 95,000 years ago until around 12,000 years ago, it was occupied by these tiny humans.

H. floresiensis grew to be only about three feet (one meter) tall—prompting archaeologists to christen them "hobbits," after the diminutive Lord of the Rings characters.

Despite having very small brains—roughly the size of a chimpanzee's—they appear to have hunted animals twice their size, made stone tools for hunting and butchering, and used fire for cooking.

"It's remarkable. We've always been taught and thought that as humans evolved, the bigger the brain, the better they are," said Charles Hildebolt, a physical anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

"If this little creature actually made the tools and was using the tools, built the fire and was using the fire, then that really tips human evolution upside down and changes the way we have to think about brain evolution. It may indicate that the reorganization of the brain was just as important and may be even more important than size."

Hildebolt was a member of the team, led by paleoneurologist Dean Falk of Florida State University, that studied the braincase of the species.

Small but Powerful Brains

Falk and her team created a virtual, three-dimensional cast of the interior of the fossilized H. floresiensis skull. Called an endocast, the model shows a variety of features, including the brain's size, shape, vessels, and convolutions.

This hobbit endocast was then compared with virtual endocasts and latex endocasts of modern humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, an adult female Pygmy, and three early human ancestors: Australopithecus africanus, a species that lived around 2.5 million years ago; Paranthropus aethiopicus, a species that appears in the fossil record about 2.7 million years ago, and Homo erectus, a species that lived from about 1,600,000 to 250,000 years ago.

Some scientists have speculated that the hobbit fossil was not of a new species but rather of a modern human with microcephaly, a birth defect in which a person has an abnormally small brain. To address this concern, Falk's team also compared the hobbit braincase to that of a known modern human microcephalic.

"We think it least resembles a microcephalic," Hildebolt said. "It has a lateral profile that is somewhat similar to a Homo erectus, but it has other features that are similar to modern humans. The combination is unique."

Falk agrees and contends that the exhaustive analysis puts skeptics' claims that the hobbit is really a microcephalic to rest.

"The scaling of brain to body isn't at all what we'd expect to find in Pygmies, and the shape is all wrong to be a microcephalic," Falk said. "This is something new."

Although much smaller than in modern humans, the hobbit's frontal lobe contains a region known as Brodmann's area 10, which is very convoluted and has large swellings. In the modern human brain, area 10 is associated with higher cognitive processes such as planning ahead and taking initiative.

When scaled for size, the hobbit also has larger temporal lobes than Homo erectus does. In modern humans the temporal lobes are associated with hearing and understanding speech.

"This species was undergoing its own long evolution on this island," Falk said. "Our data are consistent with the kinds of sophisticated behaviors being reported."

H. floresiensis "is a really strange combination of some very advanced traits, some that are very primitive, and some that are unique," said Mike Morwood, an archaeologist from the University of New England in Australia. Morwood led the team that first found the hobbit remains.

Morwood said the stone tools found close to the H. floresiensis fossils represent "a very sophisticated assemblage of stone artifacts and are directly associated with evidence of hunting and butchering of stegadon, a dwarf elephant."

Hildebolt, though, pointed out that this doesn't automatically mean that the tools and cooking evidence are associated with the new species. Other scientists agree with him.

"I am cautious about drawing too many conclusions about brain quality from endocranial surface features [features inside the skull], and I am still cautious about the extent of the 'advanced' behavior inferred for Homo floresiensis from the archaeological evidence," said Chris Stringer, director of the Human Origins Program at the Natural History Museum in London.

"For me, the most significant aspects of this new study are the demonstration that the endocranium is very different from that of a small-bodied, or a microcephalic, H. sapiens and that it does, with some differences, most resemble endocasts of H. erectus."

The Falk team's report appears in today's issue of the online version of the journal Science. Their findings will also be featured on the National Geographic Channel's Explorer TV series on March 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Tiny Contemporary Humans?

Scientists have long thought that, with the extinction of the Neandertals roughly 30,000 years ago, H. sapiens was the only human species left on the planet. The discovery that another human species, vastly different from us, existed up until about 13,000 years ago is a stunning find.

Who were they and how did they get to Flores? There are several hypotheses.

The team of archaeologists that found the hobbit fossils—led by Mike Morwood, Bert Roberts, and Thomas Sutikna—suggested that the hobbits' small stature was the result of a phenomenon known as island dwarfing.

Flores island has been inhabited by some species of human since at least 800,000 years ago. The team that found the fossils leans toward the theory that, once there, this earlier species evolved into H. floresiensis.

Over thousands of years, the theory goes, their bodies adapted to the constraints of island living in the same way that many other mammals' bodies do. With food in short supply, their skeletons grew smaller—a process called island dwarfing.

And because reptiles on islands frequently grow larger, the hobbits may have been both predators and prey. If so, they would have needed to be smarter just to survive—there would be a significant evolutionary advantage to developing a more highly evolved brain.

"Small and smart is definitely better than small and dumb," Hildebolt laughed.

The authors of the braincase study, which was funded by the National Geographic Society, support an alternative hypothesis that was originally presented by the team that found the fossils.

They suggest that H. floresiensis existed as a species before arriving on Flores—that it was already tiny on arrival. It's possible, they say, that there was a small-bodied, small-brained, as yet unknown species of human ancestor (possibly H. floresiensis) that may have left Africa at around the same time as Homo erectus, about 1.8 million years ago.

"We're not dismissing the island-dwarfing hypothesis. It's just that we think the other seems maybe a little stronger," Hildebolt said.

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