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New "Hobbit" Human Bones Add to Evidence, Oddity

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 12, 2005
 
The "hobbits" are real. That's the conclusion of scientists who announce the discovery of the remains of more of the tiny prehistoric humans nicknamed for the diminutive stars of the Lord of the Rings saga. (See pictures of the hobbit humans.)

The newfound humans—formally known as Homo floresiensis—were first discovered in October 2004 on the Indonesian island of Flores. (See "Hobbit-Like Human Ancestor Found in Asia.") Ever since, scientists have debated whether the "hobbits" in fact constitute a new human species.

The recent finds in Liang Bua cave—a jaw and other bones from what are said to be nine individuals—should settle the matter, according to the paleontologists behind the discoveries.

"Now we can say very confidently that the new evidence confirms this as a new, tiny, unique species of human," said Mike Morwood, an archaeologist from the University of New England in Australia who helped make the new discovery. Morwood also co-led the team that found the first known hobbit remains in 2004.

Using the remains at hand, Morwood and his team were able to estimate the height of five of the nine individuals. All five were under 3.25 feet (1 meter) tall, according to the researchers' new report. One apparent five-year-old was less than 20 inches (50 centimeters) tall when he or she died.

The remains cover a broad time period, from about 95,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Controversial Bones

The tiny bones have stirred controversy since they were first revealed and could alter understanding of early human evolution.

If H. floresiensis is in fact a new species, it's one that existed until 12,000 years ago—more recently than extinct early humans are thought to have been around. The period is about the same time that humans were developing agriculture and well after Neanderthals had vanished.

"My take is that this is not a home run yet, because they haven't really figured out what this is," Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman said. "But there's good evidence that supports their hypothesis nicely."

"There's more than one individual, so they can refute the hypothesis that this is just some kind of freak. Also, the data suggest that [the remains are from] a fairly long time span, so that makes it tough to say that this is [due to some sort of disease]," Lieberman said.

Some anthropologists have suggested that the hobbits could be modern-human dwarfs with a condition called microcephaly, a condition of abnormal smallness of the head.

The fossils' wide age range makes that explanation seem less likely—it's improbable that all the specimens found would have had the conditions. It's more likely that small heads and bodies were normal for the hobbits, according to the new report.

Homo floresiensis had jaw, teeth, and skull features similar to those of humans. Other H. floresiensis proportions, such as their long arms and lack of a defined chin, are unlike those of any modern humans, including Pygmies. Pygmies are equatorial African people who rarely grow taller than 5 feet (1.5 meters).

This odd mix of features makes the hobbits' origins a mystery.

Where Did the Hobbits Come From?

Some scientists suggest that the unique species existed before its arrival on Flores. They hypothesize that a tiny species of human ancestors left Africa at the same time Homo erectus did—about 1.8 million years ago. (Named for its upright walk, H. erectus is thought by many scientists to be a direct ancestor of modern humans.)

The team of archaeologists that found the new remains—led by Mike Morwood, Bert Roberts, and Thomas Sutikna—suggests that the hobbits are the result of island dwarfing, an evolutionary procedure where species become smaller over many years to adapt to the limited resources of their environment. Smaller species, the thinking goes, can get by on less food.

If an isolated human species occupied Flores for the better part of a million years, it may have undergone dwarfing, the researchers say.

"We know that large mammals tend to shrink," Morwood explained. "The smallest stegodon species [a small elephant-like animal] in the world is from Flores. On Flores and adjacent islands there are some pretty weird things going on."

"There was probably in situ evolution of this quite unusual human species," he continued. Morwood speculates that H. floresiensis may have evolved from "a small-bodied [early human] species from earlier in human evolution."

"It's a totally unique situation, and the end result seems to be also totally unique."

The study, which will be published in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, also reports that, though H. floresiensis had chimpanzee-size brains, they used stone tools to butcher animals and had mastered the use of fire in cooking. (See "'Hobbit' Brains Were Small but Smart, Study Says.") Such behaviors raise interesting questions about prevailing evolutionary theories that suggest that big brains are better.

"Nobody knows what this thing is," Harvard's Lieberman said. "That's what's fun about this fossil—all the questions that it raises. It should be terrific fun to try to figure it out."

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