"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.

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