"Hobbits" Not Good Runners; Proof of New Human Species?

May 8, 2009

Ancient "hobbit" feet contain clues that the diminutive fossil creatures, found on the Indonesian island of Flores, had a very different style of walking than that of modern humans, according to a new analysis.

"In several ways, their feet are what we call in the business 'primitive,'" said study co-author William Harcourt-Smith, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The finding, he added, is further evidence that the 18,000-year-old fossils represent a unique species, Homo floresiensis. (Read more about the Flores fossils in National Geographic magazine.)

That interpretation has been hotly debated. Several scientists believe the bones are those of dwarf modern humans, perhaps afflicted with a genetic disease.

No Arches

The fossil foot examined for the new study includes hallmarks of upright walking, such as stiffness and the lack of an opposable, thumblike toe for grasping, Harcourt-Smith said.

But the foot is flat—it doesn't have an arch, he said. Arches are key characteristics of the modern-human foot that provide a spring-like mechanism, particularly important for running.

(Related: "Oldest Human Footprints With Modern Anatomy Found.")

"This creature would have had difficulty doing the long-distance running that modern humans do," he said.

Other primitive features, described this week in the journal Nature, include a chimpanzee-like, stubby big toe and a foot that is exceptionally long, relative to a modern human's.

"It is wild looking at it," Harcourt-Smith said. "[A hobbit] would have had to lift its leg up off the ground higher in order to clear the ground when it is walking. It would have certainly had an unusual gait."

Though the team has yet to work out the full mechanics of hobbit motion, he said the creature likely had to bend its knees and hips more than modern humans do as it lumbered around Flores.

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