Science

Indonesian hobbits, Homo floresiensis, Indonesian little people
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The skull of Homo floresiensis (left), is displayed next to a normal human's skull.

Indonesian “Hobbits” Weren’t Human, Say Scientists

January 23, 2009 01:28 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A new study bolsters the claim that an ancient fossil discovered several years ago belongs to an entirely different species of tiny humanlike creatures.

Scientists Analyze Homo Floresiensis Skull

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An analysis of an 18,000-year-old Homo floresiensis skull has proven that they were not the same species as modern humans, according to a study led by Dr. Karen Baab, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at New York's Stony Brook University, and Kieran McNulty, professor of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Some believe that the “hobbit” skeleton belonged to humans that had dwarfism or the disease microcephaly, which causes the brain to be smaller than normal. But Baab and McNulty say their analysis of the skull’s shape, which they then compared to samples from other extinct hominins and modern humans and apes, proves the microcephaly theory wrong.

“The overall shape of the LB1 skull, particularly the part that surrounds the brain (neurocranium) looks similar to fossils more than 1.5 million years older from Africa and Eurasia, rather than modern humans, even though Homo floresiensis is documented from 17,000 to 95,000 years ago,” said Baab in a Stony Brook University news release.

In other studies of Homo floresiensis remains, scientists have found primitive features in areas such as the upper and lower limbs that were unlike modern humans.

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Background: Homo floresiensis

The first near-complete Homo floresiensis skeleton was discovered in 2003 by a team of Indonesian and Australian researchers on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The one-meter tall skeleton, a female of about age 30 estimated to have died about 18,000 years ago, was found in a large limestone cave called Liang Bua. The discovery, called “Hobbit” by the excavation team, raised the spectre of a “lost world of little people” that coexisted with modern humans.

“It is a new species of human who actually lived alongside us, yet were half our size. They were the height of a three-year-old child, weighed around 24 kg and had a brain smaller than most chimpanzees. Even so, they used fire, made sophisticated stone tools, and hunted Stegodon (a primitive type of elephant) and giant rats. We also believe that their ancestors may have reached the island using bamboo rafts. The clear implication is that, despite tiny brains, these little humans were intelligent and almost certainly had language,” said archaeologist and Associate Professor Mike Morwood of the University of New England, to Science Daily in 2004.

Opinion & Analysis: Is it human?

Some scientists have claimed that the hobbit was a human with a disorder. Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Indonesia said in 2003 that the skeleton belonged to a Homo sapien with the congenital disease microcephaly. “Everything points to the direction of Homo sapiens, especially the teeth. The teeth in the upper and lower jaw are clearly sapiens,” Jacob said at the time of the discovery, according to The New Zealand Herald.

In 2004, shortly after Homo floresiensis was revealed to the public, Jacobs sparked a major controversy in the world of anthropology when he took the skeleton and locked it away in his personal laboratory without permission. Jacobs, a major palaeoanthropologist in Indonesia, had the Hobbit remains transported for “safe-keeping” to the Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, angering other researchers who said he was limiting access to the remains.
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