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

Newest Studies Indicate "Hobbit" Was Not Human, Possibly Homo Habilis

May 07, 2009 04:00 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Researchers have made new discoveries that could further ignite the long-simmering debate over the origins of an ancient fossil, which some have dubbed a hobbit.

Hippos and Feet Offer Researchers Clues

The remains of an 18,000-year-old Homo floresiensis skull, which was found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 by a team of researchers from Indonesia and Australia, has prompted numerous studies bearing conflicting results. The latest research, reported by Agence France-Presse (AFP), all leans in a similar direction: that the species was not human.

In a study published by the British journal Nature, Stony Brook University's William Jungers led a team that analyzed the species' foot. They found both human and more primitive chimpanzee-like aspects, which in sum suggested non-Homo erectus ancestors, and perhaps a "more primitive hominin" origin. Similar studies also indicate that the hobbit was Homo habilis, a "poorly understood" ancient species.

In another study detailed by AFP, two researchers from London's Natural History Museum, Eleanor Weston and Adrian Lister, evaluated ancient hippo fossils from mainland and island locations. They found that insular dwarfing—"driven by the need to adapt to an island environment"—had caused significant brain shrinkage in the island hippos. The researchers concluded that the same phenomenon could explain the tiny brain of Homo floresiensis.

Previously, researchers claimed insular dwarfing "could not account for the chimpanzee-sized brain" of Homo floresiensis, but the hippo study showed more brain shrinkage "than had previously been thought possible."

Last December, a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution indicated that the skull was not the same species as modern humans.

Dr. Karen Baab, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University, worked on the study. She said in a Stony Brook University news release, "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."

Background: Discovery of Homo floresiensis

A team of Indonesian and Australian researchers first came upon the near-complete Homo floresiensis skeleton in 2003 in a large limestone cave called Liang Bua. The fossil was one meter tall, and a female thought to be about 30 years old. Researchers estimated that she died nearly 18,000 years ago. The excavation team called her a "Hobbit," which led to speculation of a "lost world of 'little people'" who lived alongside modern human beings, according to ScienceDaily. Despite having a tiny brain, the little people were thought by researchers to be intelligent and to have had language.

Opinion & Analysis: A tricky determination

Various hypotheses have been suggested by scientists regarding the hobbit. For example, Teuku Jacob of Indonesia's Gadjah Mada University told The New Zealand Herald in 2004 that the skeleton might have been a Homo sapiens with microcephaly, a congenital disorder.

Not long after the public got its first glimpse of Homo floresiensis, Jacob stirred a great deal of controversy and drew the ire of some other researchers when he locked up the skeleton in his personal laboratory without asking permission. He said his actions would keep the remains safe, but others claimed he was limiting their access to the hobbit, reported The Times of London.

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