What is this “hobbit” hubbub? What is Homo floresiensis?



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    A half-decade ago in 2004, researchers excavating a cave named Liang Bua on the Indonesian Island of Flores came across something utterly unexpected – an incomplete human skeleton of what appeared to an adult human woman who would have stood barely over a meter (roughly 3.28 feet) in height.

    Sure, scientists applied a technical label (LB1), but the specimen quickly got a new named ripped from the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books – the Hobbit. Indeed, the specimen’s proportions eerily mimic Tolkien’s description of a large-footed, compactly-built people.

    Upon further examination, the team that discovered the remains proposed that this was indeed a new species of human – dubbed Homo floresiensis in honor of the island where it was found. They guessed, initially, that H. floresiensis was a descendant of H. erectus, which was our first ancestor to leave Africa. They assumed the small size was a result of insular dwarfism. (For an excellent discussion of island biogeography, see David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo.)

    Since then, debate has been ranging over whether or not this “hobbit” qualifies as a new species of human. Skeptics have been, well, skeptical. The most popular counter-theory is based on disease: the hobbit was a modern human with stunted growth as a result of some sort of illness. A curiosity, sure, but nothing to get the anthropological community excited about.

    Scientists in favor of the so-called ‘Sick Human Hypothesis’ have proposed a handful of potential culprits. These include a suite of exotic-sounding ailments, such as Laron syndromeMyxoedematous endemic cretinism, and (most impressively named) Microcephalic osteodyplastic primodial dwarfism type II.

    However, as more and more individuals have been recovered—about 14 to date— the debate has only escalated. The other remains adhere to similar proportions, yet to complicate matters there’s only one head among the several sets of remains discovered. This makes studying the brain, a key feature in any human species, a bit tricky.

    Homo floresiensis skull (photo taken from Wikimedia Commons):

    Homo floresiensis (Hobbit) Skull

    The differences between H. floresiensis and a modern human are more subtle and varied than simple height.  In fact, according to a recent Scientific American article (November 2009), the hobbit displays many skeletal traits that are indicative of more primitive ape and australopithecine lineages. These include a robust lower jaw; broad, flaring pelvis; and short thigh- and shinbones.

    Today, the question is no longer simply “is the hobbit a new species?” Even if we assume it is, we’ve still got to figure out where to place it in the human evolutionary history.

    Peculiarities abound. Estimations of the hobbit’s brain size put it on par with a modern chimpanzee, yet several areas of the brain seem to possess advanced features. The discovery of stone tools near the remains implies that Hobbits possessed intelligence beyond of modern chimps.

    Furthermore, the construction of the hobbit’s wrist is more similar that of an African ape than a modern human. Likewise, it’s abnormally long feet in comparison to its squat legs would seem to place it in the company of our primate kin.

    Frankly, H. floresiensis seems to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its primitive traits place it on the natal continent of Africa two million years ago, yet evidence says it lived in Indonesia in what are essentially modern times.

    The humble hobbit has been making quite a stir in the anthropological community; it seems to fly in the face of the textbook account of human origins. H. erectus has long held the title of first human ancestor to leave Africa, some 1.8 million years ago. Hobbits, however, seem to indicate that an even older, more primitive ancestor left Africa some 2 million years ago.

    A reconstruction of Homo erectus (photo taken from Wikimedia Commons):

    Homo erectus

    Given the immense implications of the hobbit as a new species, it’s little wonder that there has been quite a fuss over it for the last five years. The latest article in Scientific American makes a convincing case for Homo floresiensis as its own species – and indeed, that seems to be the conclusion the scientific community is moving toward.

    The case is far from closed, and one should expect to hear quite a bit more about this unfolding mystery as anthropologists look for more remains to corroborate their theories. I’ll cap this answer with a some of the recommended reading from Scientific American, as well as a few citations of my own. To be fair, it’s tough to sum of five years of cutting-edge anthropology in a few hundred words – I highly recommend the Scientific American article as a place to start.



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