#85: Smackdown Over Ancient "Hobbit" Continues

A mysterious skeleton puzzles scientists who wonder if it was human.

By Jane Bosveld|Monday, December 08, 2008

When anthropologists first analyzed the bones of an 18,000-year-old hominid found on the Indonesian island of Flores, they were struck by its diminutive size (just three feet tall) and small brain (more chimp-size than human). They dubbed the remains LB1 and controversially identified it as a new species, Homo floresiensis, in 2004. Two 2008 studies back the new species theory.

In one comparative study, anthropologist Adam Gordon, now an assistant professor at the University of Albany, along with colleagues at George Washington University, found that the skull of LB1, nicknamed “the hobbit,” was “well outside the range of modern human variation,” according to Gordon. “When you consider the relationship between size and shape of the skull, [it] is most similar to Homo habilis,” a small hominid that disappeared more than a million and a half years ago.

In another study, paleoanthropologist William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York studied the foot of the hobbit and found it, true to its namesake, strikingly large relative to the size of the body, with very short big toes. Jungers argues that this foot structure links the hobbit to earlier hominids. Claims that they were diseased humans, Jungers says, “are ridiculous.”

But Robert B. Eckhardt, an evolutionary biologist at Penn State University, notes that the DNA isolated from the remains matches that of Homo sapiens, and no study has ruled out the possibility that the hobbit was a human with a developmental abnormality.

Only after still more studies will the hobbit, or human, be able to stand on its own two (really big) feet.

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