Hobbits Are a New Human Species, Study of Fossils Concludes

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Is the hobbit human debate over? I doubt it, but the below, from Wiley-Blackwell, puts a strong notch on the side of those who believe "Homo floresiensis" represents a new human species.

Researchers from Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York have confirmed that Homo floresiensis

is a genuine ancient human species and not a descendant of healthy

humans dwarfed by disease. Using statistical analysis on skeletal

remains of a well-preserved female specimen, researchers determined the

"hobbit" to be a distinct species and not a genetically flawed version

of modern humans. Details of the study appear in the December issue of Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, published by Wiley-Blackwell.

In

2003 Australian and Indonesian scientists discovered small-bodied,

small-brained, hominin (human-like) fossils on the remote island of

Flores in the Indonesian archipelago. This discovery of a new human

species called Homo floresiensis has spawned much debate with

some researchers claiming that the small creatures are really modern

humans whose tiny head and brain are the result of a medical condition

called microcephaly.

Hobbit skull with brain region highlighted

(Image courtesy of Kirk E. Smith of the Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology of Washington University, via Science-AAAS)

Researchers William Jungers, Ph.D., and

Karen Baab, Ph.D. studied the skeletal remains of a female (LB1),

nicknamed "Little Lady of Flores" or "Flo" to confirm the evolutionary

path of the hobbit species. The specimen was remarkably complete and

included skull, jaw, arms, legs, hands, and feet that provided

researchers with integrated information from an individual fossil.

The

cranial capacity of LB1 was just over 400 cm, making it more similar to

the brains of a chimpanzee or bipedal "ape-men" of East and South

Africa. The skull and jawbone features are much more primitive looking

than any normal modern human. Statistical analysis of skull shapes show

modern humans cluster together in one group, microcephalic humans in

another and the hobbit along with ancient hominins in a third.

Due

to the relative completeness of fossil remains for LB1, the scientists

were able to reconstruct a reliable body design that was unlike any

modern human. The thigh bone and shin bone of LB1 are much shorter than

modern humans including Central African pygmies, South African KhoeSan

(formerly known as 'bushmen") and "negrito" pygmies from the Andaman

Islands and the Philippines. Some researchers speculate this could

represent an evolutionary reversal correlated with "island dwarfing."

"It is difficult to believe an evolutionary change would lead to less

economical movement," said Dr. Jungers. "It makes little sense that

this species re-evolved shorter thighs and legs because long hind limbs

improve bipedal walking. We suspect that these are primitive retentions

instead."

Further analysis of the remains using a regression

equation developed by Dr. Jungers indicates that LB1 was approximately

106 cm tall (3 feet, 6 inches)—far smaller than the modern pygmies

whose adults grow to less than 150 cm (4 feet, 11 inches). A

scatterplot depicts LB1 far outside the range of Southeast Asian and

African pygmies in both absolute height and body mass indices.

"Attempts to dismiss the hobbits as pathological people have failed

repeatedly because the medical diagnoses of dwarfing syndromes and

microcephaly bear no resemblance to the unique anatomy of Homo floresiensis," noted Dr. Baab.

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