Hobbit Humans Had Big Brains

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Hobbit humans, the tiny folks who lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores until about 12,000 years ago, had bigger brains than previously thought, according to a new paper that strengthens the theory that hobbits evolved from own own ancestor, Homo erectus.

Homo erectus, in turn, is thought to have evolved into our own species in Africa. The new study, published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reveals how location and environment could mean the difference between an individual who looked like us, and someone who wound up a hobbit.

"They were extremely short (about 3'6"), much shorter than any healthy living humans," co-author Yousuke Kaifu told Discovery News. "Their legs were short relative to their arms and feet, (features that) some researchers think were primitive."

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Kaifu, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, conducted the study with lead author Daisuke Kubo and Reiko Kono.

The three used high-resolution micro-CT scanning to study the brain regions of hobbit human skulls. The scans found that the brains measured 426 cc, as opposed to earlier estimates of around 400 cc. The former is still not huge by modern standards, and was about the same size as a chimpanzee's brain.

Nevertheless, the difference means it was possible for a Homo erectus population to have evolved such brains. The prior estimate ruled that out, since there is only so much shrinkage that could have taken place.

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The researchers believe H. erectus, living on the mainland, either intentionally or unintentionally -- such as due to a storm -- made it to the isolated island of Flores.

The hobbits' "unique evolution suggests they did not go out of the island once they got there," Kaifu said.

He explained that "a popular theory is that big mammals tend to reduce and small mammals tend to increase their body sizes on an isolated island because of energetic demands."