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Human or Hobbit: it is all in the wrist

Were there little people on Flores?

By Lucy Sherriff, 21 Sep 2007

A fresh analysis of the fossilised skeleton that sparked the Hobbit controversy, has provided more evidence to support the claim that Homo floresiensis is a new species of hominid, the Guardian reports, and not a diseased human with a shrunken and malformed brain.

The skeleton was found on the Indonesian island of Flores back in 2003. Almost immediately scientists split into two camps: the excited and the sceptical.

The first group concluded that a previously unknown species of human had shared the planet with us as recently as 13,000 years ago; while the second believed that the skeleton was more likely that of a small human, probably one suffering from microcephaly, or a form of dwarfism.

The new research - an analysis of the wrist bones of the skeleton - has made the excited scientists even more so. The bones are not quite the same as those of modern humans, and share some characteristics with older human species, and the great apes. The work is published in the journal Science.

"What we are beginning to realise is that our recent evolutionary history is much more diverse than we realised," Matthew Tocheri of the Smithsonian Institution, lead author on the paper, told The Guardian. "It's a little shot to our over-inflated modern human egos."

Researchers have suggested Homo Floresiensis could have evolved from Homo erectus, which was known to live on the island 800,000 years ago. Their diminutive stature could be the result of so-called island dwarfing, a well documented phenomenon whereby a species isolated on an island shrinks or grows dramatically over time.

(Mammals converge on something about the size of a rabbit, apparently the most energy-efficient size for a mammal to be.)

Critics have argued that the brain is too small to be a scaled down Homo erectus, and that tools and other evidence of human like activity were too advanced to be associated with a creature of such small cranial capacity.

But Tocheri says the evidence is now stacking in favour of the Hobbit theory. He describes the wrist bones as the smoking gun that proves the skeleton is not that of a modern human.

The rest of the scientific community is settling down with bags of popcorn to watch the emerging bun fight.

Chris Stringer, an expert on human evolution at the Natural History Museum told the paper: "There is a lot at stake. One group of people are going to be 100% wrong in what they have said, which is a situation that is rare in science.

"It will be a fascinating test case for science. Will the people who turn out to be wrong hold their position to the bitter end regardless of the evidence that accumulates?" ®