Holy Smoke! The hobbit might not be human after all!

Ordinarily, it’d be just another sway in the ongoing hobbit debate, but this time it’s different. It seems that one of the original discoverers of the Hobbit aka homo floresiensis may be rethinking the idea of the hobbit as a human. This rethink comes in the face of new discoveries of hobbit bones (a total of six to nine individuals, up from a previous number of one) as well as a study of the mandibles and teeth still suggest that they are nowhere near modern humans, but also differ from the earliest hominins out of Africa (the hominins from Dmanisi in Georgia).

Flores
photo credit: Ryan Somma

Hobbit species may not have been human
The Australian, 30 September 2009

AFTER five years of arguments over the so-called hobbits, the University of New England paleoanthropologist who formally described the tiny new hominin species from the Indonesian island of Flores is facing another wave of controversy.

This time, Peter Brown could raise the ire of some of the scientists who supported him in an academic debate that degenerated into an international scandal.

Brown, who initially placed the species in the human genus Homo and named it Homo floresiensis, is considering stripping the hobbits of their human status.

In their latest research, Brown and Maeda compared two Homo floresiensis lower jawbones and the attached teeth, along with an isolated hobbit premolar, with those of more than 2000 modern humans as well as ancient hominins. They took in data from the 1.8 million-year-old Dmanisi skeletons from the Republic of Georgia, thought to be from a species intermediate between Homo habilis and Homo erectus or its close relative Homo ergaster.

Until now, the Dmanisi material was thought to represent the first hominin species out of Africa.

Mandibles and teeth are powerful diagnostic features because they are preserved preferentially in the fossil record, Brown says. “Because we have lots of this type of information, we have developed methods for interpreting it and comparing it between species.”

The two drew some of the data from the scientific literature but made many measurements themselves. They scrutinised about 40 characteristics, including the thickness of tooth enamel, measured in fractions of a millimetre, the shape of tooth crowns and their roots, and diagnostic parts of the chin region. Deep statistical analysis put Homo floresiensis way outside the range of modern humans, including microcephalics.

Combined with other anatomical evidence, the results ruled out Asian Homo erectus as the progenitor. Both jawbones shared characteristics with Australopithecus and early Homo, and were closer to them than the Dmanisi skeletons were. The ancestral hobbits must have left Africa before the hominins who reached Dmanisi, Brown and Maeda reasoned.


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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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