More "Hobbits" found, in Micronesia now

No Comments

Following the suggestion from last week’s controversial paper about the nature of the Flores Hobbits comes a new discovery that may argue that the Hobbits are just really small humans. Fossil remains found in the Micronesian island of Palau have displayed some similarities to the so-called homo floresiensis fossils found in 2004. The open-access study was published in the Public Library of Science journal, PLoS ONE. There’s apparently a National Geographic documentary about the skeletons to be released on March 17, but I don’t think it’ll be out in Asia.

View Larger Map

Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia
Lee R. Berger, Steven E. Churchill, Bonita De Klerk, Rhonda L. Quinn

Newly discovered fossil assemblages of small bodied Homo sapiens from Palau, Micronesia possess characters thought to be taxonomically primitive for the genus Homo.

Recent surface collection and test excavation in limestone caves in the rock islands of Palau, Micronesia, has produced a sizeable sample of human skeletal remains dating roughly between 940-2890 cal ybp.

Principle Findings

Preliminary analysis indicates that this material is important for two reasons. First, individuals from the older time horizons are small in body size even relative to “pygmoid” populations from Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and thus may represent a marked case of human insular dwarfism. Second, while possessing a number of derived features that align them with Homo sapiens, the human remains from Palau also exhibit several skeletal traits that are considered to be primitive for the genus Homo.


These features may be previously unrecognized developmental correlates of small body size and, if so, they may have important implications for interpreting the taxonomic affinities of fossil specimens of Homo.
Read More

Another Homo Floresiensis book review

1 Comment

07 July 2007 (American Scientist) – Another book review of “A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia” by Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee. This review is longer than the previous one feature here, although I don’t think I’m planning to read the book anytime soon.

Choosing One’s Relatives

The discovery of a new hominin species in human ancestry is always exciting, never more so than when it is completely unexpected. And certainly no one anticipated that the fossil remains of such a species would be found in 2003 in Liang Bua, a limestone cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. But that year a team of archaeologists, anthropologists and geologists from Australia and Indonesia working at Liang Bua uncovered the bonesof a tiny woman, whom they eventually concluded was a hominin of a new species, Homo floresiensis. That bold claim has ignited considerable controversy among paleo-anthropologists.

Now one of the members of the team that found the specimen, Mike Morwood, has written a book titled A New Human, with science writer Penny van Oosterzee as coauthor. Their fascinating account of how the large-scale, multidisciplinary excavation was set up and run shows just how such an investigation should be conducted. They cover everything: the preliminary groundwork to find out who has to be approached to get permissions, with all the politics and administrative matters that are an unavoidable adjunct to such forms of scientific inquiry; the actual business of excavation and the dating of the deposit; and finally, the process of publishing a description of the fossils and their context. Anyone thinking of undertaking such a project would do well to consult this book.

Read the full review of “A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia” from American Scientist.

More books about Homo floresiensis, aka The Hobbit:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

World Heritage status for Hobbit site?

No Comments

02 May 2007 (The Australian) – The discoverer of the Flores hominid is preparing to submit a proposal to list the Liang Bua cave, where the dimunitive hominid is found, as a World Heritage site due to the significance of the find. Personally, I think this might be too premature. While I am rooting for the hominid to be an entirely new species, the general consensus is that the jury is still out as to whether the Flores hominid represents and entirely new species. While the article’s main thrust is the nomination of LB1 as a World Heritage Site, one should also take note that the Soa Basin, located 40 km away from the cave is also proposed to be listed as a world heritage site, because of the presence of 900,000-year-old stone tools found there.

Heritage push for ‘hobbits’

THE cave where hobbit-like creatures were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores is so crucial to the study of human evolution it should be World Heritage-listed, leading prehistorians claim.

The international experts kick-started the process at a meeting last month in Mildura, near the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area where the 40,000- to 60,000-year-old remains of Mungo Man were discovered in 1974.

Representing some of the most famous human fossil sites in Africa, China, Indonesia, Europe and Australia, as well as universities, Australian government authorities and private groups including the Getty Conservation Institute in California, the experts also called for listing of the Soa Basin of central Flores.

The basin is located about 40km from Liang Bua cave where the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, was discovered in 2003 by an Australian-Indonesian team.

An open-air site in the basin, Mata Menge, boasts 900,000-year-old stone tools associated with animal remains.

According to Mike Morwood, co-leader of the hobbit discovery team, the cave is especially significant because it contains the site where a totally new species of human was found.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

New evidence for Island Dwarfism with implications for Homo floresiensis

1 Comment

18 April 2007 (Daily Telegraph and Biology Letters) – Thanks to Liz Price for flagging me to this piece of news, a new study published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters demonstrates that primates conform to the theory of “Island Dwarfism”. Island Dwarfism describes the phenomenon that in areas where resources are limited (eg, islands), small animals become larger and large animals become smaller in a bid to be more efficient in gathering food. The study can be found in this week’s Biology Letters, which a subscription-based. The abstract is published here:

Primates follow the ‘island rule’: implications for interpreting Homo floresiensis
Lindell Bromham and Marcel Cardillo

When the diminutive skeleton of Homo floresiensis was found on the Indonesian island of Flores, it was interpreted as an island dwarf, conforming to the ‘island rule’ that large animals evolve smaller size on islands, but small animals tend to get larger. However, previous studies of the island rule have not included primates, so the extent to which insular primate populations undergo size change was unknown. We use a comparative database of 39 independently derived island endemic primate species and subspecies to demonstrate that primates do conform to the island rule: small-bodied primates tend to get larger on islands, and large-bodied primates get smaller. Furthermore, larger species undergo a proportionally greater reduction in size on islands.

The Daily Telegraph, which I assume has access to the article, expounds on the connection with Homo Floresiensis further and makes careful mention that the article does not imply the genus of our beloved hobbit, whether it was Homo sapiens or Homo erectus.

Hobbit hominids lived the island life

Lindell Bromham and Marcel Cardillo trawled through published journals and online databases to see how primates performed when subjected to the “island rule”.

True enough, small primate species (ones weighing less than 5kg) all pumped up compared to their mainland relatives – but all the larger primates became smaller, in a range of between 52 and 80 per cent.

That fits in well with H. floresiensis, who was around 55 per cent of the mass of a modern Indonesian and probably 52 percent of an H. erectus.

So the evidence backs the idea that the hobbits were an insular dwarf race – humans who became smaller, possibly after the island separated from the mainland and left them marooned with diminished food resources.

The authors refuse, though, to wade into the debate as to whether the hobbits were H. erectus or H. sapiens.

Also unclear is why the hominids had a relatively undersized brain compared to their diminutive body. A modern human child of the same size has a much larger brain, as do pygmies.

So the hobbits may well be products of their own environment, but the question as to what species they are remain unanswered for another day…

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

FSU anthropologist confirms 'Hobbit' indeed a separate species

No Comments

30 January 2007 (Eureka Alerts, BBC) – A new development in the Hobbit debate, paleoneurologist Dean Falk from Florida State University concluded that the Hobbit is indeed a new species, rather than a human with microcephaly. This conclusion was made by making comparisons of the brain casts between human, microcephalic and hobbit specimens.

BBC, 30 Jan 2007
Comparisons between a microcephalic (left) and the Hobbit (right)
(Image: Kirk E. Smith, Electronic Radiology Laboratory, Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology)

FSU anthropologist confirms ‘Hobbit’ indeed a separate species

After the skeletal remains of an 18,000-year-old, Hobbit-sized human were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, some scientists thought that the specimen must have been a pygmy or a microcephalic — a human with an abnormally small skull.

Not so, said Dean Falk, a world-renowned paleoneurologist and chair of Florida State University’s anthropology department, who along with an international team of experts created detailed maps of imprints left on the ancient hominid’s braincase and concluded that the so-called Hobbit was actually a new species closely related to Homo sapiens.

Now after further study, Falk is absolutely convinced that her team was right and that the species cataloged as LB1, Homo floresiensis, is definitely not a human born with microcephalia — a somewhat rare pathological condition that still occurs today. Usually the result of a double-recessive gene, the condition is characterized by a small head and accompanied by some mental retardation.

In this latest study, the researchers compared 3-D, computer-generated reconstructions of nine microcephalic modern human brains and 10 normal modern human brains. They found that certain shape features completely separate the two groups and that Hobbit classifies with normal humans rather than microcephalic humans in these features. In other ways, however, Hobbit’s brain is unique, which is consistent with its attribution to a new species.

Comparison of two areas in the frontal lobe, the temporal lobe and the back of the brain show the Hobbit brain is nothing like a microcephalic’s and is advanced in a way that is different from living humans. In fact, the LB1 brain was the “antithesis” of the microcephalic brain, according to Falk, a finding the researchers hope puts this part of the Hobbit controversy to rest.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Compelling evidence demonstrates that 'Hobbit' fossil does not represent a new species of hominiddence demonstrates that 'Hobbit' fossil does not represent a new species of hominid

No Comments

9 October 2006 (EurekAlert) – An upcoming article in the November edition of The Anatomical Record aims to definitively put the debate on the Flores Man to rest.

Compelling evidence demonstrates that ‘Hobbit’ fossil does not represent a new species of hominid

CHICAGO — What may well turn out to be the definitive work in a debate that has been raging in palaeoanthropology for two years will be published in the November 2006 issue of Anatomical Record.

The new research comprehensively and convincingly makes the case that the small skull discovered in Flores, Indonesia, in 2003 does not represent a new species of hominid, as was claimed in a study published in Nature in 2004. Instead, the skull is most likely that of a small-bodied modern human who suffered from a genetic condition known as microcephaly, which is characterized by a small head.

“It’s no accident that this supposedly new species of hominid was dubbed the ‘Hobbit;'” said Robert R. Martin, PhD, Curator of Biological Anthropology at the Field Museum and lead author of the paper. “It is simply fanciful to imagine that this fossil represents anything other than a modern human.” The new study is the most wide-ranging, multidisciplinary assessment of the problems associated with the interpretation of the 18,000-year-old Flores hominid yet to be published. The authors include experts on:

  • scaling effects of body size, notably with respect to the brain: Dr. Martin and Ann M. MacLarnon, PhD, School of Human & Life Sciences, Roehampton University in London;
  • clinical and genetic aspects of human microcephaly: William B. Dobyns, PhD, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago; and
  • stone tools: James Phillips, PhD, Departments of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Field Museum.

This is just one of four separate research teams that have recently published evidence indicating concluding that the Flores hominid is far more likely to be a small-bodied modern human suffering from a microcephaly than a new species derived from Homo erectus, as was claimed in the original Nature paper.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf?

No Comments

9 October 2006 (The Anatomical Record) – A new study in The Anatomical Record, the journal of American Association of Anatomists strongly suggests that the Flores Man is not a new species of human being, but in fact a Homo Sapiens with microcephaly. Abstract is printed below, subscription required for full access.

Flores hominid: New species or microcephalic dwarf?

The proposed new hominid Homo floresiensis is based on specimens from cave deposits on the Indonesian island Flores. The primary evidence, dated at 18,000 y, is a skull and partial skeleton of a very small but dentally adult individual (LB1). Incomplete specimens are attributed to eight additional individuals. Stone tools at the site are also attributed to H. floresiensis. The discoverers interpreted H. floresiensis as an insular dwarf derived from Homo erectus, but others see LB1 as a small-bodied microcephalic Homo sapiens. Study of virtual endocasts, including LB1 and a European microcephalic, purportedly excluded microcephaly, but reconsideration reveals several problems. The cranial capacity of LB1 ( 400 cc) is smaller than in any other known hominid < 3.5 Ma and is far too small to derive from Homo erectus by normal dwarfing. By contrast, some associated tools were generated with a prepared-core technique previously unknown for H. erectus, including bladelets otherwise associated exclusively with H. sapiens. The single European microcephalic skull used in comparing virtual endocasts was particularly unsuitable. The specimen was a cast, not the original skull (traced to Stuttgart), from a 10-year-old child with massive pathology. Moreover, the calotte does not fit well with the rest of the cast, probably being a later addition of unknown history. Consideration of various forms of human microcephaly and of two adult specimens indicates that LB1 could well be a microcephalic Homo sapiens. This is the most likely explanation for the incongruous association of a small-brained recent hominid with advanced stone tools.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

The Official Hobbit Article

No Comments

23 August 2006 (Proceedings from the National Academy of Science of the United States of America) – The article is finally out (and better yet, it’s on open access!) The article itself is extremely technical, so if you’re not that inclined, check out the related links for a list of summaries (including a new entry from Scientific American).

Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities

T. Jacob, E. Indriati, R. P. Soejono, K. Hsü, D. W. Frayer, R. B. Eckhardt, A. J. Kuperavage, A. Thorne, and M. Henneberg

Liang Bua 1 (LB1) exhibits marked craniofacial and postcranial asymmetries and other indicators of abnormal growth and development. Anomalies aside, 140 cranial features place LB1 within modern human ranges of variation, resembling Australomelanesian populations. Mandibular and dental features of LB1 and LB6/1 either show no substantial deviation from modern Homo sapiens or share features (receding chins and rotated premolars) with Rampasasa pygmies now living near Liang Bua Cave. We propose that LB1 is drawn from an earlier pygmy H. sapiens population but individually shows signs of a developmental abnormality, including microcephaly. Additional mandibular and postcranial remains from the site share small body size but not microcephaly.

Related Books:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Hobbit debate: 3 more articles

No Comments

21, 22 August 2006 (New York Times, National Geographic News, San Francisco Chronicle) – The hobbit debate seems to be picking up speed among the mainstream media with decent science pages. (Unfortunately, this rules out most of the papers in Southeast Asia). Not going to post excerpts here.

Report Reignites Feud Over ‘Little People of Flores’ – New York Times

“Hobbits” Were Pygmy Ancestors, Not New Species, Study Says – National Geographic News

Claims of ‘hobbit’ species face fresh scientific skepticism – San Francisco Chronicle

Related Books:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg

Is this the end of Homo Floresiensis?

1 Comment

21 August 2006 (John Hawks Weblog) – John Hawks, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison writes a long (a far more qualified than me to give an educated opinion about) commentary on the homo floresiensis debate.

Is this the end of Homo florensiensis?

First of all, it is now abundantly clear that some kind of microcephaly can explain the small size and small brain size of the LB1 specimen. Moreover, the specimen exhibits other very obvious signs of developmental pathology. It is a bad specimen on which to base the diagnosis of a new species; its most important features are quite plausibly caused by its manifest pathology.

The argument so far against pathology has been that it cannot explain other unique morphologies, like the lack of a chin, and Tomes’ root, and so forth. But this paper shows that none of these other features are necessarily unusual for modern humans, in the local and regional context. So that argument is dead, unless someone can show that there is some unique character to the combination of traits in the specimen. Since most of the features that would differentiate it from Homo erectus — purportedly due to endemic dwarfism — are also shared with modern humans, that seems like a problem for the species idea.

So I completely accept the argument that LB1 is pathological. A corollary is that the skeleton cannot be a convincing type specimen for a new species.

But this isn’t only about LB1: there are the other small specimens. This paper makes clear that none of the features of the LB6/1 mandible are outside the range of local peoples. This is not a case of two specimens that must share some rare pathology; the paper argues that they are two specimens that share a regionally-common suite of characteristics. They aren’t, in other words, unusual.

Related Books:
A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the “Hobbits” of Flores, Indonesia by M. Morwood and P. van Oosterzee
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg