UO archaeologists cast doubt on controversial ‘hobbit’ theory

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I remember posting about the Palau hobbits 10 (!) years ago when the story came out, and how there was a lot of dispute about it (see here, here and here). Now a new paper in Antiquity disproves this claim of island dwarfism leading to a ‘hobbit’ population living in Palau.

Remains found on a Pacific island were just small humans, Scott Fitzpatrick contends

Source: UO archaeologists cast doubt on controversial ‘hobbit’ theory

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New hobbit study supports island dwarfism

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A new study based on CT scans of the hobbit skulls suggest that homo erectus may possibly have been an ancestor to homo floresiensis, and supports the theory that the reduction in size may have come about due to island dwarfism.

Homo floresiensis, The Conversation 20130211

Homo floresiensis, The Conversation 20130211

Brain size of Homo floresiensis and its evolutionary implications
Daisuke Kubo, Reiko T. Kono and Yousuke Kaifu
Proc. R. Soc. B 2013 280, 20130338, published 17 April 2013
doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.0338

The Real ‘Hobbit’ Had Larger Brain Than Thought
LiveScience, 16 April 2013

Hobbit Humans Had Big Brains
Discovery News, 16 April 2013

Researchers find ‘hobbit human’ had an orange-sized brain – and may have evolved from the first human species to walk fully upright
Daily Mail, 16 April 2013

Study backs ‘hobbit’ island dwarfism theory
BBC News, 17 April 2013

Brain size points to origins of ‘hobbit’
ABC Science, 17 April 2013

The origin of “hobbits” is revealed: study
The Korea Herald, 17 April 2013

Researchers back claim that Flores ‘hobbits’ grew smaller as they evolved
AFP, 17 April 2013

Hobbit’s Brain Size Holds Clues About Its Ancestor
National Geographic News, 18 April 2013
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More on the hobbit foots and hippo skulls

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Two papers published in nature last week lended more credence to the theory that the Indonesian Hobbit, homo floresiensis, is a separate species (for the reports of the two studies, read here). Here are some more news reports, videos and podcasts that have featured the latest hobbit studies.

Small Brain Of Dwarf ‘Hobbit’ Explained By Hippo’s Island Life

Science Daily, 08 May 2009

Science Friday Podcast: The Hobbit debate

Science Friday, 08 May 2009

“Hobbits” Not Good Runners; Proof of New Human Species?

National Geographic, 08 May 2009

Hippo’s island life helps explain dwarf hobbit (w/Video)
Physorg.com, 07 May 2009

Nature podcast: Mini Hippos and Mini Men
Nature, 07 May 2009

Indonesian ‘hobbit’ confirmed to be a new species

The Telegraph, 07 May 2009

Hobbits May Belong on New Branch of Our Family Tree
Wired Science, 06 May 2009

More evidence to point that the Hobbit is a new species

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The news is abuzz today as two papers published in this week’s Nature lend support to the theory that the Hobbit represents a new species. One study of the Hobbit’s foot reveals that while the hobbit was bipedal, it did not walk like humans and probably could not run very well. Another study compared the rate of dwarfism among an extinct species of hippos in Madagascar with those of the mainland, with special attention to brain size and found that it is possible for dwarf populations to evolve smaller brains, which means the same principle could be applied to the homo floresiensis. It should be noted though, the mainstream media’s hyping up the “Hobbit is a new species” tune. I certainly think the consensus is forming that way.

Insular dwarfism in hippos and a model for brain size reduction in Homo floresiensis
Nature, 07 May 2009

The foot of Homo floresiensis

Nature, 07 May 2009

Hobbits ‘are a separate species’
BBC, 06 May 2009

New analysis shows ‘hobbits’ couldn’t hustle
Physorg.com, 06 May 2009

Hobbit foot, hippo skulls deepen ancestral mystery
Science News, 06 May 2009

‘Hobbits’ Couldn’t Hustle: Feet Of Homo Floresiensis Were Primitive But Not Pathological
Science Daily, 06 May 2009

Ancient ‘hobbit’ humans new species after all
AFP, 06 May 2009
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Palau skeletons and Homo floresiensis on National Public Radio

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The National Public Radio’s Science Friday programme has a 12-minute interview with Lee Berger, the principal investigator of the Palau skeletons. Find out what this find means for the homo floresiensis debate and for our understanding of humankind in general.

photo credit: Rosino

Discovery Casts Doubt on ‘Hobbit’ Theory
NPR, 14 March 2008
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More "Hobbits" found, in Micronesia now

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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.

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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.
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Another Homo Floresiensis book review

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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

More to be found in the Hobbit lands?

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06 May 2007 (The Age) – The real news of this story is that Dr. Morwood, from the team who discovered the hobbit hominid in Flores, is about to begin an archaeological investigation into the islands of Timor and Sulawesi, near Flores where our favourite controversial hobbit was found. This rest of the story, about finding the existence of other extinct animal and human species a la homo floresiensis is still entirely speculative.

From the hobbit team, more human relations

More bizarre, extinct human species — dwarfs and even giants — could be uncovered in Indonesia’s southern islands, with the Australian discoverer of the “hobbit” set to begin fresh diggings next month.

Mike Morwood — who with fellow Australian Peter Brown led the team that discovered the hobbit, Homo floresiensis, in 2003 — is predicting further species will be uncovered on the islands of Timor and Sulawesi, which are near Flores.

Professor Morwood, with a team headed by Indonesian archaeological professor Fachroel Aziz from Indonesia’s Geological Survey Institute, will soon start excavations in the Atambua Basin of Timor. Afterwards, the team will begin diggings in Sulawesi and will return to the Ling Bua cave in Flores, where the hobbit species was uncovered.

“We predict a number of these islands are probably going to have their own endemic human species, and many of them will be small,” Professor Morwood, from the University of Wollongong said.

Professor Morwood flagged that any new human species found on Timor and Sulawesi would be called Homo timoriensis and Homo celebesiensis (Celebes being the former name of Sulawesi).

He said these new species would have evolved separately on their respective islands for more than a million years. Although they could be similar is size, they would be different enough to warrant their own species name.

Professor Morwood said further archaeological finds would help answer the puzzling question of the ancestry of the hobbit, which could lead to a total redrawing of the human family tree. A popular explanation is that the hobbit — and any species that lived in Timor and Sulawesi — are descended from Homo erectus, which lived in Indonesia, notably Java, for thousands of years. But this was probably wrong, Professor Morwood said.

“Some of the traits of Homo floresiensis are so primitive — they’re more primitive than you find in Homo erectus. It seems likely that the ancestor was something before Homo erectus,” he said.

If true, this would revolutionise our understanding of human history because Homo erectus was believed to be the first early human that was advanced enough to leave Africa.

Related Books:
Little People And a Lost World: An Anthropological Mystery by L. Goldenberg
Human Origins : The Fossil Record by C. S. Larsen

New evidence for Island Dwarfism with implications for Homo floresiensis

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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