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Rethinking the Hobbits of Indonesia [Preview]

The mini human species found in Indonesia turns out to be even stranger than previously thought and complicates the story of our ancient past

In Brief

  • In 2004 researchers working on the island of Flores in Indonesia found bones of a miniature human species—formally named Homo floresiensis and nicknamed the hobbit—that lived as recently as 17,000 years ago.
  • Scientists initially postulated that H. floresiensis descended from Homo erectus, a human ancestor with body proportions similar to our own.
  • New investigations show that the hobbits were more primitive than researchers thought, however—a finding that could overturn key assumptions about human evolution.

In 2004 a team of australian and indonesian scientists who had been excavating a cave called Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores announced that they had unearthed something extraordinary: a partial skeleton of an adult human female who would have stood just over a meter tall and who had a brain a third as large as our own. The specimen, known to scientists as LB1, quickly received a fanciful nickname—the hobbit, after writer J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional creatures. The researchers proposed that LB1 and the other fragmentary remains they recovered represent a previously unknown human species, Homo floresiensis. Their best guess was that H. floresiensis was a descendant of Homo erectus—the first species known to have colonized outside of Africa. The creature evolved its small size, they surmised, as a response to the limited resources available on its island home—a phenomenon that had previously been documented in other mammals, but never humans.

The finding jolted the paleoanthropological community. Not only was H. floresiensis being held up as the first example of a human following the so-called island rule, but it also seemed to reverse a trend toward ever larger brain size over the course of human evolution. Furthermore, the same deposits in which the small-bodied, small-brained individuals were found also yielded stone tools for hunting and butchering animals, as well as remainders of fires for cooking them—rather advanced behaviors for a creature with a brain the size of a chimpanzee's. And astonishingly, LB1 lived just 18,000 years ago—thousands of years after our other late-surviving relatives, the Neandertals and H. erectus, disappeared.

Skeptics were quick to dismiss LB1 as nothing more than a modern human with a disease that stunted her growth. And since the announcement of the discovery, they have proposed a number of possible conditions to explain the specimen's peculiar features, from cretinism to Laron syndrome, a genetic disease that causes insensitivity to growth hormone. Their arguments have failed to convince the hobbit proponents, however, who have countered each diagnosis with evidence to the contrary.

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