Has Tolkien's Hobbit from Lord of the Rings come to life? Back in 2003, paleoanthropologists discovered the remains of a human ancestor that stood 1m in height with a brain the size of a chimpanzee on the Indonesian Island of Flores.
The debate that has surfaced recently among leading anthropologists though is whether these findings represent a new species or are really just Homo sapiens.
What is a Species?
Biologists typically define a species as an interbreeding population. If an organism is able to mate and produce viable offspring, it is considered to be a species. The tough part is left to paleoanthropologists that typically deal with extinct groups.
Fossils cannot tell what species were able to mate, so paleoanthropologists turn to morphological characteristics to give clues. If fossils share common morphological characteristics, they are likely to be related and termed a "paleospecies". Paleoanthropologists often compare fossils species to living analogs to help relate function and behavior.
Did You Know?
The smallest existing Humans are the African Pygmies ( 1.5 m, or 4 ft 11 in), Twa, Semang (1.37 m, or 4 ft 6 in for adult women), or Andamanese (1.37 m, or 4 ft 6 in for adult women Hobbit or Homo sapiens?
The fossils indicate the species stood at 1 meter (3 feet) tall and would have weighed about 55 lbs based on estimates. Perhaps these are the smallest humans to have ever existed. But you might be wondering what would cause a species shrink in the first place?
Flores is an island that is isolated from contact with main land Indonesia. A phenomenon called "island dwarfing" often occurs when land masses become isolated. Researchers believe Homo floresiensis became small to adapt with a limited food supply available on the island which caused dwarfism in this species.
Other researchers believe the species is merely a microcephalic Homo sapiens. Microcephalaly is a disease that is characterized by a cognitive impairment and a circumference of the head that is significantly smaller than average person for the same age and sex. Researchers are still debating whether they were pathological Homo sapiens or a separate "Hobbit" species termed Homo floresiensis.
Did You Know?
Homo floresiensis roughly means "Man of Flore" Where the Research Stands
Recent work on this species is analyzing the brain of Homo floresiensis. Researchers can make a special mold of the inside of the skull called an "endocast" in order to produce a representation of the brain, even giving clues into organization.
Dr. Falk, a leading scientist on this study, suggests that the brain did not need to get bigger, but only rewired. This finding may disclaim the traditional thought that a big brain was needed in order to create and utilize tools. The hobbit was also capable of making fire and using their tools for hunting animals including small elephants. These behaviors are often considered to be advanced human characteristics.
Did You Know?
Homo floresiensis would have coexisted with modern humans, who arrived in the region 35,000—55,000 years ago Well, what happened to the hobbit? The hobbit species went extinct around 12,000 years ago when a volcanic eruption devastated the island of Flores and much of the wildlife. However the creatures actually appear in local Indonesian folklore up until about 100 years ago. Perhaps Hobbits are not such a myth after all.
National Geographic: video on Homo floresiensis
Stringer C and Andrews P. The complete world of human evolution. Thames and Hudson Ltd: London 2005.
Jurmain R., Kilgore L., and Trevathan W. Introduction to Physical Anthropology 10th edition. Thomson Wadsworth 2005.
'Hobbit' human 'is a new species. BBC NEWS
Darren is currently finishing an Honors Bachelor of Science undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto studying Zoology and Biological Anthropology and hopes to pursue graduate studies in a related field. He has gone on an anthropological excavation in Rudabanya, Hungary for recovery of Miocene apes and is currently processing sediment from the locality.