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“Hobbit” Fossils Likely Lost Hominid Species, Scientists Say

Several years ago, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a group of human-looking creatures who differed from previous specimens because of their diminutive stature. Because of the popularity at the time of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, they were quickly popularly named Hobbits, although most scientists believed that they were likely just a sub-group of another hominid species who were unusually short for some reason. Further study, however, has just made them more mysterious:

So much about the extinct little people nicknamed hobbits remains roundly contentious 10 years after their fossils were discovered on the Indonesian islandof Flores. But a new study has weighed in with strong support for the original hypothesis about them: that they were remnants of a previously unknown distinct species of the genus Homo that lived as recently as 17,000 years ago.

Detailed comparisons show that the single skull among the skeletal remains is “clearly distinct” from skulls of healthy modern humans, the study said. Thus the fossil specimen may well deserve its designation as a representative of an extinct species, which scientists have called Homo floresiensis.

Much of the debate has centered on arguments by skeptics that these small-bodied, small-brained hominins were nothing more than modern Homo sapiens who had one of a number of growth disorders, possibly microcephaly, Laron syndrome or endemic hypothyroidism, known as cretinism.

In a paper in the journal PLoS One, the researchers said their findings “counter the hypotheses of pathological conditions.”

The lead author, Karen L. Baab, an anthropologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island, said the findings provided the most precise and comprehensive measurements to date of outer shape — every ridge and groove, every lump and bump — of the H. floresiensis cranium.

These measurements were compared with skulls of extinct fossil hominins, including Homo erectus, Neanderthals and other archaic Homo species, and with skulls of normal modern humans as well as humans that had each of the pathological conditions.

The researchers, who included Kieran P. McNulty of the University of Minnesota and Katerina Harvati of the University of Tübingen in Germany, concluded that the H. floresiensis cranium was more similar to the various fossil hominins than to normal modern humans or those with pathologies. Dr. Baab said in an interview that they “tried to test pretty much every hypothesis” and provide “a much more complete view” of the hobbit cranium shape compared with previous studies.

What became of this species, and why they died out, is something we apparently haven’t figured out yet.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    Maybe the Denisovans heading south and east ate them?

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  2. stonetools says:

    The most likely explanation: they were doing OK until their territory was invaded by a taller, bigger brained hominid with a penchant for slaughtering other species that competed with them for resources.
    Until about 50, 000 years ago there were four species of the genus Homo living on planet Earth. Then some members of Homo Sapiens walked out of Africa. The rest we call history.

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  3. rudderpedals says:

    Maybe we’ll find their genes in some of us, like they did with the neanderthals?

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  4. Moosebreath says:

    I think the balrogs got them.

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  5. Mikey says:

    @stonetools: No evidence whatsoever for that. It was far more likely the same volcanic eruption that killed off the stegodonts and giant tortoises on Flores about 11K years ago.

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  6. Anderson says:

    I am charmed by the notion that our legends of goblins, trolls, etc., are deep memories of Homo sapiens’ encounters with Neandertals etc. Maybe these fellows figured in there too.

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  7. stonetools says:

    @Mikey:

    No evidence whatsoever for that. It was far more likely the same volcanic eruption that killed off the stegodonts and giant tortoises on Flores about 11K years ago.

    That may have done for the population on Flores. But evolutionary theory tells us that the Hobbits didn’t evolve in place on Flores. Homo floreinsis evolved somewhere else and came to Flores. What happened to the rest of the species? I don’t know, but I’m betting on the usual suspect. Profiling, I know…

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