Case Grows for 'Hobbit' as Human Ancestor

William Jungers a member of the research team. i i

William Jungers, a member of the research team in Jakarta, Indonesia, analyzing the most complete Hobbit skeleton ever found. Courtesy of William Jungers hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of William Jungers
William Jungers a member of the research team.

William Jungers, a member of the research team in Jakarta, Indonesia, analyzing the most complete Hobbit skeleton ever found.

Courtesy of William Jungers
A color image comparing the bones of humans, the 'hobbit' and a chimpanzee i i

A visual comparison of the Hobbit's wrist bones scaled to the same size as those of a chimpanzee and a modern human. The colors highlight the differences in the parts of the bone that allow for movement. Science hide caption

itoggle caption Science
A color image comparing the bones of humans, the 'hobbit' and a chimpanzee

A visual comparison of the Hobbit's wrist bones scaled to the same size as those of a chimpanzee and a modern human. The colors highlight the differences in the parts of the bone that allow for movement.

Science
Matthew W. Tocheri, a member of the research team. i i

Matthew W. Tocheri, a member of the research team, analyzes wrist and hand bones. Christian Tryon/Smithsonian hide caption

itoggle caption Christian Tryon/Smithsonian
Matthew W. Tocheri, a member of the research team.

Matthew W. Tocheri, a member of the research team, analyzes wrist and hand bones.

Christian Tryon/Smithsonian
Bone comparison i i

The differences between the two types of hominin wrists are mostly due to shape changes of the trapezoid and the bones surrounding it. The hand on the left resembles the Hobbit's bones, and the hand on the right resembles a human hand bone. Science hide caption

itoggle caption Science
Bone comparison

The differences between the two types of hominin wrists are mostly due to shape changes of the trapezoid and the bones surrounding it. The hand on the left resembles the Hobbit's bones, and the hand on the right resembles a human hand bone.

Science

One of the most puzzling discoveries in human evolution was the unearthing four years ago of the so-called "Hobbit" — a three-foot tall human-like creature with a brain the size of a grapefruit.

The Hobbit skeleton caused a split among anthropologists. Some scientists have said the Hobbit, found in Indonesia, is a weird human ancestor that somehow survived until some 12,000 to 20,000 years ago, living unnoticed as modern humans took over the world. Others have said it is a modern human with a condition resembling the genetic disease microcephaly.

But new evidence suggests that the hobbit really was a primitive form of human never seen before.

Researcher Matthew Tocheri, who studies wrist bones at the Smithsonian Institution, was shocked when he saw the wrist bones of the Hobbit.

"I opened up the container and I pulled out the bones and, wow, I couldn't believe it. I was like — is somebody putting me on? These are completely primitive," says Tocheri.

Tocheri says his knees were shaking with excitement. If the Hobbit was simply a diseased modern human, or even a human cousin like a Neanderthal, it would have human-like wrist bones. But the wrist bones looked more like those of an ape. Nobody had noticed the difference because the identification requires expertise in the tiny bones of the wrist.

Tocheri spent a year studying three of the Hobbit's wrist bones at the Smithsonian. He says all three of the wrist bones support the idea that it is not a diseased modern human.

"In great apes and other primates, the trapezoid looks like a pyramidal wedge, but in modern humans and Neanderthals, it looks like a boot," says Tocheri.

Another anthropologist who worked with Tocheri, William Jungers at Stony Brook University in New York, agrees. He says if these new findings hold up, it could change scientists' view of human evolution.

"I think we have grossly underestimated the complexity of human evolution and I think there are other surprises like this in store," says Jungers.

The new interpretation has not entirely resolved the dispute. Skeptics say hundreds of genetic diseases could affect the size and shape of human bones.

Although partial remains of other Hobbits have surfaced at the same site, they say it could have been an isolated colony of inbred people who shared the same genetic abnormalities.

But Matthew Tocheri says he thinks the Hobbit is an ancient ancestor and the ultimate survivor.

"Just looking at them and seeing and how primitive they were, I almost felt a certain feeling of success for the Hobbit. They made it, they made it into modern times, they've completely baffled us because they did it," says Tocheri.

Regardless of whether the Hobbits are our ancestors or simply abnormal humans, they clearly defied steep odds to survive.

Tocheri's research will appear in the Sept. 21 issue of Science.

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