Ancient Bones Found to be Pygmies, not 'Hobbits'

Almost two years ago, scientists found bones of an unknown species of early humans. These people were tiny, and the one skull they found had a braincase that looked too small to be human. Now another group of scientists says the bones were actually pygmies, and the skull was small because that individual was diseased.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's a rare day when scientists claim to have found a new species of human, but that's what happened two years ago.

Fossil hunters in Indonesia uncovered the bones of several human-like creatures in a cave. They were only three feet tall and lived about 18,000 years ago.

Many scientists were skeptical, and now the skeptics say they have another, less dramatic, explanation. NPR's Christopher Joyce has this update on the controversy over the Hobbit people.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

News of the discovery got lots of anthropologists very excited, and also very skeptical. The creatures in the Liang Bua Cave were tiny. There was just one skull. It would have held a brain the size of a grapefruit.

But skeptics argued that these were small humans, one of whom had microcephaly, a dwarfing condition of the skull and brain. The discoverers countered that the Hobbits, as they've come to be called, looked much different from humans like us - microcephalic or otherwise.

Now an international team concludes that the Hobbits were actually pygmies--fully human, but just a lot smaller--and not a different species. As for the small skull, anthropologist Robert Eckhardt, of Penn State says, it was indeed evidence of microcephaly.

Mr. ROBERT ECKHARDT (Anthropologist, Penn State University): The people who lived in the Liang Bua Cave and yielded up their remains from the excavations were small people, but they were relatively normal small people. And it just happens that the one skull that was preserved is that of a microcephalic individual.

JOYCE: Eckhardt's team studied the bones of microcephalics and they argue that leg and other bones found with the skull had abnormalities that could have been caused by microcephaly. Eckhardt also notes that the skull's face was asymmetric. One side was quite different from the other, which suggests an abnormal individual, not a new species.

The Hobbit discoverers dispute the microcephaly explanation. The two camps are now in full scientific battle mode, arguing their cases in scientific journals. This latest interpretation appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and it's not likely to end the dispute.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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