Humanlike 'Hobbit' Fossils Puzzle Scientists

The little people of Flores, Indonesia, continue to puzzle scientists and provoke debate. The latest analysis suggests that the tiny humanlike people whose bones were found in a cave five years ago are ancient human ancestors. However, not everyone is entirely convinced of the link.

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The story of the hobbit continues to puzzle scientists. Not the character from Middle Earth, but the fossil discovered five years ago in Indonesia. Experts haven't been able to decide if the chimp-sized creature was an amazing survivor of early human evolution or just a modern human with a disease.

New research suggests that the hobbit really was an ancient ancestor of humans that survived until relatively recent times, as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It stood about three feet tall with a brain the size of a grapefruit. It lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. It looked weird - sort of human, but not. The hobbit's discoverers say somehow it survived after other human ancestors became extinct. Others say no way. The hobbit is just a modern human with microcephaly, the disease that often causes dwarfism.

Now comes new research from anthropologist Adam Gordon and colleagues at George Washington University. They took six measurements of the hobbit's skull, which was found on the island of Flores. Gordon concludes that it's not just a miniature version of a modern human cranium.

Dr. ADAM GORDON (Anthropologist, George Washington University): The Flores skull looks very similar to Homo erectus material from about 1.7 to 1.8 million years ago.

JOYCE: Homo erectus was an early ancestor of modern humans. And some of the hobbit's cranial features also look like another early human ancestor, Homo habilis. That one evolved two million years ago. Either way, says Gordon, that suggests the hobbit makes its first appearance about the same time as these two hominid ancestors - a long, long time ago.

Dr. GORDON: Way back when hominids were leaving Africa, almost two million years ago, and persists up until the point where modern humans are moving into the Americas, and that's about 12,000 years ago. And that's pretty phenomenal. I mean, that's a huge amount of time for this very different species than ourselves to be persisting and living on the planet at the same time as we are.

JOYCE: Gordon's research, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the latest in a snowstorm of scientific papers on the topic. Last year, for example, a study examined the hobbit's wrist bones. The authors concluded, like Gordon, that the wrist bones resembled those of ancient human ancestors, much more than modern humans. But each new interpretation is followed by counterarguments that these things could just be signs of some kind of severe pathological condition in modern humans.

For Harvard anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, it's all fun and interesting. Lieberman sits on the fence. He says Gordon's research does not prove the hobbit as ancient ancestor argument. Not enough measurements, he says, and not enough comparisons to the skulls of diseased modern humans. On the other hand, he says, it's hard to square all the hobbit's bizarre characteristics with any kind of disease.

Professor DANIEL LIEBERMAN (Anthropologist, Harvard): The balance of evidence, I think, does support at the moment that it is a, you know, a real species that underwent some kind of dwarfing. But what kind of species it is, I think we need to be cautious.

JOYCE: Lieberman agrees that if the hobbit did evolve two million years ago and somehow survived on a remote island in Indonesia, it would be a phenomenal success story. But the human family tree wouldn't change much even if that were true.

Professor LIEBERMAN: Does it really change, you know, the essence of what we know about human evolution? Definitely not. I mean, it's an interesting example of how evolution works and that we're subject to the same kinds of evolutionary forces as every other kind of creature.

JOYCE: Forces that clearly take some very unusual turns every few million years.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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