ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Four years ago in Indonesia, anthropologists made one of the most puzzling discoveries in human evolution. They unearthed the so-called Hobbit - a three- foot-tall creature - human-like but with a brain the size of a grapefruit. Some scientists say the Hobbit is an ancient human ancestor, a form that appeared over a million years ago. They say it somehow survived until 12,000 years ago living unnoticed as modern humans took over the world. Others say, no way. The creature is simply one of us just with a genetic disease.
As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, there is new evidence that indicates the Hobbit really was one of our primitive ancestors.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Matthew Tocheri wasn't part of the Hobbit fight a year ago. He was studying wrist bones - pretty specialized stuff. But when he got a chance to see the Hobbit's wrist bones, he was shocked.
MATTHEW TOCHERI: I opened up the container, and I pulled out the bones and, wow, I couldn't believe it. It was like - is this - is somebody putting me on? These are completely primitive.
JOYCE: Tocheri says his knees were shaking. That's because as he saw it - if the Hobbit were really just a diseased modern human, it would have human-like wrist bones. But these looked more like an ape's. No one else had noticed this. You'd have to be an expert on tiny bones like the trapezoid to know.
TOCHERI: So in great apes and other primates, the trapezoid basically looks like a pyramidal wedge. But in modern humans and Neanderthals, it looks like a boot.
JOYCE: And the same applied to the two other wrist bones that Tocheri examined at the Smithsonian Institution where he works. They were ape-like, not human- like. Tocheri says that supports the idea that the Hobbit is not a modern human with some disease.
Another anthropologist agrees. William Jungers, at Stony Brook University in New York, worked with Tocheri. He says if the Hobbit isn't human, it could change scientists' view of how we evolved.
WILLIAM JUNGERS: I think that we've really grossly underestimated the complexity of human evolution and I think there are lots more surprises in store.
JOYCE: The new interpretation has not resolved the dispute, however. Skeptics say hundreds of genetic diseases could have given the Hobbits their strange but human bodies. The primitive ancestor camp points out that there's more than one Hobbit skeleton on the Indonesian island, so how do you explain that? But the skeptics reply that an isolated colony of inbred people could have shared the same genetic abnormalities.
But Matthew Tocheri says the Hobbit was the ultimate pre-human survivor.
TOCHERI: Just looking at them and seeing how primitive they were, I almost felt a certain feeling of success for the Hobbits. They made it. They made it into modern times. They've completely baffled us because they did it.
JOYCE: Tocheri's study appears in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.