Do the hobbit hominid fossils found on an Indonesian island represent a genuine dwarf species of ancient humans? Or could the skulls belong to modern humans who were suffering from a disease, microcephaly, that prevents the brain from growing to its normal size? Japanese researchers published evidence Tuesday in journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that argues that the so-called hobbits are a genuine species or subspecies that descended from another human species in our genus, Homo erectus.
The fossils of the so-called hobbit species were found by Australian researchers on the remote island of Flores in 2003, when scientists located the 18,000 year old bones of a woman whose skull was less than one-third of the size of the average adult woman of our species, Homo sapiens. The species received the scientific name of H. floresiensis but the popular name of “Hobbit.”
The discovery sparked debate around the world, and the team had uncovered the remains of up to nine different individuals by 2008. The most recent lived about 12,000 years ago. All lived long after the last Neanderthal, the last remaining human species besides our own, had already died out.
Skeptics said that the hobbit hominid didn’t exist. Instead, they postulated that the skulls were so small because of microcephaly — a rare genetic condition that occasionally pops up in modern humans even today.
When paleoanthropologists examined the wrists and discovered that they looked more like H. erectus wrists than modern human or even Neanderthal wrists, the doubters suggested that the cause was a form of cretinism called hypothyroidism that affects the wrist as well as the brain.
The Japanese researcher performed CT scans of the skulls to get a better idea of the size and structure of the brain. They concluded that the specimens are in fact a healthy natural dwarf species of human that probably descended from H. erectus. They pointed out that it’s well known that so-called “island dwarfism” occurs with other species, when populations become isolated on islands where food and space are at a premium.
Paleoanthropologists have even found butchered remains of the edible elephant species in the hobbit hominid caves.
[cast of Homo floresiensis compared to a microcephalic skull photo by Avandergeer and Wikipedia Commons]