Hot on the 'Hobbit' Trail

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The world of paleontology was thrown into an uproar last year when Australian scientists Michael Morwood and Peter Brown claimed they’d found fossils from an entirely new (though presumably extinct) human species, which they dubbed Homo floresiensis, on the Indonesian island of Flores. For one thing, the diminutive creatures, nicknamed “hobbits” by the scientists, were alive as recently as 13,000 years ago—meaning they survived tens of thousands of years longer than the Neanderthals, which we thought were our last surviving cousins. They might even have lived into modern times, if local legends of a race of forest-dwelling little people are to be believed.

These extraordinary claims brought out scores of critics. Maybe these were just a type of pygmy—but pygmies have normal-size brains, and the hobbits’ brains were tiny. OK, so maybe the Australians had dug up a child, or maybe the skull came from someone with microencephaly, a condition that keeps the head and brain from growing properly. These questions would have been easier to answer if other scientists could have examined the fossils; unfortunately, Indonesian paleontologists snatched them up and squirreled them away—and, it turns out, damaged them.

But now Morwood and Brown and their collaborators have announced a new find in the latest issue of Nature: a jaw and other bones, from what they believe is a total of nine individuals. And it looks as though the original idea stands up: the fossils’ proportions confirm that these creatures were indeed very small, and that their skulls didn’t have the characteristics either of modern pygmies or of microcephalics—two microcephalic skulls in such a small collection of remains would be absurdly unlikely anyway.

Another of Morwood and Brown’s theories—that their hobbits evolved directly from Homo erectus, which was thought to have died out a half-million or so years ago—which the critics lambasted, is now looking less likely. But their new idea is even more audacious: the hobbits, they suggest, may come directly from the Australopithecus family, which went extinct something like 2 million years ago. Their detailed argument for this notion has yet to be published, and critics are still very cautious even about embracing the idea that the hobbits represent a new species at all. But while he agrees that more evidence is needed, Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard paleontologist who composed a commentary on the new discovery for Nature, writes: "...it seems reasonable for Morwood and colleagues to stick to their original hypothesis that H. floresiensis is a new species.”