‘Hobbits’ were different from us, after all

December 18th, 2008 - 11:33 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 18 (IANS) Anthropologists are on the verge of solving one of the greatest mysteries in recent history - that fossilised skeletons resembling a mythical “hobbit” creature represent an entirely new species in humanity’s evolutionary chain.Discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, controversy has surrounded the fossilised hominid skeletons of the so-called “hobbit people”, or Homo floresiensis, ever since.

The name itself came from J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic books “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, in which hobbits look like humans in almost every way but are half the size.

Public interest in the discovery, analysis and implications of Flores “hobbits” has been high, inspiring several TV specials (including a recent episode of “NOVA” entitled “Alien From Earth”) and other media attention.

Experts are still debating whether the 18,000-year-old remains merely belong to a diminutive population of modern-day humans (with one individual exhibiting “microcephaly”, an abnormally small head) or represent a previously unrecognized branch in humanity’s family tree.

Using 3D modelling methods, anthropology professor Kieran McNulty and his colleagues at Minnesota University compared the cranial features of this real-life “hobbit” to those of a simulated fossil human to determine whether or not such a species was distinct from modern humans, said a university statement.

“[Homo floresiensis] is the most exciting discovery in probably the last 50 years,” said McNulty. “The specimens have skulls that resemble something that died a million years earlier, and other body parts reminiscent of our three-million-year-old human ancestors, yet they lived until very recently - contemporaries with modern humans.”

Comparing the simulation to the original Flores skull discovered in 2003, McNulty and Karen Baab of Stony Brook University, New York, were able to demonstrate conclusively that the original “hobbit” skull fits the expectations for a small fossil human-like species but not a modern human. Their study was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The results of the study suggest that the theorised “hobbit” species may have undergone a process of size reduction after branching off from Homo erectus (one of modern day humanity’s distant ancestors) or even something more primitive.

Related Stories

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Posted in Sci-Tech |