Homo floresiensis skull -- not quite human. [Credit: American Museum of Natural History]
As short as they are enigmatic, the three-foot-tall “hobbit people” have provoked controversy since the 2003 discovery of their fossilized remains on the Indonesian island of Flores. No one knows quite where to connect Homo floresiensis, as anthropologists have dubbed the “hobbits,” to the ancestral hominid tree, or even whether they deserve a separate branch.
Some researchers think they may just be a group of short humans with abnormally small heads. But 3-D models of fossilized skulls are helping to make the case for the “hobbits” as a distinct species in our evolutionary history.
Their brains, which are small even when compared to their stature, lead some scientists to believe they were small humans with a neurodevelopmental disorder known as microcephaly, in which the brain does not fully develop.
Now researchers, using computer simulations, have shrunken the skulls of several hominid species including modern humans and Homo erectus, our distant relative, to show what they would look like at hobbit size. They found that the cranial shape and body size of Homo floresiensis are inconsistent with any other known species, according to a recent paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
That strengthens the argument that Homo floresiensis is a distinct species worthy of its own branch on our family tree. But where to stick that branch remains a mystery – the “hobbit’s” evolutionary history is still hidden in the fossil record.
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