The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sceptics seek to dwarf ‘Hobbit’ man theory

New Delhi, May 18: A question mark has emerged over the identity and ancestry of the 18,000-year-old remains of a short human-like species discovered by scientists in Indonesia three years ago and dubbed the “Hobbit” man.

A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers exploring the Indonesian island of Flores had discovered bones of what had been interpreted as the remains of a new species of humans called Homo floresiensis.

The proposal for a new species was based primarily on a specimen called LB1 with a small adult skull and a partial skeleton only three feet tall.

Scientists assumed that Homo floresiensis had branched off from Homo erectus, a human ancestor dating back to 1.8 million years. The process of evolution-driven dwarfing has been known to occur on islands because of limited food supply and the absence of predators.

Homo floresiensis had in some circles come to be popularly known as “Hobbit” man after the short-statured species created by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Now, in a technical comment to appear in the US journal Science on Friday, primatologist Robert Martin at The Field Museum in Chicago and his colleagues have argued that Homo floresiensis bones do not represent a new species. They say the bones are more likely to be the remains of a modern human who had suffered from microcephaly, a disease associated with a small brain size and a short stature.

Although isolation on islands has been known to mammals becoming smaller, the researchers point out that this loss of size occurs within certain limits. “Body size reduction is associated with only moderate brain size reduction,” they said.

“The tiny cranial capacity of LB1 which is smaller than any other known hominid younger than three million years old is far too small to have been derived from Homo erectus by normal dwarfing,” Martin said.

Besides brain size, there are other problems over the identity of Homo floresciensis.

“The primary problem, clashing directly with the tiny brain size, is the sophisticated nature of the stone tools found in the same cave deposits where the fossils were discovered,” The Field Museum said.

“These tools are so advanced that there is no way they were made by anyone other than Homo sapiens,” said James Phillips, adjunct curator of anthropology at The Field Museum in Chicago. According to Phillips, a distinct species so closely resembling modern humans but living only 18,000 years ago is inconceivable given that Homo sapiens had almost certainly reached Flores by that time.

The researchers said an alternative explanation was that the bones belonged to a modern human with microcephaly ' a congenital brain disorder marked by a small head size and is also associated with underweight and dwarfed body size.

However, in the same issue of Science, a US-Australian-Indonesian research have challenged the assertions by Martin and his colleagues.

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