The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 11, 2013

'Hobbit' fossil a type of human, researcher says

MELVILLE, N.Y. — The fossil remains of a diminutive humanlike creature — a real-life hobbit, of sorts — has stoked wonder and scientific debate for a decade, and now an anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York says she has proof it’s a distinct species in the family of humankind.

Some evolutionary biologists say the 3-foot-2 cave-dwellers who inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores were simply small modern humans afflicted with a major medical condition.

But new Stony Brook research of the 18,000-year-old skull, led by Karen Baab and a team of scientists, put the prehistoric hobbit to a battery of modern tests.

They conclude, in a paper published Thursday in the journal PLoS ONE, that the creatures with tiny heads and oversized feet represent a new, distant cousin in the tree of life.

“It is not a modern human with a disease. It is a separate species,” Baab said, referring to Homo floresiensis as a new species within the Homo genus and an early human ancestor. Others in the family tree include Homo habilus and Homo erectus.

The skull, unearthed in 2003, is known as LB-1 and is the only intact skull that has been found.

Baab said the hobbits carry that name because their appearance and size come close to the fictional creatures of British writer J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy works “The Hobbit” and the “Lord of the Rings.”

For years, some scientists have contended the hobbits were afflicted with microcephaly, a neurodevelopmental condition marked by a small skull and minuscule brain.

Others have argued that with a head so small and height so compromised, surely the hobbits had Laron syndrome, a genetic condition typified by dwarfism.

A third condition put forward by some was cretinism caused by severe hypothyroidism, which would have meant lowered intelligence and severely stunted growth, Baab said.

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