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February 14, 2009

A Wee Bit of Hobbit News

The mysterious meter-tall "hobbits" of Indonesia have upended many anthropologists' views of human evolution, so talks on the little people always draw a crowd. At a symposium Friday afternoon on the evolution of the human species, William Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York state offered a roundup on the bones from Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores and added a few tantalizing bits of news.

Researchers have debated whether the bones belong to a deformed Homo sapiens or a new, small species of human. Jungers, a stalwart defender of the latter view, summarized the evidence to date, pointing out that the skull, shoulder, wrist, pelvis, and feet of the main skeleton, known as LB1, are all decidedly unlike those of modern humans. Nor do they resemble any known disease of modern people. "This is not a sick human," he said. He argued that many aspects of the skeleton and skull hark back 3 million years to early Homo in Africa, or even more primitive ancestors such as the australopithecines.

Just back from Indonesia, Jungers also added a few updates:

  • Digging continues on Flores and is planned at a site where 800,000-year-old stone tools were found, in hopes of finding the hobbits' ancestors.
  •  Researchers have found a second wrist bone, and it looks as odd and apelike as the first one. "The wrist bones of LB6 are the spitting image of LB1," he said.
  • Reanalysis of the collection to date suggests that parts of five to six small individuals have been recovered, rather than the eight to 12 individuals previously reported.
  • DNA testing of the hobbit--"something of a Holy Grail," said Jungers--has failed so far, but another attempt is in progress.

--Elizabeth Culotta