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Hobbit specialists gather on an island …

From left: Mark Moore, Mike Morwood, Susan Larson, William Jungers, and Thomas Sutikna with a cast of the hobbit and a modern human skull and limb bones for comparison
John Griffin/SBU

… Long Island, that is, where researchers studying the puzzling little people of the Indonesian island of Flores gathered for a public symposium at Stony Brook University on 21 April. The biggest news was archaeologist Mark Moore’s detailed report on the stone tools throughout the Liang Bua, the cave where hobbit bones were found. See ScienceNOW and this Friday’s Science for more on Moore’s surprising conclusion: that the modern humans who arrived 11,000 years ago at the cave made tools in the same way as hobbits, who lived there from 95,000 years ago to perhaps 17,000 years ago. Moore, of the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, even suggested the possibility of contact between the species, with Homo sapiens learning from hobbits. His work is also in press at the Journal of Human Evolution. (Pictured above, from left: Mark Moore, Mike Morwood, Susan Larson, William Jungers, and Thomas Sutikna with a cast of the hobbit and a modern human skull and limb bones for comparison.)

The meeting was a rare chance for U.S. researchers to hear from the team that discovered the hobbits, which they officially call H. floresiensis. Lead excavator Thomas Sutikna of the National Research and Development Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta and Mike Morwood, now of the University of Wollongong in Australia, flew across the globe for the meeting, which gathered only those researchers who already accept H. floresiensis as a new species. The lingering skeptics, who think the fossilized bones represent a diseased modern human, were not invited to give talks. (In 2007, a meeting in Indonesia chiefly featured critics.)

The public talks at the Long Island meeting reprised some previously published information. For example, researchers detailed features of the shoulderwrist, and brain, suggesting that the 17,000-year-old hobbit skeleton resembled much older African hominids rather than a diseased modern human.

But bits of important news emerged: Hand specialist Matthew Tocheri of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., reported that last summer he went through hundreds of bags of bone fragments recovered from Liang Bua, including those from a layer that has already yielded a second hobbit jawbone, known as specimen LB6. Tocheri was seeking one of the four fingernail-sized bones of the wrist, and he got lucky: He found one, called the capitate, presumably from LB6. The bone has the same peculiar and primitive configuration seen in the capitate of the main skeleton, suggesting that at least two individuals from Liang Bua have this oddly shaped wrist bone. Two individuals with such a primitive trait makes the disease argument less likely, Tocheri said.

A couple of relatively neutral observers praised the detailed skeletal analyses presented at the meeting but retained skepticism on some points. Archaeologist Paul Mellars of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who is at Stony Brook for the semester, said he started the day thinking there had been a bit too much fuss about the little people but was impressed by the data by the day’s end—although he remains skeptical that humans learned from hobbits. Meanwhile, famed fossil hunter Richard Leakey, chair of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook, which hosted the conference, described himself as originally “needing a nudge” to be convinced that the hobbit was a new species. One of the few present with an African perspective, he remained quite doubtful about some presenters’ ideas that H. floresiensis represents an extremely early migration out of Africa but said he was impressed by several talks and satisfied that the skeleton was not diseased.

Also at the meeting, researchers unveiled a model of the hobbit skeleton, made by materials scientists at Stony Brook who transformed CT scans of the original fossils into three-dimensional casts. The new model will be given to the Indonesian National Research and Development Centre for Archaeology for display, according to symposium organizer William Jungers of Stony Brook.

And finally, Sutikna and Morwood reported that they are still looking for more bones: This summer, they will excavate again at Liang Bua and also plan digs at other sites on Flores.