Hobbit origins from head to toe

Ever since 2003, when researchers found the skeletal remains of a diminutive, human-like creature--dubbed the Hobbit--on an island in Indonesia, a debate has raged over whether the find represents a new species or a just deformed population of an existing species. Two papers appearing in __Nature__ today--one addressing the shape of its feet and the other the size of its head--confirm that __Homo floresiensis__ is in fact a separate species, but each posits slightly different evolutionary origin

By | May 6, 2009

Ever since 2003, when researchers found the skeletal remains of a diminutive, human-like creature--dubbed the Hobbit--on an island in Indonesia, a debate has raged over whether the find represents a new species or a just deformed population of an existing species. Two papers appearing in __Nature__ today--one addressing the shape of its feet and the other the size of its head--confirm that __Homo floresiensis__ is in fact a separate species, but each posits slightly different evolutionary origins for this latest addition to the human family tree. "Both of these papers show things that could not have evolved or been a plastic response within our own species," George Washington University paleoanthropologist linkurl:Bernard Wood;http://home.gwu.edu/~bwood/ told __The Scientist__. Wood, who was not involved with either study, added that the papers raise important questions regarding the evolutionary origins of __H. floresiensis__ that only further research can answer. __H. floresiensis__ was a hominin--the taxonomic group that includes genus __Homo__, extant chimp species, and their ancestors--that inhabited the island of Flores more than 10,000 years ago and likely stood about a meter tall. The current debate over the Hobbit's evolutionary origins centers around whether or not the species could have evolved its peculiar body proportions from a __Homo erectus__ ancestor or if some more primitive human ancestor was necessary to explain its mixture of modern and primitive features. Researchers had previously taken the lack of a mechanistic explanation for the relative smallness of __H. floresiensis's__ brain as support for the idea that the find represented a deformed, extant species.
A nearly 3000 year old dwarf
hippopotamus skull from the central
highlands of Madagascar.

Image: Courtesy of the Natural History
Museum, London
Such a mechanistic explanation is provided by the first paper, from mammalian paleontologists linkurl:Eleanor Weston;http://www.eleanorweston.net/ and Adrian Lister of London's Natural History Museum. Their study suggests that __H. floresiensis__ did indeed result from the dwarfing of a population of __H. erectus__ individuals. The two researchers studied the cranial morphology of two recently-extinct Malagasy hippopotamus species and presented a model that overturns the notion that dwarf mammals, stunted by evolutionary pressures on confined island habitats, cannot develop brains as proportionately small as those seen in __H. floresiensis__. (Hobbits had a 417 cm2 brain in a body that was about 30 kg.) The fact that the two pygmy hippopotamus species experienced dwarfing that left them with significantly smaller brains than their normal-sized ancestors on the mainland shows these morphological changes could have occurred in some __Homo erectus__ specimens to result in the brain-body size ratio seen in __H. floresiensis__. "It's possible that humans have been exposed to the same evolutionary pressures that have caused these changes in other mammals," Weston told __The Scientist__. "At the end of the day this doesn't prove that __Homo floresiensis__ is a dwarf __Homo erectus__. It just suggests that it's a possibility." She added that __Homo habilis__ could also be the Hobbit's ancestor with her island dwarfing model accounting for the reduced brain size. In the other __Nature paper__, linkurl:William Jungers,;http://www.anat.sunysb.edu/Department/wjungers.html a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, and his coauthors compared the Hobbit foot to the few existing feet in the fossil record. "You just don't see complete feet until you get into Neanderthal," Jungers told __The Scientist__. "The fossil record of feet is surprisingly meager."
The left foot and right tibia of __H.
floresiensis__

Image: Courtesy of William Jungers
The group found that its proportions were more similar to feet found in human ancestors that roamed Africa more than three million years ago than they are to the feet of more modern hominin species, such as __Homo erectus__. "__Homo erectus__ has a modern foot in comparison to __Homo floresiensis__," Jungers said. Fossil footprints recently discovered in Africa suggest that __H. erectus__ evolved modern foot architecture some 1.5 million years ago. Specifically, the Hobbit had long feet compared to the length of its leg bones, according to Jungers, and lacked arches; two decidedly primitive __Homo__ features. If __H. floresiensis__ was in fact a dwarfed __H. erectus__, the species would have had to amass primitive features after its ancestor had already evolved more modern skeletal characteristics. "It's asking a lot for evolution to backtrack like that," Jungers said. "Is it possible? I guess, but there's no precedent." Instead, Jungers said he believes that __H. floresiensis's__ ancestor could have been a species--possibly __H. habilis__--that left Africa before __H. erectus__ did around 2 million years ago. "There were probably other dispersal events in human history that we don't have a handle on," Jungers noted. Wood agreed. "I think [__H. floresiensis's__ ancestor] is probably likely to be an early __Homo__ taxon other than __Homo erectus__," he told __The Scientist__. Which species that might be isn't clear, he said; the Hobbit's ancestor could have been an ancient human species that has yet to be discovered or classified. linkurl:Richard Potts,;http://anthropology.si.edu/humanorigins/aop/olorg2004/people/rp.htm a Smithsonian Institution paleoanthropologist not involved with either study, added that Weston's findings indicate that island dwarfing, a poorly understood phenomenon, could yield yet more surprises. "Junger's argument does not cast away the idea that [__H. floresiensis's__ ancestor] could have been an early __Homo erectus__," he told __The Scientist__. "There are some unexpected things that occur with island dwarfing. It opens up the possibility that there could be ways that the foot or other body proportions could back track."
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:The Hobbit: Human after all?;https://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/23467/
[19th May 2006]*linkurl:Return of the Return of the Hobbit;https://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/160/
[13th October 2005]*linkurl:No microcephaly for Hobbit;https://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22616/
[4th March 2005]

Comments

Avatar of: null null

null null

Posts: 18

May 6, 2009

The "hobbit' folks are perhaps one of the most significant fossil dicoveries for two reasons: "dwarf fossil folk" lived with 'modern" folks and the how and why of this remains to be studied in detail. The stories of the "Orang-pendek" take on new meaning perhaps. Secondly, the origins of this distinct species raises issue about "out of Africa" and one is reminded again of Carleton Coon's work so long ago. Long foot, erect posture, small brain, small canines in a parabolic dental arch, and no jaw, inferred tool use (to be sure osteodontokeratic), are just are just those traits Raymond Dart confronted first with Taungs and later at other South African sites, all australopithecine.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 10

May 7, 2009

On the island of Flores TODAY there still lives an aboriginal people with an average height of 130 cm, within the natural variation of the "hobbits". So, they're the same size and live on the same island, but I have never seen an explanation howcome these are never considered possible descendants of the "hobbits"?\n

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