THE HOBBIT IN HIDING
Courtesy of Peter Brown
In classifying the specimen LB1 (above), found on the island of Flores in Indonesia, Australian and Indonesian scientists noted its short stature (1 meter) and small cranial capacity, measured at 380 cm3. While they contend it represents a new species, others claim it is a
Paleoanthropology is among the most quarrelsome of fields, so it is no surprise that researchers have gone to war over the remarkable bones discovered in a Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003. But the battle over the Flores find (nicknamed 'The Hobbit' because the type specimen, LB1, is just one meter tall12) has an extra element, bizarre even for human paleontology. An influential scientist not connected with the find has carted the bones off from the National Research Center for Archaeology in Jakarta to his own institution, raising fears that researchers, especially the Indonesian and Australian teams that found the artifacts, will no longer be able to study them.
Without access to the bones, researchers have little hope of substantiating the most astonishing claims: that the remains are of a species called
Chris Stringer, who heads the human paleontology department at the Natural History Museum in London, says, "From comments I have received or heard, most scientists are very concerned about what has happened to the material ... What has happened threatens all further research on the Flores site."
Jacob says that the archaeological center's skeletal finds have been referred to his lab for more than 40 years. "In July 2004 the center persuaded us to pack and transport them [the bones] carefully to our lab," he says. One reason was fear that the bones would be spirited abroad and become difficult to recover. As for access, Jacob declares that scientists around the world have done research in the paleontology collections at Gajah Mada, which are particularly rich in
Indonesian researchers discovered the bones, and Australian scientists did many of the analyses. Michael Morwood of the University of New England in Australia writes in an E-mail: "The excavation team has no plans to ask Prof Jacob for access to our finds." Morwood reports that Jacob promised to return the bones on Jan. 1, 2005, a deadline that Tony Djubiantono, director of the Indonesian Center for Archaeology, has extended more than once.
It's a turf war with scientific battles. The authors argue that LB1 is a miniature descendant of
"I am open to any interpretation until the research is complete," says Etty Indriati, of Jacob's lab, who is studying the Flores remains. She thinks LB1's skull is more modern than archaic, and the incisor and canine teeth and molars are
If LB1 is an example of microcephaly in the
William Dobyns, neurogeneticist at the University of Chicago, says the researchers dismissed microcephaly too quickly as an explanation for LB1's chimp-like cranial capacity. He suggests that it's similar to microcephalic osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism type II (MOPD II). The usual MOPD II skeletal abnormalities are not all present, Dobyns acknowledges, but the head is so extremely small that it's reasonable to diagnose a midget microcephalic
"There is no way this could be MOPD II," says Judith Hall, medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who has studied the autosomal recessive condition thoroughly. She points out that the skull bones are not thin enough for MOPD II. Moreover, few people with MOPD II survive for long, and there are no known cases of reproduction among them.
Courtesy of Peter Brown
Hall says LB1 strikes her as similar to known groups of isolated Central Americans who are tiny as a result of poor nutrition, and whose small size can persist for generations even when their diet improves. Indonesia is also home to groups of small people.
Publication of other finds made last year at the Flores site may or may not help. "With the remains of at least six
Perhaps details of the brain will clarify classification. These details can be imprinted inside the braincase, and researchers can reproduce them on endocranial casts. Peter Brown, of the University of New England, made a brain endocast last year. "In this case, the question will be whether the morphology of the cerebral cortex (as reflected on the endocast) appears apelike or more like a miniature version of a human brain. Brain size in living primates, including humans, does have a small, but significant, correlation with cognitive abilities. But a more important factor is the organization, wiring, and neurochemistry of the brain in question, regardless of its size," Dean Falk explains. Falk, a paleoanthropologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, is collaborating with Morwood and Brown on endocast studies and reports that a paper on the topic is under review.
DNA studies won't explain everything, but mitochondrial DNA could at least reveal whether
DNA recovery is a long shot. The hot, wet conditions at Liang Bua are the worst possible for preserving it, and moving the specimens from place to place increases chances of contaminating it with extraneous sequences. At press time, Jacob reportedly had permitted Svante Pääbo's lab at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany, to attempt DNA studies on the Flores bones.
Cooper says he is hopeful that his own research can proceed, too. Early soil results, he says, are encouraging. "Mostly I think we got DNA from plants in the sediments. But it's kind of good because at least it means potentially DNA is capable of surviving at the site."
Cooper had hoped to get permission to drill into a Liang Bua hominid tooth (a successful strategy in other ancient species) in search of DNA that has been protected from the elements. But now he says, "Because of all the complications with the actual material, we haven't gotten any further on that. I'm still optimistic we will in the long term, but there's a good bit of politics to be sorted out there."