• We have updated the guidelines regarding posting political content: please see the stickied thread on Website Issues.

Homo Floresiensis ('Hobbits'; Small Archaic Humans)

I think the most interesting thing was the demonstration by Bob Martin in relation to scaling down of skeletons. While I think endism could have produced the small brain I though it was interesting that this was the main point that still stood at the end of Horizon and that Peter Brown (who is one of the leaidng fossil hominid experts in the region) was saying that it doesn't look like the Hobbit descended from H. erectus and that we may be looking for a smaller ancestor which would seem to suggest Australopithecus out of Africa (which is highly controversial) or pos. we are getting off into cryptozoological territory.

Although the theory that the skeletons come form a new type of hominid these findings seem to raise more questions and spin off more mysteries. Which is good for us :)
Hi Pte_ri

You raise some very good points.

Yes - I agree that a 'leper colony' to be around that long would be v. unlikely

The temporal separation of the microcephalic individuals would indicate an ongoing lineage.

Do we know if the height of the local people is within 'normal' limits - say 2 or 3 standard deviations? Maybe we could glean something from a genetic study of them.


I thought it was interesting when they showed Ralph Holloway the endocranial cast as he is The Man when it comes to this thing and doesn't have an axe to grind on any particular theory so it was interesting to see him change his opinion and not completely reject micrcephaly just on the grounds of the cast.

Yeh - I thought RH was v. open minded - whereas the bearded tool geezah....well, clovis points all over again!

Can species dwarfism kick in quickly - I'm thinking of extreme environmental difficulies here, like vulcanism, etc - any dates around 18k bp and earlier for this?

Sure, brain size doesn't correlate with intelligence - it's quality, not quantity that counts!

So many questions to answer - so much to dirt to dig...

Pass the trowel Marmaduke :D
More finds!
More Flores 'Hobbits' described

Scientists have discovered more remains of the strange, small people that once lived on Flores island, Indonesia.
The announcement last year detailing a single, partial skeleton caused a sensation when it was claimed to be a human species new to science.

Homo floresiensis, as it was called, was little more than a metre tall and lived 18,000 years ago.

Now, the same team tells Nature journal it has skeletal remains from at least nine of the "Hobbit-like" individuals.
8) 8) 8)
More details
Tiny chinless wonders threaten anthropology rift Tue Oct 11,12:06 PM ET

In a hole in a ground there lived some hobbits -- lots of them, apparently.

A tiny hominid whose discovery in a cave on an Indonesian island unleashed one of the fiercest debates in anthropology has suddenly been joined by several other sets of dwarf-sized beings.

At least nine other wee individuals lived in the cave, where thousands of years ago they skilfully butchered meat and handled fire, according to new findings.

The initial find at Liang Bua cave, reported almost exactly a year ago, became known as the Hobbit Hominid, after the pint-sized characters of J.R.R. Tolkien's stories.

Measuring just a metre or so (3.25 feet) high -- thus as tall as a chimpanzee -- and with a skull the size of a grapefruit, the strange creature lived around 18,000 years ago on the remote island of Flores.

The discoverers believed the Hobbit to be the smallest of the 10 species of Homo erectus, the primate that emerged from Africa about 2.5 million years ago and whose ultimate descendant is Homo sapiens, as anatomically modern man is called.

They honoured him with the formal name of Homo floresiensis, "Man of Flores," and in so doing unleashed tribal warfare among anthropologists.

In polite, scholarly tones that masked ruthlessness worthy of soccer hooligans, many of them attacked the notion that the Hobbit could be a separate human species.

After all, it would mean that Homo sapiens, who has been around for 150,000-200,000 years, would have shared the planet with other hominids much more recently than anyone had thought.

It would mean that the Hobbits were still knocking around after key events traditionally considered as proof that Homo sapiens was master of the planet -- the extinction of the Neanderthals, the arrival of modern humans in Australia and the first agriculture, a landmark event that transformed humans from hunter-gatherers into settlers.

To such critics, the one-off find proved nothing -- the skeleton could be that of a dwarf, the result of a genetic flaw in a tribe of Homo erectus or a disease called microcephaly, characterised by an abnormally small brain and head.

Now, though, Liang Bua has yielded more specimens, which adds a mighty weight to H. floresiensis' credentials.

The new fossils consist of the right elbow and two bones of the lower forearm of the first skeleton; the mandible of a second individual; and assorted other remains, including two tibiae, a femur, two radii, an ulna, a scapula, a vertebra and various toe and finger bones.

In all, bits and pieces from at least nine individuals have been found, and dating of the remains suggest some were alive as recently as 12,000 years ago.

All seem to have been the same size as the original Hobbit. In addition, the new bones show that these people, for all their short size, had relatively long arms and, unlike H. sapiens, had no chin.

The finds thus prove that the first Hobbit "is not just an aberrant or pathological individual, but is representative of a long-term population that was present during the interval (of) 95-74,000 to 12,000 years ago," the Australian-Indonesian team say.

But that's not all. Gently extracted from Liang Bua's floor were the remains of a dwarf elephant called a Stegodon, whose bones, marked by flints, showed that the hobbits were good at butchering animals.

There were also scarred bones and clusters of reddened, flame-cracked rocks, proof that the community was skillful at manipulating fire.

In a review of the study, Harvard University expert Daniel Lieberman said the new fossils backed the contention that the Hobbits were a previously undiscovered branch of the human family tree.

Still unclear, though, is where these tiny hominids came from.

One theory is that they evolved from Homo erectus by island dwarfing, a phenomenon that is well known in the animal kingdom.

Under this, a large species that arrives on an island where there is little food becomes progressively smaller in population numbers and in physical size in order to survive.

But this jibes with the discovery that the Hobbits were apparently good hunters and had mastered the means of keeping warm -- in other words, they had used human skills to buffer themselves against the pressures of natural selection.

"The finds from Liang Bua are not only astonishing, but also exciting because of the questions they raise," said Lieberman.

The study, lead-authored by Mike Morwood of the University of New England at Armidale, New South Wales, is published on Thursday in Nature, the British science journal.

In a news item on its website, Nature said Tuesday Indonesia had refused to renew the researchers' access to the cave.

The country's anthropological establishment, which has close ties to the government, bitterly opposes the theory that the Hobbits were a separate species, it quoted them as saying.

"My guess is that we will not work at Liang Bua again, this year or any other year," Morwood reportedly said.
New Scientist's take on it
New “hobbit” bones bolster separate species claim
13:51 11 October 2005
NewScientist.com news service
Andy Coghlan
Newly discovered bones have strengthened claims that small human-like “hobbits” roamed Indonesia as recently as 12,000 years ago.

The bones come from Liang Bu, the site on the island of Flores where the first find was made. The skull of a small female hominin, labelled LB1, was found in 2003 and announced a year ago.

The new finds include the right arm bones of LB1, plus a jawbone and several limb bones from others of the same species. “We now have evidence for at least nine individuals,” says Michael Morwood of the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia, who is head of the excavation team.

Other unearthed items reveal aspects of the hobbits’ lifestyle, including sophisticated cutting tools and remains of stegodons, dwarf forerunners of modern elephants. The stegodon bones have cut marks on them, suggesting they had been butchered. Other animal bones and stones at the site were charred, suggesting the hobbits knew how to light fires.

“This type of complex behaviour probably required the ability to talk,” says Morwood. "But there is no evidence for burial of the dead, art, ornaments or other types of symbolic behaviour.”

Island isolation
Some sceptics have claimed that LB1 was simply a modern human with a condition called microencephaly – an abnormally small brain. But the new finds all came from individuals with the same size bodies as LB1, only about a metre tall. This supports the idea that Homo floresiensis is indeed a species in its own right.

Morwood and his colleagues proposed previously that the hobbits are dwarf forms of Homo erectus, a forerunner of modern humans, that evolved after being isolated on the island.

Sceptics such as Bob Martin, provost of the Field Museum in Chicago, US, hotly dispute this, claiming that the brain is only half the size it should be for a dwarfed version of Homo erectus.

And in the light of the new finds, Morwood's team is itself moving away from the dwarfing theory. The hobbits have disproportionately long arms relative to their legs, and so cannot be scaled-down versions either of modern humans or Homo erectus, who have had the same body proportions for 1.6 million years.

Ancestral line
They say that a more likely ancestral line goes back to australopithecine species such as 3-million-year-old “Lucy”, found in Ethiopia (Australopithecus afarensis).

“The combination of skeletal attributes that [the hobbits] share is not found in any modern human,” says team member Peter Brown. “The bones of the hands and feet don’t look like those of arboreal apes, but like everything else to do with Homo floresiensis, they are not like humans either.”

Martin remains unconvinced by the new finds. The “smoking gun”, he says, would be the discovery of another skull identical in size to LB1’s, but significantly older or younger in archaeological terms, so it could not be a contemporaneous sibling.

The researchers counter that an additional jawbone found at the site is virtually identical in size to LB1’s, but is 3000 years younger.

The Australians and their Indonesian colleagues believe the issue will be settled by the discovery of more bones. “Only a few per cent of the site has been excavated, so the chance the site contains many others is very high,” says Morwood.
The search widens
Team widens search for 'Hobbits'
By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

The team behind the "Hobbit" finds have been widening their search for remains of the strange little humans on Flores island - with tantalising results.
Since last year, the remains of at least nine individuals have been found in a cave on the Indonesian island.

The discovery team has now excavated more than 500 stone tools from another, much older, site about 40km away.

They believe a population ancestral to the Hobbits may have lived at this site, which is 850,000 years old.

"At Mata Menge there are hundreds and hundreds of in situ stone artefacts with Stegodon fossils," Mike Morwood, director of the excavations, told the BBC News website.

Extended stay

The skeletal remains of Homo floresiensis , as they are more properly called, were all unearthed from cave deposits at Liang Bua on Flores.

There is evidence these poeple inhabited the site from perhaps 100,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The sites at Liang Bua and Mata Menge are separated by some 700,000 years.
Yet stone tools found at both sites are small and well-crafted, Professor Morwood said.

At another site in the Soa Basin of central Flores, the researchers have found evidence that hominids were living on the island by one million years ago.

The announcement last year detailing a single, partial skeleton from Liang Bua caused a sensation when it was claimed to be a human species new to science.

The individual was found to have been only a metre tall, earning its nickname of Hobbit after the small characters from the Lord of the Rings books.

This week, Professor Morwood and his team published details in the academic journal Nature of more remains found at the cave, including an individual about five years old who was only 50cm tall.

Pandora's box

The discoveries at Liang Bua and elsewhere on Flores have "opened a Pandora's box of possibilities", according to Professor Morwood.

"If we've got hominids on Flores, we've almost certainly got them on Timor, because there are reports of Stegodon fossils associated with stone tools there," he explained.

"Timor, probably Sulawesi, maybe Sumbawa - we don't know. If hominids got to any of these other islands they would have evolved into unique endemic species.

"So we've got the prospect of having other new species of human on various parts of island South-East Asia. Some of them could be really weird, having adapted to specific island environments."

It is still not known how hominids travelled by sea between these islands. Building watercraft may have been a skill too far for them.

So natural catastrophes such as tsunamis have been invoked by some researchers to explain their distribution. Hominids could have clung to trees as they were washed out to sea, eventually arriving on the shores of other islands.

Revised ancestry

The researchers had thought the Hobbit's island-hopping ancestor was Homo erectus , which is known to have lived on nearby Java.

But some now think it could have been an earlier hominid known as Homo habilis . If so, it raises the possibility that hominids colonised South-East Asia at least two million years ago.

Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that genetic material will be extracted from the remains dug from Liang Bua thus far. This could have sealed the case for the Hobbit as a new species, rather than a modern human pygmy or diseased individual - as some researchers have suggested it is.

"DNA does not seem to have been preserved in the remains we have," Professor Morwood explained. "That's partly to do with the conditions in the cave but partly to do with the way the material was treated during excavation.

"We cleaned it, in some cases washed it and handled it. If we were doing it again now, the material would be taken out in its soil matrix, put in a plastic bag and kept cool. That way your chances of retrieving DNA go right up."

DNA is often preserved within teeth, and can be recovered by drilling inside one. But Professor Morwood said the H. floresiensis teeth recovered from Liang Bua were too scientifically valuable to allow them to be drilled.
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Hobbits made good use of tiny noggins

ROGER SNODGRASS, [email protected], Monitor Assistant Editor

SANTA FE - An early favorite for the top scientific find of the 21st century has to be the surprising discovery of fossils of the little people of Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004.

The most complete specimen of what we now call homo floresiensis is known as LB-1 or more famously, the "hobbit." Also dubbed Flo, she stood three-feet, three- inches tall and is reckoned to be about 18,000 years old.

Although skeptics suspect less dramatic explanations, she may well represent a wholly new kind of miniature human being.

It was not so much her body as her brain that was the subject of Dean Falk's talk Wednesday night, opening a season of public lectures by the Santa Fe Instititute.

An expert in brain evolution and cognition and professor of anthropology at Florida State University, Falk was called in on the eve of the first attempt by National Geographic to review remains discovered by Australian and Indonesian anthropologists.

National Geographic turned to her to explain how a creature with such a small brain, a third the size of our own, could be associated with fireplaces and sophisticated tools.

They also wanted to know where the hobbit might fit into the story of human evolution, which had been thought to be the sole domain of Homo sapiens, since the Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago.

Other bones found at the same time suggest habitation on Flores between 95,000 and 12,000 years ago, when a volcanic eruption may have ended the Hobbit occupation, Falk said.

But somebody or something was making tools on the island that go back nearly a million years altogether.

Falk specializes in reconstructing the shape and structure of primitive brains, by means of an endocast, a model of the inside of the braincase, that provides minute clues and impressions of the outside of the brain.

Using CT scans of the hobbit's skull, and working with engineers at the Mallincrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University in St. Louis, Falk has ruled out notions that the hobbits were pygmies or humans with abnormally small skulls.

Small body size may be explained by a well-known dwarfing effect that seems to reduce the size of larger mammals and increase the size of smaller ones. Also dwelling on the island were small elephants and giant rodents.

Brain size is only slightly correlated with intelligence, Falk said.

But the interesting thing about Hobbit brains, she noted, is not the size but the neurological reorganization.

"It didn't get bigger; it got rewired," she said, citing the impressive folds of gray matter at the front of the Hobbit brain. The area, known as Brodmann's Area 10, is associated with planning and interactive responses to the external world.

New analysis to be published soon, she said, will suggest that the creature's unusually enlarged shoulders may be an adaptation for spending a lot of time in trees.

And a creature sleeping in branches during a heavy storm, Falk said, might have been blown out to sea on an uprooted tree, which may be a more plausible explanation for how the island was populated, than by watercraft a million years ago, which is an alternative hypothesis.

Petr Jandacek, a Los Alamos art teacher who has made an educational comic book about the Hobbit, attended Falk's lecture.

"There is an irreducible chance that hobbits are still alive," he said, "because there are 40,000 islands in that area."

That's more than two islands for every person in Los Alamos, he added, all in a region where new fauna are still being discovered.

A large crowd filled the first floor and part of the balcony at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. The lecture was cosponsored by the School of American Research, Los Alamos National Bank and others.

www.lamonitor.com/articles/2006/02/23/h ... news02.txt
March 7, 2006
11:02:09 pm, Categories: Archaeology, 561 words

Whatever Happened to the Hobbit?

It's been nearly a year and a half since Australian and Indonesian scientists announced their discovery of miniature human remains on the island of Flores in Indonesia. I wrote about this stunning find in our February 2005 issue (available here). Since then, further study has revealed insights into the brain of the meter-tall hominid, (known to specialists as LB1 and to the rest of the world as the Hobbit) and more specimens have turned up, too. The discoverers maintain that the bones come from a dwarf hominid species, dubbed Homo floresiensis, that lived as recently as 13,000 years ago. They believe it was the descendant of Homo erectus or a small-bodied, possibly as-yet-undiscovered member of the human family. But from the beginning there have been skeptics.

Days after publication of the Nature papers describing the initial findings, Australia's Sunday Mail ran a letter from anatomist Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide, who argued that the little human from Flores was more likely a Homo sapiens individual suffering from a pathological condition known as microcephaly than a species new to science. Although individuals afflicted with primary microcephaly typically die in childhood, those with secondary microcephaly can survive into adulthood. Henneberg and colleague Alan Thorne of the Australian National University then contributed a short comment to the journal Before Farming, outlining their alternative interpretation for an academic audience. The gist of their argument is that a number of the Flores hominid's unusual characteristics--such as its small cranial capacity, unerupted third molars and lack of a chin--are known to occur in people suffering from secondary microcephaly. Furthermore, they contend that an arm bone found deeper in the deposits of the cave where LB1 turned up corresponds to a height of at least a meter and a half--not tall, but not a dwarfed stature either. Perhaps LB1 was a microcephalic pygmy.

Others have raised objections as well. Primatologist Robert Martin of Chicago's Field Museum has been quoted as saying that LB1's brain is too small to be that of a dwarfed Homo erectus. He, too, thinks it's a microcephalic, as do Indonesian paleoanthropologist Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University and Robert Eckhardt of Pennsylvania State University. Eckhardt has further hinted in news accounts that LB1 has more than one pathology.

To my knowledge, only one paper questioning whether LB1 represents a new species has been published in a peer-reviewed journal thus far. Jochen Weber of the Leopoldina Hospital in Schweinfurt, Germany, and his colleagues wrote a technical comment that appeared in Science. In an analysis of 19 microcephalic skulls, the Weber team found one whose braincase it says closely resembles LB1's. Several of the group's conclusions have been called into question, however.

But more papers from detractors are purportedly in preparation--including ones from Eckhardt and his collaborators--prompting one insider to predict that there will be an announcement this year. It will be fascinating to see what their diagnosis is, and how it accounts for the fact that the remains of multiple individuals have been found, including a lower jaw bone that is very similar in size and shape to LB1's.

I'll be attending the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting in Anchorage later this week. It appears there will be a few presentations relating to the Flores hominid, so if I hear anything interesting, I'll post on it here.

http://blog.sciam.com/index.php?title=w ... the_hobbit

March 14, 2006
10:59:22 pm, Categories: Archaeology, Life Sciences, 624 words

Hobbit News, Part 1

In an earlier post, I briefly summarized the state of the current debate over the tiny human remains from the Indonesian island of Flores, judged by their discoverers to represent a hominid species new to science (Homo floresiensis) that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago. I've just returned from the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Anchorage, where several presentations relating to the Flores material were given.

The most complete specimen from the excavation in Liang Bua cave is a skull and partial skeleton known as LB1. This individual, said to be a female, stood about a meter tall and had a brain that was on the order of 400 cubic centimeters--about the size of a grapefruit. The folks who conducted the original analysis concluded that it was a dwarfed species of Homo erectus that evolved its diminutive size in isolation as an adaptation to the limited resources its island home had to offer. Such dwarfing is a well-documented phenomenon among mammals larger than rabbits that live on small islands.

The problem is, LB1 does not appear to be a neatly scaled down version of the larger-bodied H. erectus. Tom Schoenemann of the University of Michigan-Dearborn addressed this issue in his talk. He surveyed brain size and body weight data for a bunch of modern and fossil humans, plotted them on a graph and concluded that among known hominid species, LB1's brain size relative to her body size more closely approximates that of the much older australopithecines than H. erectus. But an even better fit, he found, is with microcephalic H. sapiens. Viewed that way, of three possible explanations for what LB1 is--namely, a dwarfed descendant of H. erectus, a descendant of a gracile australopithecine, or a microcephalic modern human--the latter is the most parsimonious diagnosis.

Why is it the most parsimonious? Well, the most recent gracile australopithecines on record lived around two million years ago and their remains have never been found outside of Africa, so the idea that they persisted until far more recently--and got all the way to Indonesia--strikes many experts as improbable. And a lot of paleoanthropologists have trouble with the idea that selection might have downsized a Homo brain more than expected because it goes against the observed hominid pattern of increasing brain size over time. Even modern pygmies, with their small bodies, retain big brains. Large brain size is our adaptation--what we lack in speed or brute strength, among other abilities, we make up for in smarts--so it's hard to imagine natural selection favoring smaller brain size in humans.

But other findings discussed at the meeting, from a study conducted by Andrea B. Taylor of Duke University and Carel P. van Schaik of the University of Zurich, suggest that there may be a primate precedent for exactly this sort of selection. They looked at brain size variation in the four recognized subspecies of orangutan, measuring cranial capacity and skull dimensions. They found that individuals in one of these subspecies--Pongo pygmaeus morio, which resides in northeast Borneo--have a significantly smaller average cranial capacity than members of the other groups. It turns out that compared to the other subspecies, these orangutans contend with the longest and most unpredictable periods of food scarcity. Considering how metabolically expensive brain tissue is, it may be that natural selection has favored smaller brain size in these animals than in their counterparts who live in nutritionally richer environments. Perhaps brain size reduction was favored in the little Floresians for the same reason.

There were more presentations and discussions relevant to the Flores story, so as I go through my notes in the coming days, you can expect additional posts on the topic.

http://blog.sciam.com/index.php?title=h ... ews_part_i
I kind of thought this angle had already been addressed last year but clearly its still rattling round:

'Hobbit' Species Discovery Challenged

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer Thu May 18, 2:04 PM ET

WASHINGTON - The surprising discovery of bones heralded as a new, hobbit-like human species may turn out to have simply been the remains of a human suffering from a genetic illness that causes the body and brain to shrink, according to researchers challenging the original report.

The bones were discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian island of Flores and caused a stir in the scientific community when researchers declared they represented a new, dwarf, species which they named Homo floresiensis.

Because of its tiny stature it was quickly dubbed the "Hobbit," from the creature in the books by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Some scientists questioned whether it was really a new species, however, and Robert D. Martin of the Field Museum in Chicago and co-authors challenge the original classification in a technical comment appearing in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

They say that, instead, it appears to be a modern human suffering from microencephaly, a genetic disorder that results in small brain size and other defects. Other researchers also have proposed this explanation.

Martin argues that the brain of the specimen, known as LB1, is far too small to merely be a dwarf species. It's brain size of 400 cubic centimeters would indicate a creature only one foot tall, one-third the size of the actual skeleton.

In addition, sophisticated stone tools have been found at the site, he reports, of a type only associated with modern humans, which could have reached the island by the time LB1 lived about 18,000 years ago.

And they contended that evidence to rule out a microencephalic was flawed because the original researchers compared LB1 to the brain of a juvenile microencephalic, not an adult.

In a response to their paper, researchers led by Dean Falk of Florida State University called Martin's assertions "unsubstantiated." Martin's comparison of LB1 with the skulls of microcephalics lacks crucial details, Falk stated.

Falk also challenged Martin's comment that such a small brain size would indicate an extremely tiny creature based on the calculations for dwarf versions of other animals. It would be surprising if the dwarf version of an early human scaled down in the same way as an elephant, for example, Falk responded.

Falk and his co-authors argued that the size of LB1's brain is consistent with that of adult microencephalics.


On the Net:

Science: http://www.sciencemag.org

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20060518/ap_ ... r_not_it_1

New research suggests 'hobbit' was not a new species

* 19:00 18 May 2006
* NewScientist.com news service
* Adrian Barnett

The debate over whether the "hobbit” fossil found on an Indonesian island is a separate species has reignited, as a new study of dwarfing in a range of mammals suggests that Homo floresiensis was a modern human with a pathological condition.

The remains of a tiny woman were found in a limestone cave in Flores, Indonesia. Named H. floresiensis by the discoverers, she quickly became known as “the hobbit” by everyone else. When the find was reported in 2004 some anthropologists disputed whether it was a new species of human, arguing that the skeleton had characteristics of a modern human with microcephaly, a condition that causes reduced cranium size. Microcephaly is relatively common in isolated populations and is associated with reduced brain function.

Peter Brown and Mike Morwood from the University of New England, Australia, proposed that the 1-metre-tall body (known as LB1) had evolved in an isolated population of Homo erectus as an adaptation to the restricted diet found on an island. But at 380 cubic centimetres, some thought that LB1’s chimp-sized cranial capacity was too small to be a dwarf H. erectus. Brown and Morwood denied this, but their conclusion has now been challenged again.

Species identity

“As they dwarf, species’ brain sizes decline far more slowly than body size,” says Ann MacLarnon from Roehampton University, UK, who modelled dwarfing in a range of mammals from dogs to elephants with a team from the Field Museum, Chicago, US. “Brain size is key to a mammal species’ identity,” she says. There is, for example, hardly any difference in brain size between the smallest modern humans, the 1.4-metre Bambuti people of Congo’s Ituri Forest, and the tallest, the 2-metre Masai of east Africa.

The team calculated that a dwarfed H. erectus with a 400cc brain would weigh just 2 kilograms. “That’s one-tenth of what the Flores people must have weighed,” she explains. The only way to explain the discrepancy, the team believes, is microcephaly.

“It’s perfectly plausible that these were pygmy people. But there’s only one skull, and that is human and microcephalic,” says team leader Robert Martin. This, Martin believes, ties in with the abundance of sophisticated stone tools at the cave. “These were sophisticated people with a high level of mental development,” he says.

“Although we only have one cranium,” says Morwood, “the other bones we found show that LB1 was a normal member of an endemically dwarfed hominid population.” The distinctive traits of reduced body mass, reduced brain size and short thick legs mirror those found in other island endemic populations of large mammals, Morwood says. He calls the microcephaly explanation “bizarre”. It ignores other evidence from Liang Bua and the literature on island endemic evolution, he says.

Journal reference: Science (DOI: 10.1126/science.1121144)

www.newscientist.com/article/dn9190-new ... ecies.html

See also this with nice piccies:

www.cbc.ca/story/science/national/2006/ ... ossil.html
Another news story

"Hobbit" claims lose ring of truth May 19, 2006
Palaeontologists rebut claims that the so-called "Hobbit" fossil from Flores, Indonesia, is a new species, amid recrimination over hype and poor science

When scientists found 18,000-year-old bones of a small, humanlike creature on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, they concluded that the bones represented a new species in the human family tree that they named Homo floresiensis. Their interpretation was widely accepted by the scientific community and reported in the popular press worldwide. Because of its very short stature, H. floresiensis was soon dubbed the "Hobbit" writes Ted Nield

Increasingly, however, this controversial conclusion is being questioned. In a Technical Comment published topday (19 May 2006) in Science magazine, scientists led by Dr Robert D Martin, Provost of the Chicago Field Museum and world-renowned primatologist, say that the bones in question do not represent a new species at all. A far more likely explanation is that the bones belonged to a modern human who suffered from microcephaly, a pathological condition that causes small brain size, often associated with short stature.

May 19, 2006


"There has been … too little critical scientific evaluation surrounding this discovery and it is simply unacceptable that papers should be published without providing proper details of the specimens examined"
'Hobbit' stirs scientific clash

By Paul Rincon
BBC News science reporter

A US-British team of scientists has challenged the idea that the tiny skeleton from Indonesia dubbed the "Hobbit" is a new human species.

Writing in Science magazine, the team presents an alternative theory that the remains could be those of a modern human with a brain disorder.

Their arguments appear in a technical critique of previous research into the Hobbit brain also published in Science.

But the authors of that earlier paper have vigorously defended their work.

The skeletal remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian research team in the cave of Liang Bua on the island of Flores in 2003.

After carefully analysing the bones, the group declared them to be those of a human species previously unknown to science, and to which they gave the classification Homo floresiensis . (The specimen is also sometimes referred to as LB1 after the cave in which it was found).

'Sensational' find

The creature stood just 1m (3ft) tall and possessed a brain size of around 400 cubic centimetres (24 cubic inches) - about the same as a chimp's brain. Dating of the sediments around the remains indicated the Hobbit lived only 18,000 years ago.

LB1 caused a sensation when it was unveiled to the public through a publication in the academic journal Nature.

There is a fundamental problem of the tiny brain size combined with the sophisticated stone tools
Robert Martin, The Field Museum

A subsequent study published in Science in April 2005 focussed on LB1's brain. A team led by Professor Dean Falk, of Florida State University in Tallahassee, compared a cast taken from the inside of the braincase with other similar casts from primitive and modern humans, including one individual with the condition microcephaly.

This disorder is characterised by a small brain and is sometimes associated with other defects.

Professor Falk's data supported the idea that LB1 was not a modern human but a creature new to science.

Now, biologist Robert Martin, of The Field Museum in Chicago, and colleagues have questioned this conclusion. They presented some of their arguments in a BBC documentary last year, but the Science paper represents the team's formal technical position.

"There is a fundamental problem of the tiny brain size combined with the sophisticated stone tools," Dr Martin told the BBC News website.

Scaling rule

Some of the tools found with LB1 are of types previously only associated with modern humans ( Homo sapiens ).

Dr Martin also invokes a biological rule of scaling to argue that LB1 could not have been a dwarfed version of the older human species Homo erectus , as has been suggested.

The Martin team's concerns were raised in a BBC documentary

H. erectus is known to have lived on nearby Java, and one theory proposed that a population of this species could have settled on Flores and evolved a small stature. This can happen in remote, isolated habitats, as organisms adapt to a scarcity of resources. The scaling rule is based on known instances of so-called insular dwarfing in mammals.

But these studies show that a reduction in body size is accompanied only by a comparatively modest reduction in brain size. Dr Martin and his colleagues argue that the brain of LB1 is far too small to be a dwarf hominid, or human-like species.

Dr Martin used the scaling law to get to a brain size of 400 cubic centimetres using H. erectus as the starting point. The scaling law predicts a creature only 0.3m (1ft) tall and 2kg (4.4lbs) in weight.

However, Professor Falk questioned whether basing a calculation of dwarfing in a hominid on an example of dwarfing in an elephant - one of the models used by Dr Martin in his analysis - was appropriate.

Wider picture

According to one theory, LB1's ancestor was not H. erectus at all, but a smaller, ancestral hominid such as H. habilis ; or Australopithecus , an even more ancient form. Some think this could explain the small brain of H. floresiensis without breaking the scaling law.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum, UK, commented: "There are some interesting issues such as scaling of the brain and whether a human could have as small a brain normally as this creature seems to have.

It seems to be a primitive human - one that's distinct from anything we've found so far
Chris Stringer, Natural History Museum

"But if you look at the bigger picture, there are two jawbones and remains from the rest of the skeleton from several other individuals."

He told the BBC News website: "When we look at the rest of the material, including the post-cranial bones, we're finding this is a strange kind of human. It doesn't seem to be a modern, pathological individual. It seems to be a primitive human - one that's distinct from anything we've found so far."

Professor Stringer pointed to the form of the shoulder blade and the thick, chinless jawbones as particularly indicative that researchers were dealing with a novel human species.

"Some of the material [at Liang Bua] is believed to go back to 70,000 years and the most recent material to 12,000 years. We're not talking about one individual at one point in time. This morphology is represented over a considerable period in time," he said.

Dr Martin also challenges Professor Falk's comparison of the adult LB1 with a specimen from a 10-year-old microcephalic. He contends the Indonesian example should have been matched against individuals with a mild form of microcephaly that permitted survival into adulthood.

The Field Museum researcher provides his own microcephalic specimens by way of comparison. But in their response, Dr Falk and colleagues described Dr Martin's comparison as "inadequate" and lacking "crucial details".

[email protected].
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/s ... 994054.stm

Published: 2006/05/19 13:11:51 GMT


Hobbit row rumbles on

By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
(Filed: 19/05/2006)

The row over whether the 3ft tall "hobbits" once walked the earth rumbles on today, with a new claim that they were not a new species but unfortunate sufferers of a neurological condition that causes small brain size and short stature.

Professor Mike Morwood, of the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia, stunned the science world when he and his team announced the discovery of 18,000-year-old remains of the diminutive new human species, Homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003.

The hominid, nicknamed "The Hobbit" after the little people in JRR Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings trilogy, was thought to be an entirely new species of human, with a grapefruit-sized brain about as large as a chimpanzee's.

Today, in the journal Science, a team lead by Prof Robert Martin of the Field Museum, Chicago, which includes Prof Ann MacLarnon at Roehampton University in London, says that the bones in question do not represent a new species at all.

A far more likely explanation is that the bones belonged to a modern human who suffered from microcephaly. H. floresiensis was claimed to be a dwarf derived from Homo erectus ("upright man"), a human ancestor that lived as far back as 1.8 million years ago.

This seemed like an appealing explanation because islands are known to play tricks on the evolution of animals, sometimes causing them to shrink due to limited food supplies and the reduced presence of predators.

But there is a pattern in this shrinkage and while body size can shrink considerably, brain size always does so moderately.

Using data on the best specimen of the Hobbit, called LB1, today's paper points out that to be a dwarfed form of H. erectus, it would have to have been just one foot tall with a body weight of only four pounds to explain such a diminutive brain.

"The tiny cranial capacity of LB1, which is smaller than in any other known hominid younger than 3.0 million years old, is demonstrably far too small to have been derived from Homo erectus by normal dwarfing," said Prof Martin.

Small brain size is just one of several problems with the science behind claims that LB1 represents a new species, according to Prof Martin and his colleagues.

The primary problem, clashing directly with the tiny brain size, is the sophisticated nature of the stone tools found in the same cave deposits where the fossils were discovered.

Based on their size, style, and workmanship, these tools belong to types that are consistently associated with modern humans, or Homo sapiens, according to Prof James Phillips of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and co-author.

Such tools have never been associated with H. erectus or any other early hominid, he says: "These tools are so advanced that there is no way they were made by anyone other than Homo sapiens."

Another problem with the science surrounding the interpretation of the Flores fossils is that a distinct species of hominid so closely resembling modern humans but living only 18,000 years ago is inconceivable given that H. sapiens had almost certainly reached Flores by that time, according to Prof Phillips.

The team also points out that a recent attempt to rule out the possibility that LB1 could have been microcephalic is flawed. This leaves the theory that LB1 was a microcephalic modern human as the only plausible explanation for the Flores fossils, according to Profs Martin, MacLarnon, Phillips and their colleagues.

"There has been too much media hype and too little critical scientific evaluation surrounding this discovery, and it is simply unacceptable that papers should be published without providing proper details of the specimens examined," Prof Martin said

"The principle of replicability is fundamental to good science, and it has not been respected in this case."

The claims are disputed by Prof Dean Falk and colleagues at Florida State University who in turn say the evidence presented by Dr Martin for similarities between the two microcephalic endocasts and LB1 is inadequate, and Prof Falk added: "For the record, my colleagues and I are about to submit a paper detailing the results of a study on a more substantial sample of microcephalics, and we stand by our earlier report."

Taking sides in the battle of the 'hobbit'
05:00 09 October 2006
NewScientist.com news service
Jeff Hecht

The battle among paleaoanthropologists over Homo Floresiensis, popularly known as "the hobbit", threatens to become an epic of Lord of the Rings proportions.

The debate rages on over whether the fossil, found on the Indonesian island of Flores, is a separate species or simply a modern human with stunted development.

Now Robert Martin at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, US, claims the controversial fossil, discovered in 2004 was really a Stone Age Homo sapiens (modern human) with a mild form of the condition microcephaly. There are more than 400 genetic variants of this disease, which stunts brain development.

The existence of a species of small-brained dwarf humans just 18,000 years ago on Flores is a mere fantasy, Martin says. He argues that stone tools found at the site were made by normal Homo sapiens, not a separate species of hominids with 400-cubic-centimetre brains.

Evolving dwarfism
Yet just weeks earlier, Colin Groves at the Australian National University in Canberra, published a study in the Journal of Human Evolution (vol 51, p 360), which stated that the Flores skull does not have the shape of a microcephaliac.

Groves concluded the fossil was a separate species which had evolved on Flores from an unknown earlier hominid, perhaps an australopithecine, and gradually took on a dwarf form on the island.

"There's no sign of anything but Homo floresiensis on Flores at the end of the Pleistocene," he told New Scientist. The Pleistocene epoch ended about 12,000 years ago.

Second skull
In another study, Dean Falk at Florida State University, US, found that the skull lacks pathological features that separate 10 modern microcepheliacs from normal Homo sapiens. "The brain is a combination of features I've never seen in any other primate," she says.

Additional studies of the fossil are unlikely to bridge the chasm. Sceptics have sided with Martin, convinced that a hominid with a chimp-sized brain lacked the intelligence to live a Stone Age human lifestyle. Believers, however, think the metre-tall fossil and the fragmentary remains of seven other individuals reveal a hitherto unexpected branch of the human tree.

Resolving the argument will require new material, says Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London, UK. "We need a second skull to see what the variation is." Only then will we know if the hobbit was one of a kind, or a typical resident of Stone Age Flores.

Journal reference: Anatomical Record (DOI: 10.1002/ar.a.20394)

Related Articles

New research suggests 'hobbit' was not a new species
18 May 2006

New “hobbit” bones bolster separate species claim
11 October 2005

Flores fossil passes unique species test
http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns? ... 524905.100
12 March 2005


Anatomical Record

Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago

Biological Anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra

Human Evolution, New Scientist special report
http://www.newscientist.com/channel/bei ... -evolution

www.newscientist.com/article/dn10246-ta ... obbit.html
Hobbit cave digs set to restart

Archaeologists who found the remains of human "Hobbits" have permission to restart excavations at the cave where the specimens were found.

Indonesian officials have blocked access to the cave since 2005, following a dispute over the bones.

But Professor Richard "Bert" Roberts, a member of the team that found the specimens, told BBC News the political hurdles had now been overcome.

The researchers claim that the remains belong to a novel species of human.

South-East Asia and East Asia is going to yield an awful lot of surprises
Mike Morwood, UNE

But some researchers reject this assertion, claiming instead that the remains could belong to a modern human with a combination of small stature and a brain disorder.

Finding other specimens in the cave, particularly one with an intact skull, is crucial to resolving the debate over whether the Hobbit's classification as a separate species - Homo floresiensis - is valid.

Political hurdle

But access was reportedly blocked due to political sensitivities.

"This year we will back in Liang Bua again, back in the cave where we found the Hobbits," said Professor Roberts, from the University of Wollongong in Australia.

"This is good; we've now managed to get over the political hurdles that had been put up. We'll probably be in there towards the middle of the year."

The Hobbit's discoverers are adamant it is an entirely separate human species that evolved a small size in isolation on its remote Indonesian island home of Flores.

Skeletal remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian research team in Liang Bua, a limestone cave deep in the Flores jungle, in 2003.

Researchers found one near-complete skeleton, which they named LB1, along with the remains of at least eight other individuals.

Vertically challenged

LB1 was an adult female who lived 18,000 years ago who stood just 1m (3ft) tall and possessed a brain size of around 400 cubic centimetres (24 cubic inches) - about the same as that of a chimp.

Long arms, a sloping chin and other primitive features suggested affinities to ancient human species such as Homo erectus and even earlier ones such as Homo habilis and Australopithecus .

These observations could imply that humanlike creatures - hominids, or hominins - reached island South-East Asia much earlier than had been thought.

The find caused a sensation when it was unveiled in 2004, because it suggested human evolution had been much more complicated in South-East Asia than previously imagined. It also showed that another species of human had survived into "modern" times.

Mike Morwood, director of the excavation, told BBC News the remains at Liang Bua could be the tip of the iceberg: "South-East Asia and East Asia are going to yield an awful lot of surprises and it's going to make a major contribution to our understanding of hominin evolution."

But not all researchers were happy about this hand grenade being tossed into one of palaeoanthropology's hallowed vestibules.

Professor Teuku Jacob, based at Gadjah Mada University, in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, contended that the bones of LB1 could have been those of a pygmy person with the condition microcephaly, which is characterised by a small brain.

Bone damage

In 2004, Professor Jacob - known as Indonesia's "king of palaeoanthropology" - took the bones away from their repository in Jakarta to his lab in Yogyakarta, 443km (275 miles) away, against the wishes of the researchers who found them.

They were eventually returned. But the discoverers claimed the bones were extensively damaged in Jacob's lab during attempts to make casts.

The damage included long, deep cuts marking the lower edge of the Hobbit's jaw on both sides, said to be caused by a knife used to cut away the rubber mould.

In addition, the chin of a second Hobbit jaw was snapped off and glued back together. Whoever was responsible misaligned the pieces and put them at an incorrect angle.

The pelvis was smashed, destroying details that reveal body shape, gait and evolutionary history.

After the accusations surfaced, Professor Jacob denied damaging the remains, telling USA Today that breakages could have occurred when the bones were being transported from Yogyakarta back to Jakarta.

Excavations at Liang Bua were reportedly blocked because Indonesian government officials would not issue exploration permits for projects that might prove Professor Jacob wrong.

Momentous discovery

But the remaining issues now appear to have been smoothed over.

"It's now a matter of getting everything organised so we can start digging again," said Professor Roberts.

"You've got to get there in the dry season; in the wet season you can hardly drive to the site and when you are there, there are puddles of water all over the floor - so it's got to be dry to sensibly dig holes."

Speaking to BBC News before permission was given to restart excavation, Mike Morwood, from the University of New England, Australia, was optimistic about future research into H. floresiensis and the record of human occupation in island South-East Asia.

"This particular discovery seems to have prompted people to rethink what it is to be human, the relationship between brain size and behaviour, and whether hominin populations have been insulated from environmental factors. This indicates that they haven't.

"It also raises questions about the colonisation capabilities of early hominids. What are they doing on Flores and what are they almost certainly doing on other islands in South-East Asia."

It is still not known how hominids travelled by sea between these islands. Building watercraft may have been a skill too advanced for them.

So natural catastrophes such as tsunamis have been invoked by some researchers to explain their distribution. Hominids could have clung to trees as they were washed out to sea, eventually arriving on the shores of other islands.

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/s ... 294101.stm

Published: 2007/01/25 09:35:44 GMT

The Flores story of the little hairy people seems to indicate a strange race and not pathological individuals, doesnt it?
This story seems to change sides every few months. I have to confess that I would prefer there to be a record of another human type species but in the meantime it would appear that for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert.

I bet 11p and a out of date tin of soup that it turns out to be a seperate human species :)

*Confident Chriswsm*
what makes this a new species as opposed to a new sub-species?

with an extinct species can you even tell? I thought it came down to the viability of the offspring. in this example, whether a human or a hobbit could have fertile children.
One of the original discoverers (Peter Brown) has been quoted today as saying he now believes that the Hobbits were descended from Australopithecines, not Homo Erectus. He bases this on comparisons of the feet, hands and limb proportions. Will try to find an online version of the article I can link to.
Who as far as we know, only lived in Africa....

relict poplace of H Erectus on island seems a more logical shot.
A separate species...?

'Hobbit' wrists 'were primitive'

Careful study of the "Hobbit" fossil's wrist bones supports the idea that the creature was a distinct species and not a diseased modern human, it is claimed.

Matthew Tocheri and colleagues tell Science magazine that the bones look nothing like those of Homo sapiens; they look ape-like.

The announcement in 2004 detailing the discovery of Homo floresiensis caused a sensation.

Some researchers, though, have doubted the interpretation of the find.

These individuals - including the Indonesian palaeoanthropologist Teuku Jacob - have argued that the remains are probably those of a pygmy with the brain defect known as microcephaly.

But the new analysis by Tocheri, from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, US, and co-authors will add further weight to the original assessment.

Their study shows that the wrist bones of the Hobbit are primitive and shaped differently from the bones of both modern humans and even their near-evolutionary cousins, the now extinct Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis).

The creature's wrist lacks a modern innovation seen in both these other human species - a wrist that distributes forces away from the base of the thumb and across the wrist for better shock-absorbing abilities.

"The [Hobbit] wrist doesn't show the same specialization for tool behaviour as modern man or Neanderthals," Matthew Tocheri told the AFP news agency. "It retains the same primitive morphology as ancient hominids."

The 18,000-year-old bones of the Hobbit were unearthed on the Indonesian island of Flores, in a limestone cave at a site called Liang Bua.

Researchers found one near-complete skeleton of a female, which they designated LB1, along with the remains of at least eight other individuals.

The scientists believe these 1m-tall (3ft), small-brained people evolved a short stature to cope with the limited supply of food on the island.

The specimens were nicknamed Hobbits after the tiny creatures in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Subsequent detailed study of LB1's brain case and the tools found with the bones also support the position that H. floresiensis was a species distinct from modern humans.

from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7004525.stm
At least one of the pro-microcephally lobby is trying to say that this proves nothing, since no-one's examined the wrists of microcephallics.

Perhaps, it's a microcephallic with atavistic wrists...

Like extreme in-breeding with a stable genetic result? A throwback?
Heated hobbit debate takes new turn with thyroid theory
James Randerson, science correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday March 5 2008

The bitter scientific squabble over the true identity of the fossil hobbit has taken another acrimonious turn. An analysis by Australian researchers suggests the diminutive creatures were not members of a new species at all, but suffered from a congenital thyroid deficiency that stunted their growth.

They are not the first scientists to propose that the so-called hobbit, which was found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, was a sick human. But they are the first to suggest an environmental contribution to the disease. They believe the hobbit's diet was low in iodine and selenium. "Dwarf cretinism is the result of severe iodine deficiency in pregnancy in combination with a number of other environmental factors," said Dr Peter Obendorf of RMIT University in Melbourne. "Our research suggest these fossils are not a new species but rather the remains of human hunter-gatherers that suffered from this condition."

But the idea that Homo floresiensis was in fact a human with a thyroid problem has been greeted with scorn by some scientists. "I regret to say that this paper cannot be regarded as a contribution to our understanding of the Flores hominin," said Prof Colin Groves, a bioanthropologist at the Australian National University, Canberra. "Many of the claims lack evidence (ie they are sheer speculation), some even fly in the face of the evidence. I am very sorry indeed to see serious scientists involved in such a travesty."

Groves believes the fossil evidence points to the astonishing inference that the hobbit is a new species of human that shared the planet with us until as recently as 13,000 years ago - long after the Neanderthals died out in Europe around 30,000 years ago. The team's conclusion rests partly on the shape of a depression in one of the skull bones called the pituitary fossa that houses the pituitary gland.

Their ideas appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society today.

But other scientists are scathing about their interpretation. "The conclusions in this paper are not supported by the facts," said Prof Peter Brown at the University of New England, part of the original team that discovered the remains. "The authors have not examined the original fossil, have little and no experience with fossil hominids and depend upon data obtained by others. Their argument hinges on LB1 (Homo floresiensis) having large pituitary fossa. If they had looked at the original, which I have, they would have seen that it does not."

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/ ... rchaeology
This doesnt make any sense.

living on an island like as not they would have had access to the coast with regular iodine rich food.
Kondoru said:
This doesnt make any sense.

living on an island like as not they would have had access to the coast with regular iodine rich food.

The same goes for selenium.

Or maybe they were just crap at fishing.
It also doesn't explain the wrist bones, which were earlier touted as evidence they were a new species.
Thats a good point.

Those bones arent fossilised -could they be tested for this?
Kondoru said:
Thats a good point.

Those bones arent fossilised -could they be tested for this?
I don't know, but the wikipedia entry on Iodine says: "its only known roles in biology are as constituents of the thyroid hormones" so it might only be in the soft tissue.
Not about the hobbits directly, but the work probably has implications for it. Far more of the story is involved with the PR disaster of the movie, however.
Pacific ‘dwarf’ bones cause controversy
Some researchers think the Palau finds are the remains of youngsters.

Rex Dalton

Palau could be home to a newly discovered small human species.Doug Perrine / NaturePL.comKOROR, PALAU An anthropologist claims to have identified a number of bones belonging to a new type of small-bodied human in island caves in the South Pacific.

Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa asserts that the skulls and bones, belonging to 26 individuals that lived between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago, provide new insight into how humans can dwarf in island settings. If so, the find fuels the debate on the ‘hobbit’ — a small early-human skeleton found in Flores, Indonesia, about 2,000 kilometres south of Palau1. Some researchers claim the hobbit is a separate species, Homo floresiensis , which survived on Flores until 13,000 years ago; others say the bones are of dwarfed or otherwise malformed Homo sapiens .

Berger is not calling the Palau bones a new species: unlike in the Flores hobbit, the Palau skulls show no evidence of a particularly small brain. Berger says the small pelvis, dental formations and long-bone measurements belong to true dwarfs — people who got smaller, perhaps owing to the islands’ limited resources or a genetic disorder. “I felt right away this was a minute human being,” he says. Berger and his colleagues report their findings this week in the journal PLoS One 2.

But other researchers are sceptical of the dwarf theory. “On a scientific level, it is almost unbelievable,” says Scott Fitzpatrick, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh who has studied the region for a decade. “This will really take independent confirmation.”

The Palau bones could simply belong to children. Fitzpatrick found a number of juvenile bones at the burial site he studied on Orrak Island, four kilometres north of one of Berger’s sites. It may have been local custom to bury children together, he notes.

Fitzpatrick questions why this group would dwarf when people of normal stature lived around them at the same time. “This seems very weird to me,” he says. Fitzpatrick has reported on the western Pacific’s oldest burials, dated to 3,000 years ago, on a Palau island just north of Berger’s sites3. The new claim was first disclosed in a commercial movie produced by the National Geographic Society, which partially funded Berger’s work. Although the movie is not scheduled for broadcast in the United States until 17 March, it was shown in Asia on 1 March, before the journal publication, drawing criticism.

In Palau, some officials and traditional leaders are concerned that sacred burial sites were exploited for movie-making rather than scientific purposes. Adalbert Eledui, the state resource manager who oversees the region, describes the movie as “unscientific” and says he should have had notice before it was broadcast to protect the sites from an expected influx of visitors. Now, he says, resource managers may need to build cages to restrict access to the caves.

The bones Berger describes come from two burial sites 15 kilometres apart, long known to scientists, tourists and looters. One site, Ucheliungs, is called ‘Tarzan cave’ locally, because people swing from its vines. The other, Omedokel — known as ‘bone cave’ — is in the heart of diving waters and once contained piles of bones, skulls, pottery and other artefacts that have mostly been looted.

Most of the island’s chiefs had never visited the caves before last week, because Palauans typically avoid burial sites. Palau’s paramount chief Yutaka Gibbons told Nature that he had heard about the bones from people talking in a restaurant about the movie. “This shows disrespect to our people, country and laws,” he says. “Before they did anything, they should have sat with us.” Berger says he believed that traditional leaders had been briefed on his work in the caves.

“This looks like a classic example of what can go wrong when science and the review process are driven by popular media,” says Tim White, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Berger says he didn’t know the movie was scheduled to première before the journal report came out. “That is just stupid,” he says.

Brown, P. et al. Nature 431, 1055–1061 (2004).
Berger, L. R., Churchill, S. E., De Klerk, B. & Quinn, R. L. PLoS One 3, e1780 (2008).
Fitzpatrick, S. M. Antiquity 77, 719–731 (2003).