In a strange case of science imitating art, one hobbit has again become the center of a heated and ongoing conflict.
Since its 2003 discovery on the Indonesian island of Flores, the Homo floresiensis (nicknamed hobbit because it only grew to be about three feet tall) has caused scientists across the world to debate whether the find is a new species or simply a variation of the modern human. The difference could signal a major paradigm shift in the study of primitive humans.
Although several partial H. floresiensis skeletons have been identified, the majority of the attention has been given to a specimen called LB1 (the first to be discovered) because it is the most complete skeleton and the only one that has an entire cranium.
The earliest known hobbit lived approximately 18,000 years ago, although archaeological records of ancient tools suggest that hobbits may have been alive as early as 12,000 years ago. Until the discovery of LB1, scientists had widely believed that the last non-modern humans were the Neanderthals, which became extinct around 24,000 years ago. If hobbits are indeed a new species, they will replace Neanderthals as the most recent non-modern humans.
Aside from its unusually short height, H. floresiensis was believed to have a very small brain. For many scientists, the brain size has become a focal point of the argument on whether H. floresiensis deserves to be classified as a new species. Opponents of hobbits as a new species contend that LB1 is simply modern human with a smaller stature and brain due to some pathological abnormality. Among the disorders proposed are Laron Syndrome (insensitivity to growth hormones), cretinism (stunted growth due to thyroid problems), and microcephaly (abnormal brain growth that results in a small head).
Prof. Dean Falk, anthropology at Florida State University and one of the main proponents of H. floresiensis’ identity as a new species, was at Cornell on Friday to explain her position and place hobbits — which she referred to as “lightning rods for controversy” — in the history of other paleontology discoveries.
Falk’s talk traced a history of new findings like LB1 where opposition came not only from fundamentalists but also from scientists. The earliest pre-humans were discovered before Darwin’s Origin of Species, and according to Falk they, too, were initially regarded as “microcephalic idiots” before finally being accepted as different species.
In particular, Falk focused on the work of Raymond Dart. “I view 1925 as the beginning of the modern era of anthropology,” she said, referring to the year that Dart discovered his famous Taung baby. The Taung baby, estimated to be 2.5 million years old, is today seen as one of the critical factors in developing the theory that humans evolved out of Africa. At the time of its discovery, however, the specimen was rejected because it contradicted an earlier specimen called the “Piltdown Man.”
The Piltdown Man, uncovered in 1912, aligned with scientific expectations at the time of what a missing link between apes and humans should have looked like. Its large brain supported the widely held notion that the brain was the first part of the ape body to evolve, and its discovery in a British gravel pit supported the idea that early humans emerged from Eurasia. It took until 1953 for the scientific community as a whole to realize that the Piltdown Man was a hoax, composed of a modern human skull with an orangutan jawbone attached to it. The rejection of the Piltdown Man paved the way for Dart’s Taung baby to get another look from scientists.
In Falk’s view, the current situation with H. floresiensis is analogous to the situation faced by Dart’s Taung baby. She and her colleagues have spent much of their time since descriptions of the remains of LB1 were published in 2004 doing research that has led them to reject the various “sick hobbit” theories proposed by other scientists. Some of the most convincing evidence came in a 2007 study when Falk compared the LB1 brain to several normal brains and several microcephalic brains. In every instance, the LB1 brain sorted with the normal category.
Even now, the debate on H. floresiensis has not yet reached a decisive conclusion, but Falk remains optimistic that there could be one in her lifetime. “What will settle this will be what settled the others,” she said. “They have to find more fossils.”