Small "Hobbit" Fossil Creates Big Stir

In the field of paleoanthropology, or the scientific study of extinct members of human ancestry, scientists are often asked to stake their reputations on a single claim or hypothesis. The interesting thing about the claims that scholars attempt to make is that they are often based on the very small number of specimens that are available for research. This atmosphere often creates an intense series of lively debates between scholars over the interpretation of their sometimes limited data.

Raymond Dart's claims for the role of Southern Africa in hominid evolution were controversial for many years, similarly Tim White and Donald Johanson's work on the famous "Lucy" specimen, for which the two named a new species (Australopithecus afarensis), was hotly debated by the scholarly community at the time. If the claims you make turn out to be accurate, you become a sort of celebrity in the field, if your claims do not become accepted by the majority of scholars in the field, well, that is a different story.

In a recent radio interview on National Public Radio, a British paleoanthropologist argued against the claim that an Australian scholar had made. In closing his arguments, the Brit told the interviewer, "If I'm wrong about this, I'll eat my hat". When the Australasian scholar came on the air to make his rebuttal, he offered to get the Brit some salt and pepper.

The claim that the two scholars were debating has garnered worldwide attention. A team of Australian and Indonesian researchers announced in the October 2004 issue of Nature that they had discovered a new species of hominid. The team officially named the species Homo floresiensis, and it quickly assumed the nickname "Hobbit" after researchers had used the J.R.R. Tolkien character to describe the physical appearance of the species.

The team published two articles regarding the new species (fourteen authors were listed for one article and seven for the other). The first surrounded the physical anthropology, or the description of the anatomical features of the specimen, and the second discussed the stone tools or "lithics" that were discovered nearby, as well as the presumed age of the specimen.

The team's claims were based on several fragmentary specimens as well as one more complete specimen. The team argued that the species was endemic, or small bodied because of an evolutionary reaction to an island environment. Consider that the size of many types of species residing on Indonesian islands either "shrink" or "grow" in size. For example, elephants in the region are smaller than their cousins residing on the Asian continent and the rats are much larger than those we are accustomed to. The team presents a hypothesis in which an ancestor of Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and changed due to a long period of isolation.

Some scholars, however, are skeptical of the teams' claims. Robert Martin, the scholar who has threatened to "eat his hat" is leading the opposition against the original claims. Dr. Martin, who works out of the Field Museum in Chicago, argues that the most complete specimen that the Australian/Indonesian team has presented was probably diseased. Many of the original arguments for a new species were based on the cranial (head) capacity for the most complete specimen of Homo floresiensis. Dr. Martin's argument suggests that the Hobbit probably suffered from a form of microcephaly, which would have prevented the individual's brain from growing at a normal rate. The disease also could have affected the anatomy of the individual, giving the specimen its unique shape.

Watching the debate unfold over the next few months (or even years) will demonstrate the lively scholarly atmosphere surrounding our ancestry. The most recent round of debate has been on the topic of a series of CT scans given to the most complete Homo floresiensis specimen. Read the article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Gene's picture
Gene says:

The latest evidence, from the fossil's wrist bones, indicates that H. floresiensis is indeed a separate species.

posted on Mon, 09/24/2007 - 1:54pm

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