Were the extinct “hobbits” of Indonesia a separate species of human, or merely modern humans with a form of cretinism?
Short in stature but not controversy, the so-called “hobbits” of the Indonesian island of Flores have caused frenzied debate since their discovery in 1993. In total, the remains of nine individuals have been unearthed, all notable for having small bodies and small brains. An adult hobbit would have stood at around four foot – the height of an average seven year-old human child, or seven pint glasses stacked atop one another, or about nine stacked hedgehogs. The hobbit’s unique features resulted in it being ascribed to a new species of human: Homo floresiensis, making them our evolutionary cousins. Much like the neanderthals, the hobbits share a common ancestor with modern humans, however at some point in history became isolated, and took a different evolutionary path to that of our own.
A reconstruction of Homo floresiensis. They could have at least given it a smile. Source: Wikipedia.
Or so some believe. However an alternative school of thought is of the opinion that hobbits are in fact not distinct from us, and are instead just a few individuals afflicted with a form of endemic cretinism, from a population of humans that were probably mostly unaffected by the condition. It is perhaps surprising just how recently the hobbits inhabited Flores, and as such, for how much time they shared the earth with modern humans. It is thought extinction occurred as recently as 12,000 years ago, making them the longest living non-modern human species, outliving the neanderthals, and potentially overlapping with modern humans for nearly 200,000 years.
Research published in the Journal of Human Evolution recently, goes some way towards putting the debate to rest however. Hobbit fossils were compared with modern humans with iodine deficiency disorders (cretinism), with the finding that many features characteristic of cretinism were not present in hobbits. There was no indication that the hobbits had stunted growth or development in their teeth, jaw or skull. Also contrary to previous pronouncements, it was found that the hobbit’s bodily proportions and build were in fact distinct from that of modern humans.
The inspiration for Homo floresiensis' nickname. Source: lotrlovers.blogspot.co.uk
As for the overlap with modern humans, hobbits may have lived at the same time as our species but there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that humans lived on the island at the same time as these particular hobbit individuals. Claiming that they were members of a modern human population is therefore, as far as we know, as fictitious as me claiming that these hobbits enjoyed smoking pipe-weed, eating six meals a day, and had a particular penchant for gold rings and unexpected adventures.
The history of science is rife with polemics such as the hobbit debate. The alluring fantastical image of a dwarf species of human, inhabiting a remote island separate from the rest of humanity, means that it is likely that the embers of this particular clash will be stoked by public interest. It won’t be long before a rebuttal comes from the opposing academics, but for now it would seem the hobbit has survived an attack on its species status – whether Homo floresiensis will survive semantically as a species more successfully than it did evolutionarily, remains to be seen.