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New remains add to hobbit mystery

12 October 2005

New research strengthens the theory that the small early humans who lived in the Indonesian island of Flores, Homo floresiensis, were indeed a different species from modern humans.

Skull of Homo floresiensis, the human-like metre-tall species nicknamed 'hobbit'. © Peter Brown

Skull of Homo floresiensis, the human-like metre-tall species nicknamed 'hobbit'. © Peter Brown

The remains of the metre-tall 'human' were found in 2003 and seemed to represent a new species called Homo floresiensis, knicknamed hobbits. But some scientists argued the unusual features were signs of abnormality, perhaps due to a condition called microcephaly (having an abnormally small skull and brain).

New remains

New parts of skeletons of other individuals have since been found in different layers of the cave where the original Flores specimen was found confirming it is indeed a new species. The remains were found in layers of sediment about 80,000-12,000 years old, suggesting that a population existed throughout this period.

Professor Chris Stringer, Head of Human Origins at the Natural History Museum said, 'there are enough fossils showing distinctive features to rule out the possibility these are unusual or aberrant modern humans'.

The research published in the journal Nature contains more detailed information on the limb bones of H. floresiensis, both from the original skeleton and from the new individuals. The limb bones allow further estimates of height and body shape, confirming that a second individual was even shorter than the first one described.

Professor Stringer adds 'Puzzlingly for a supposed member of the human genus, the body proportions, hipbone and robustness of the arms and legs of H. floresiensis are more similar to fossils of ancient African species Australopithecus afarensis - (the most famous example of which is Lucy) than to later humans'.

Artist's impression of Homo erectus © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

Artist's impression of Homo erectus © The Natural History Museum, London 2005

The strange mixture of features shown in most of the bones of the skeleton raises questions about what this species really was, and where it may have come from.

Professor Stringer adds 'We now have to take seriously the possibility that H. floresiensis is not a descendant of the early human species H. erectus but derives from something more ancient and more primitive, perhaps even from an australopithecine similar to Lucy'.

Professor Stringer's full article is linked below.