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Looking after hobbits

11 December 2006

Scientists have conserved and made skeleton casts of the one-metre-tall human species, nicknamed the hobbit.

Discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, this tiny creature with a grapefruit-sized skull amazed the scientific community. Given the name Homo floresiensis , they lived 18,000 years ago and are now the longest lasting non-modern humans ever discovered.

Natural History Museum scientist, Lorraine Cornish, visited the National Research Centre for Archaeology in Indonesia to help conserve the fossil bones.

'To work on such important material,' said Lorraine, 'was a real privilege but also a great responsibility.'

'It was a truly remarkable moment to see the material first hand, in particular the main skeleton, which is designated the holotype reference specimen.' The holotype reference specimen is also known as the type specimen , the original specimen used to describe a new species.
The skeletal remains represented 15 individuals and much of it was very fragile or broken. 'My aim was to assess the material and make it acccessible for scientists to handle safely in the future,' Lorraine said.

The fragile bones were in need of specialist care and repairing the material was a delicate task. One of the jobs was to harden the bone surface by adding a reversible resin, a type of resin that can be removed if needed in the future. This helps strengthen the specimens and protect them from handling.

Lorraine created replica hand and feet casts from parts of the fossil specimens by taking moulds of the bones and then making high-quality resin casts. These replicas are invaluable for scientists who do not have acess to the real skeletons.

Scientists also CT (computed tomography) scanned the bones and took many high-quality photographs as well as a video of the reconstruction of the skeleton, linked below, that gives a good idea of how tiny this human species was.

The modern materials and conservation methods used on these ancient and unique bones will ensure that they are around for future generations to study and admire.