Science

"Hobbit" humans may finally have a place in the family tree

"Hobbit" humans may finally ha...
An artist's rendition of Homo floresiensis – new analysis has shown that these "hobbits" are unlikely to have evolved from Homo erectus
An artist's rendition of Homo floresiensis – new analysis has shown that these "hobbits" are unlikely to have evolved from Homo erectus
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An artist's rendition of Homo floresiensis – new analysis has shown that these "hobbits" are unlikely to have evolved from Homo erectus
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An artist's rendition of Homo floresiensis – new analysis has shown that these "hobbits" are unlikely to have evolved from Homo erectus
A Homo floresiensis skull, which helped the ANU team determine that the species was more primitive than previously thought
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A Homo floresiensis skull, which helped the ANU team determine that the species was more primitive than previously thought

In 2003, archaeologists from Indonesia and Australia discovered the bones of a new species of human, named Homo floresiensis, in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. Its short stature – about 3.5 ft (1.1 m) – quickly earned Homo floresiensis the nickname of the "hobbit", and ever since its discovery, scientists have been debating where it fits on the human evolutionary tree. According to a new study from the Australian National University (ANU), the species branched out from a common ancestor of ours much earlier than previously thought.

Just how close a relative to us is the hobbit? One theory suggests that they are just modern humans, albeit ones suffering from a congenital condition called microcephaly, which leads to a much smaller brain, head and body. A more widely accepted origin story says floresiensis evolved from Homo erectus, an ancestor of ours that lived between 1.9 million and 70,000 years ago, but on closer inspection, the ANU researchers don't believe that's the case, either.

"We can be 99 percent sure it's not related to Homo erectus and nearly 100 percent chance it isn't a malformed Homo sapiens," says Mike Lee, co-author of the study.

A Homo floresiensis skull, which helped the ANU team determine that the species was more primitive than previously thought
A Homo floresiensis skull, which helped the ANU team determine that the species was more primitive than previously thought

The ANU study involved close analysis of 133 data points from the hobbits' whole skeleton, including its skull, jaws, teeth, arms, legs and shoulders. In some ways, particularly the jaw, Homo floresiensis appears to be more primitive than Homo erectus.

"Logically, it would be hard to understand how you could have that regression – why would the jaw of Homo erectus evolve back to the primitive condition we see in Homo floresiensis?" says Dr Debbie Argue, lead author of the study.

The researchers believe Homo floresiensis was instead related to the earlier species, Homo habilis. "The analyses show that on the family tree, Homo floresiensis was likely a sister species of Homo habilis. It means these two shared a common ancestor," says Dr Argue.

Homo habilis is one of the earliest known hominids, walking the Earth between 2.1 and 1.5 million years ago. Going back earlier than that, the line between human and ape begins to blur. Although the hobbit remains have been dated to between 100,000 and 54,000 years old, the study suggests the species could have branched off as early as 1.75 million years ago.

"It's possible that Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated, or the common ancestor moved from Africa then evolved into Homo floresiensis somewhere," says Dr Argue.

The research is published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Source: Australian National University

5 comments
piperTom
So, Homo floresiensis evolved in Africa and migrated all the way across Asia -- more that 3000 miles -- leaving traces only on the island of Flores. SURE , that makes sense.
LarryWolf
Maybe their our missing link and we just grew a bit!
EdwardMichaels
To piperTom: Your comment is lacking in logic, or you have not been reading much lately on the evolution of Homo Erectus. It is no longer a theory that it came only from Africa. Fossils of H. erectus also show that the species lived in numerous locales across the globe, including South Africa, Kenya, Spain, China, and Java (Indonesia). "Handy Man" (nickname of Homo habilis) went into Asia and Europe from Africa and somewhere in Asia it gave rise to Homo erectus. Then at some point, "Upright Man" (erectus's nickname) went-hold on to your hat--back to Africa! If anyone wants to read this more thorough understanding, go to this website: http://www.newhistorian.com/homo-habilis-were-first-out-of-africa/4386/ Or simply search for "how did Homo habilis migrate out of Africa". You're welcome. :)
ljaques
Oh, CRAP! Now they'll be bringing back ORCS! And why aren't these named Homo gnuzealish, for the country who where the movie was filmed?
Artificial Gravity
It is still an unchallengeable "fact" that human ancestors migrated out of Africa. Theories of the lineage of all humanoids thus have to be engineered to fit this unchallengeable hypothesis and thus don't always seem to make practical sense. It seems to be a no go area. Just as Europeans are from Africa with a small amount of Neanderthal. Sense would argue that Europeans are Neanderthals with a small amount of DNA from immigrants.