Scientists boost case for Hobbit People.
By ANNE MCILRO Wednesday, October 12, 2005 Page A3
Researchers have discovered the remains of more so-called hobbit-like people on a remote Indonesian island, bolstering the case that a species of miniature humans lived as recently as 12,000 years ago.
The sensational initial discovery of a single, tiny partial skeleton -- announced a year ago -- made headlines around the world and set off a rancorous scientific debate: Did the little woman unearthed in a limestone cave belong to a new human species, or was she a modern human with a rare disorder called microcephaly that can cause small brains and bodies?
Now the Australian scientists say they have found an assortment of bones belonging to as many as nine little people, all roughly one metre tall, who had grapefruit-size brains and recessed chins, specimens affectionately nicknamed the hobbits.
Their initial find was "not an aberrant or pathological individual, but is representative of a long-term population," said Mike Morwood and Peter Brown from the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia, in the latest edition of the journal Nature.
Not everyone agrees, but the new findings add weight to the theory that entirely new and relatively modern human species may have evolved on the isolated island of Flores.
"The big significance of this is that before, they only had one skeleton, so, all right, maybe it was a microcephalic, someone with developmental problems and a tiny brain," said Daniel Lieberman, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University.
"Now we have a number of individuals, spread over a certain time period."
It is hard to believe that all of them would have suffered from microcephaly, Dr. Lieberman said in an interview. "It strains credulity."
The new paper adds details to what was known about the little people: that they hunted miniature elephants, giant rats and perhaps even Komodo dragons (large lizards found mainly on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rintja, Padar and Flores). They roasted their prey over open fires.
The first partial skeleton, discovered two years ago, belonged to a woman who lived roughly 18,000 years ago. The additional bones date from 12,000 years ago to 95,000 years ago.
A third theory, put forward after the initial discovery, argues that the Australian team had found a pygmy human.
Dr. Morwood and Dr. Brown said there are too many differences between the two species. Homo floresiensis, named for the Indonesian Island of Flores where the scientists made their find, lacks a chin, a unique feature of all modern humans.
The specimens also had relatively long arms.
If Homo floresiensis does prove to be a new species, it will mean that modern humans, or Homo sapiens, shared the planet with other hominids much more recently than anyone thought, said Dr. Lieberman, who wrote an article in Nature about the significance of the discovery.
There may have been other human species around when modern humans were starting to cultivate crops for the first time and to develop cities, democracy and writing.
The discovery could mean anthropology textbooks will have to be rewritten.
Some believe it offers potentially scientific explanation for myths, found in many cultures, about little people such as brownies, elves and leprechauns.
It may also mean that other human species evolved in other isolated locations, and that some may still be alive in hidden parts of the world.
But it still may turn out that the cave dwellers were humans with deformities, not a separate, exotic species, Dr. Lieberman cautioned.
It is not unheard of for as many as nine people in one group to suffer from microcephaly, which can lead to mental retardation and dwarfism.
It has many causes, including genetics, or a mother who drank, took drugs or was infected with certain diseases during pregnancy.
"We haven't ruled out that they aren't pathological."