August 22, 2006

“Hobbit” was ancestor of modern human pygmy

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Skeletal remains of a homonoid
nicknamed "hobbit" and found in a cave on a remote Indonesian
island are from an ancestor of human pygmies still living there
today, scientists say.

Previous researchers concluded in 2004 that the remains on
Flores island represented a new species of human, "Homo
floresiensis," which was about 3-feet tall with brains roughly
the size of grapefruits.

But in an article in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences this week, a team led by Robert Eckhardt,
professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology
at Pennsylvania State University, disputed those findings.

The international research team said only one reasonably
complete skeleton, classified as "LB1," was unearthed and it
probably belonged to an early human suffering from
microencephaly, a condition where the head and brain are
abnormally small.

Other skeletal parts were found in the cave, but no other
cranial parts were unearthed.

"LB1 is not a normal member of a new species, but an
abnormal member of our own," said Eckhardt.

Eckhardt's team said four major areas of evidence proved
the 2004 evaluation wrong.

The 2004 theory asserted that early human ancestors
traveled to the island about 840,000 years ago, evolved into
the new species, and that there was no subsequent human
migration to the island until they died out about 15,000 years

But Eckhardt's team said this was false as pygmy elephants
arrived on the island twice and during periods of low sea
levels, Flores was isolated from other islands only by short

This made "repeated influxes by later humans not only
possible, but likely," it said.

The earlier team was also wrong to have compared the facial
features of LB1 with those of homosapiens from Europe.

LB1's face was also exceedingly asymetrical, pointing to an
"abnormal developmental disorder," Eckhardt's team said.