Sat, 05 Mar 2005

'Hobbit man' may be new species

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Technical studies on the brain of the controversial Homo floresiensis, nicknamed "the Hobbit", shows that it might be a new species in the family tree of modern man's evolution.

Finding a reason for the diminutive chimpanzee-sized brain of the Hobbit has caused several disputes since its discovery in September 2003. First discovered inside the Liang Bua limestone cave in Flores, the creature was estimated to stand at about a meter tall and weigh 25 kilograms.

The team of Indonesian and Australian scientists who discovered the skeleton believed that the Hobbit is most likely a new species and its discovery would rewrite the evolutionary history of mankind.

Mike Morwood, an anthropology professor of the University of New England who co-led the Flores Team, said on Friday here that the combination of Homo erectus characteristics at the back side of the Hobbit's brain and Homo sapiens characteristics at the front, which he said were more advanced than in current human beings explains that their theory "is definitely not pathological."

A research work by a group of experts published on Thursday on Science Express, the online edition of the U.S. Journal Science, concluded the same thing: the Hobbit was probably a new, dwarf species of human.

Scientists from the United States, Australia and Indonesia compared the skull to those of humans, chimpanzees and other human ancestors to determine whether it was simply a pygmy form of a human, a person whose growth was stunted by a growth disorder, or an entirely new species.

"It was a surprise because the brain was so small that we thought it would resemble a chimp's, but instead it was more like that of bigger creatures," said Dean Falk, lead author of the study, as quoted by AFP.

Moreover, comparisons with pygmy skulls, and with the skulls of humans who had suffered the brain growth-stunting affliction microcephaly, revealed few similarities, leading scientists to conclude it was a new species.

However, some scientists who examined the remains, contest the study's conclusions and argue that the Hobbit belongs to the Homo sapiens species.

Professor Maciej Henneberg, head of anatomy at Adelaide University, said he thought the bones were simply those of a normal human stunted by microcephaly.

Henneberg spent several days in Jakarta last month helping to document the bones.

Harry Widianto, a paleoanthropologist at Yogyakarta's Archeology Agency, said that the Hobbit was best regarded as a sub-species of Homo sapiens in its evolutionary stage between 18,000 to 30,000 years ago.

Harry said that the debates over the Hobbit's species were a consequence of theoretical differences over human evolution.(005)





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