Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Anthropologist Confirms 'Hobbit' A Separate Species

From the press release:

After the skeletal remains of an 18,000-year-old, Hobbit-sized human were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003, some scientists thought that the specimen must have been a pygmy or a microcephalic — a human with an abnormally small skull.

Not so, said Dean Falk who created detailed maps of imprints left on the ancient hominid's braincase and concluded that the so-called Hobbit was actually a new species closely related to Homo sapiens.

A computer image depicts the brains (red) of a modern human with microcephaly (left), and the fossil specimen of Homo floresiensis (right). Image courtesy of Kirk E. Smith, ERL, Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology

Now after further study, Falk is absolutely convinced that her team was right and that the species cataloged as LB1, Homo floresiensis, is definitely not a human born with microcephalia — a somewhat rare pathological condition that still occurs today. Usually the result of a double-recessive gene, the condition is characterized by a small head and accompanied by some mental retardation.

The debate stemmed from the fact that archaeologists had found sophisticated tools and evidence of a fire near the remains of the 3-foot-tall adult female with a brain roughly one-third the size of a contemporary human.

"People refused to believe that someone with that small of a brain could make the tools. How could it be a sophisticated new species?"

It's tomorrow!

But that's exactly what it is, according to Falk, whose team had previously created a "virtual endocast" from a three-dimensional computer model of the Hobbit's braincase, which reproduces the surface of the brain including its shape, grooves, vessels and sinuses. The endocasts revealed large parts of the frontal lobe and other anatomical features consistent with higher cognitive processes.

"LB1 has a highly evolved brain," she said. "It didn't get bigger, it got rewired and reorganized, and that's very interesting."

The paper should be up at the PNAS Early Edition as of jan. 29, but I’ve not seen it there yet.