Monday, August 21, 2006

Now The Hobbit's A Deformed Human Again

A story from The Sunday Times in Britain covers new research on the Hobbit, the hominin discovered a couple years ago in Indonesia that was orginally claimed to be a new species of Homo. The research, to be published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, claims the bones, previously categorized as a new species related to Homo erectus (called Homo floresiensis), are really a Homo sapiens that suffered some form of microcephallic disorder.

The PNAS research paper doesn't seem to be available yet, so there hasn't be too much online commentary. But I wonder: can anything short of a genetic analysis settle this question definitively? If there are morphological characteristics that are distinctly sapiens or erectus, why haven't they resolved this issue yet?

[UPDATE 8/21: News reports are starting to appear. Check out NYT.]
[UPDATE 8/23: The paper is finally available. Get the pdf here.]

After the break, read the PNAS announcement that followed the Times story.

Homo floresiensis Remains Appear to Be Homo sapiens

A skeleton uncovered in Indonesia in 2004 does not represent a separate hominin species but is a Homo sapiens individual who had developmental deformities, researchers report. In 2004, skeletal material was discovered in Liang Bua Cave on the Indonesian island of Flores. One nearly complete specimen’s odd shape and small skull led some researchers to believe that these remains were from a distinct hominin species. An early interpretation was that Homo erectus reached Flores 840,000 years ago and, living in isolation, evolved to a species distinct from Homo sapiens, termed Homo floresiensis. A joint Indonesian, Australian, and U.S. research team questioned this interpretation and showed that the remains are of a H. sapiens and not a distinct species. Geographically, Flores had at least two migrations of ancient elephants from nearby islands, making it highly unlikely that hominids arrived only once and evolved in isolation. Also, the island was not large enough to have supported isolated hunter-gatherers with a population adequate enough to maintain genetic diversity for long-term survival, the team says. The Liang Bua skeletons’ structures appear to fall within the range of H. sapiens variation. The only known skull simply had signs of a developmental abnormality, including microcephaly, according to the researchers.

Article: “Pygmoid Australomelanesian Homo sapiens skeletal remains from Liang Bua, Flores: Population affinities and pathological abnormalities” by T. Jacob, E. Indriati, R. P. Soejono, K. Hsü, D. W. Frayer, R. B. Eckhardt, A. J. Kuperavage, A. Thorne, and M. Henneberg

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