Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hobbit Brains: !La Lucha Continua!

Carl Zimmer discusses yet more research on the hobbit, the possibly-new species of Homo (H. floresiensis) revealed in bones found a few years ago in Indonesia. Last time I touched on the subject, the research was suggesting that the bones were a microcephalic human.

But new research (PNAS paper not yet online) on a collection of microcephalic human brains indicates that they all share traits that are absent in normal human brains. Features on the H. floresiensis skull suggest that the traits were also absent on H. floresiensis brains. Does this mean the hobbits might actually be a new species? The back-and-forth of the research is really quite exciting, although I wish it could happen in intervals shorter than six months.

Zimmer also mentions research that answers a critical question I had. Sadly, researchers have so far been unable to extract DNA from the bones. But there is still reason to hope. As Zimmer points out, new information about H. floresiensis could be just around the corner, involving new analyses and the hunt for new fossils. New analyses of known bones will probably just draw out the back and forth of the microcephalic/not-microcephalic debate. But new fossils could possibly offer a decisive answer. I’m re-crossing my fingers and hoping for some DNA results, which seem to me to be the surest way to settle the issue.

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