Hobbit feud: scientists argue over mysterious bones

The setting was a hidden island filled with pint-size men who feasted on pygmy elephants and battled dragons. The story of paleontology's "Hobbits," the extinct human species called Homo floresiensis, packs plenty of drama.

But the 2003 discovery by an Australian-Indonesian of the undersize bones inside Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores has long also suffered from a modern-day human rivalry. Add in the scientific back-story — a five-year feud over the whether the original inhabitants of Flores were actually a separate human species — and you have enough material for a novel.

The latest chapter of this story comes in the next Journal of Human Evolution, which boasts four reports concerning the hobbits— five years after discovery was first disclosed in the journal Nature. "Here we report the discovery, from the Late Pleistocene of Flores, Indonesia, of an adult hominin," wrote the authors of that 2004 paper in the formal language of scientists declaring a new species. ("Hominin" is what the cool kids among paleontologists say instead of "hominids" now, or what reporters call "human species." )

Incredibly these "hobbits" stood less than 40 inches tall and had brains about a third the size of modern humans, although they were buried with Stone Age tools, which indicates they had some smarts. "The combination of primitive and derived (modern-looking) features assigns this hominin to a new species, Homo floresiensis. The most likely explanation for its existence on Flores is long-term isolation, with subsequent endemic dwarfing," concluded the team led by Peter Brown of Australia's University of New England. The declaration made the bones of "Liang Bua 1," or LB1, described in the study the "holotype", basically the defining specimen of the new species, much like the fossil of " Lucy" defines the pre-human species Australopithecus afarensis, which lived 3 to 4 million years ago in Africa.

For something so sacrosanct, LB1's bones have enjoyed a rough few years, derided by critics such as Jochen Weber of Germany's Leopoldina Hospital as belonging to a microencephalic victim of a small-brained pathology, not a new species. Florida State University neuroscientist Dean Falk countered those claims in other studies, most recently in a 2007 Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper that concluded, "Despite LB1's having brain shape features that sort it with normal humans rather than microencephalics, other shape features and its small brain size are consistent with its assignment to a separate species." The bones even departed from their home in Jakarta's Indonesian Centre for Archaeology without the permission of all of the discoverers, a move that left them damaged and pawns in the politics of paleontology in Indonesia prior to their return.

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