Jan. 29, 2007 — -- On the remote island of Flores, in what is now Indonesia, scientists in 2003 made a remarkable discovery -- the remains of a pre-human being, only about three feet tall, who lived and thrived there until about 12,000 years ago.
The skeleton was different enough from other fossils that scientists said it was a previously undiscovered species, separate from those that led to modern human beings. They called it Homo floresiensis, though everyone quickly nicknamed it the "hobbit."
And that would have been that, if not for other scientists who weighed in. They said the newly found "hobbit" wasn't a new species at all, just a stunted version of other prehistoric humans.
But now the original team has backed up its original argument. They took the hobbit's skull, along with 10 others from beings known to have had "microcephaly" -- a long word for abnormally small brains.
They did CT scans of the skulls, then used them to make computer-generated renditions of the brains that would have been inside.
"It's not showing the shape of microcephaly," says Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University who led the research. "So we nailed that, we think.
"In addition," she says, "we can say that there are other special features which are unique and set it apart from anyone else."
In other words, the "hobbit" of Flores island was not one of us -- not an early Homo sapiens who simply suffered from stunted growth.
That theory had been put forth last year by a team led by Robert Martin, curator of Biological Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago.
"It's no accident that this supposedly new species of hominid was dubbed the 'hobbit,'" said Martin last year, when he published a paper in the journal Science challenging Falk's original claim.
"It is simply fanciful to imagine that this fossil represents anything other than a modern human."
Martin and other scientists argued that prehistoric humans on a small island would have had good reason to be small.
For one thing, they had no competition from larger pre-human species. Evolution gave them no need to be taller.
For another, it's quite possible that on an isolated island, the "hobbits" would have been short of the nutrients they would have needed to grow to four or five feet tall.
Martin's counter-argument sent Falk's team back to the drawing board -- and roaring back with their new results today. Their computer model of the hobbit's brain -- known as a "virtual endocast" -- is in this week's edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"This happens whenever there's a major discovery having to do with human evolution," Falk said from her office at Florida State. "There's always a group of naysayers who go, 'No, no, no, it can't be a new species.' Always."