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Reconstructed Face of Extinct “Hobbit” Species Is Startlingly Humanlike

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Face of the hobbit, Homo floresiensis

Scientific reconstruction of Homo floresiensis, aka the hobbit. Image: Susan Hayes

Once upon a time a tiny human species with large feet shared the planet with our own kind. It hunted giant rats and miniature cousins of the elephant, defended its kills from monstrous storks and dodged fearsome dragons. This is not the plot of a lost Tolkien book. This really happened. I’m referring, of course, to our extinct relative Homo floresiensis, which lived on the island of Flores in Indonesia as recently as 17,000 years ago and has for obvious reasons been dubbed the hobbit. It turns out that despite the species’ small size, it may have looked rather familiar, according to a scientific reconstruction.

The Flores hobbit is known best from a relatively complete skeleton of an adult female known as LB1 who stood roughly a meter tall and possessed a brain less than a third of the size of our own. Her proportions are completely out of whack with what scientists expected to see in a human species that lived so recently in the grand scheme of things and instead call to mind much earlier human precursors such as Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, which lived more than three million years ago. Thus experts have been debating the hobbits’ place in the family tree ever since the bones were unveiled in 2004.

One intriguing theory holds that the hobbits may indicate that human ancestors left Africa far earlier than previously supposed. Conventional wisdom holds that the australopithecines never made it out of the mother land, leaving it to taller, larger-brained Homo to colonize the rest of the old world. But maybe, some researchers have suggested, the hobbits were a remnant population of australopithecine that made it out of Africa early on. That would help explain the creature’s short stature and small brain, among other primitive features.

Forensic reconstruction of Homo floresiensis

Anthropologist Susan Hayes used forensic techniques to recreate the face of the Homo floresiensis individual known as LB1 from her 18,000-year-old skull. Image: Susan Hayes

Such an explanation makes the new reconstruction of LB1’s face all the more surprising to my inexpert eye. Anthropologist Susan Hayes of the University of Wollongong in Australia created the image using forensic techniques for estimating facial appearance from skull form. It looks a lot like a modern human to me, though I’m sure the tiny size of the head would detract from the resemblance in real life. Hayes revealed the reconstruction on December 10 at the annual Australian Archaeological Conference in Wollongong.

An alternate theory holds that the hobbits are dwarfed descendants of Homo erectus who evolved their small size as an adaptive response to the limited food resources available on Flores. Such “island dwarfing” has occurred in other species. A third possibility, embraced by a few researchers, is that the tiny bones are simply the remains of diseased modern humans.

 

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. alan6302 5:43 pm 12/11/2012

    Extinct ….just like the Panda was 100 years ago.

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  2. 2. Acoyauh2 6:06 pm 12/11/2012

    Forensic reconstruction software is fine-tuned to reconstruct human faces, so it’s not surprising that the resemblance is there.
    Try averaging a human’s and an ape’s basic measures and use that as a guide; it may be more realistic, though still humanish-looking I guess

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  3. 3. jennidavid36 6:28 pm 12/11/2012

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  4. 4. Metridia 7:47 pm 12/11/2012

    Uh, Katie, you can make a paleontological facial reconstruction look as modern as you want. This is merely one possible interpretation of soft-tissue anatomy.

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  5. 5. alan6302 8:22 pm 12/11/2012

    Ask those that have seen living hobbits if they did a good job.

    Link to this
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  7. 7. jtdwyer 4:27 am 12/12/2012

    So much advertising crap! Get rid of it!

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 5:29 am 12/12/2012

    The idea that the Flores Hobbits represent some hominid group that somehow avoided evolution for more than a million years is IMO downright silly compared to the well established process of island dwarfism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_mammoth
    “The pygmy mammoth or Channel Islands mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) is an extinct species of dwarf elephant descended from the Columbian mammoth (M. columbi). A case of island or insular dwarfism, from a recent analysis in 2010 it was determined that M. exilis was on average, 1.72 m (5.6 ft) tall at the shoulders and 760 kg (1,700 lb) in weight. An stark contrast to its 4.3 m (14 ft) tall, 9,100 kg (20,000 lb) ancestor.”

    There’s little concern that that pygmy mammoths might have been intellectually handicapped compared to Columbian mammoths, despite their greatly diminished brain case capacity. Why should it be such a mystery that Flores Hobbits were able to make stone tools?

    It seems evident to me that intellectual abilities are far more strongly associated with brain physiology and the development of specific brain structures than any raw measurement of brain case capacity, especially when body size is not considered.

    I think the most challenging issue confronting the idea that a diminutive early human species survived on a small island so close to Indonesia, where the enormous Lake Toba now occupies the caldera produced by a supervolcano eruption around 75,000 years ago. That event is thought to be the largest volcanic eruption of the past 25 million years. It’s acknowledged to have produce significant global climate change. While some think the modern human population was reduced to less than 10,000 worldwide as a result, in any case it would seem highly unlikely that a small group of ancient hominin could have survived nearby…

    I suspect it’s far more likely that modern humans arrived at Flores several tens of thousands of years later and, restricted to the small island and assisted by inbreeding, rather quickly developed dwarfism traits, much like pygmy mammoths.

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  9. 9. SteveinOG 1:51 pm 12/12/2012

    Dwarfism is a very plausible theory, but it doesn’t explain the primative features such as body proportions, i.e. the length of the arms compared to the legs and torso. Island dwarfs become smaller, but I haven’t read that they regress to an earlier evolutionary stage. As far as volcanic eruptions go, they are devastating events, but how many complete extinctions can be attributed to them? A Flores island group of australopithecus may have been the tiny remnant of a much larger population throughout Southeast Asia (where fossils are notoriously poorly preserved). From what I understand the “diseased modern human” view has been pretty well rebutted. If they can discover fossils of more individuals, the issue would be clarified.

    As for the “familiar” look of the reconstruction, how many cartoon characters do we immediately relate to? –Even though they have no cranium at all! All you need is 2 expressive eyes and a mouth.

    Link to this
  10. 10. SteveinOG 2:07 pm 12/12/2012

    How do we report spam? Didn’t there used to be a link we could use for this?

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  11. 11. alan6302 3:04 pm 12/12/2012

    Humans are genetically engineered from several hominids stock

    Link to this
  12. 12. ErnestPayne 5:40 pm 12/12/2012

    Perfect timing for the report and the movie. Was Gandalf involved?

    Link to this
  13. 13. Happy Hal 11:13 pm 12/12/2012

    My wife is a Filippina. She is 5′ tall, and suitably proportioned. Her sisters are all shorter, but they are rather taller than many of the people on Mindanow, some functioning natives are as short a three feet, and I saw the reconstruction, she looked much like the living and breeding 3 foot filippinas. In the area around Butuan City, there primitive white hominids,many very much in excess of 6′, including several 7′ or more. My wife saw them, because her father’s house wasn’t far from the municipal jail, where many were incarcerated. The time frame would be several years after the second war.She was born in 1943. So if someone desired to see ‘hobbit-like’ Hominids. By the way, they also have Komodo Dragons. So be careful wandering in the forest.

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  14. 14. bongobimbo 9:49 pm 12/13/2012

    There simply aren’t enough skeletal remains. I will stick with diseased modern human or island dwarfism until I am convinced otherwise. However, I believe this “new-old species” will be some day be laughed at as another Eoanthropus Dawsonii (Piltdown Man). Except that this time it was nature and accident that were the con-men or jokesters–plus imagination and interpretation guided by a convincing literary model.

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  15. 15. sanderson121 2:58 pm 12/14/2012

    I tend to agree with bongobimbo. It does seem pretty plausible that imagination influenced the result of this possible reconstruction.

    Link to this
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  17. 17. Anomalocaris 6:36 pm 12/17/2012

    Startling as it is, the fact this is an hominid, an human like creature, not an ape, so, I think one of the best things to do to reach to the heart of his comprehension is to be able to listen to him, metaphorically speaking. Listen to his head, to what he wants to communicate with out words, but gestures. I think this would be as important as he was clearly pronouncing words. :)

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  18. 18. patibaz47 7:00 pm 12/17/2012

    The article is most interesting, as well as the comments. I do take exception to the chinzy advertising that has nothing to do whatsoever with the article on the hobbit. Advertising is not a comment.

    Link to this
  19. 19. gnagy 8:31 pm 12/17/2012

    In 2004 National Geographic tested four paleoartists by giving them the same fossil bones at different times without telling them other paleoartist would be creating drawings from the fossils. Not one of the drawings looked like the others—and none of them had any body hair on them!

    The American Museum of Natural History has a life-sized African diorama with a hairy male and female homonids walking upright—based on the finding of a set of footprints! Curator Ian Tattersall paleogeneticist said they debated whether they had eyebrows or not and said it could have been a man and a child

    Read pro-evolutionist Bill Bryson’s best seller “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and discover on almost every other page the charlatanism, chicanery, lies, outright fraud—even murder—rampant in the sciences—especially anthropology and paleontology.

    This is chicanery not science.
    This is weird imagination run wild.
    This is absolute fraud.

    Talk about honesty in the “sciences.”

    This is pure bunk.

    Link to this
  20. 20. timo455 8:55 pm 12/17/2012

    “Startlingly humanlike”? How else would one expect them to look? Apelike?

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  21. 21. Geopelia 10:14 pm 12/17/2012

    There are legends of the little people in many places. The Irish had Leprechauns. There were fairies in many European countries.
    But they may have been smaller relatives of Africa’s San people, and part of our own species.

    Perhaps there are fossils waiting to be found, who knows?

    But our ancestors may have hunted them to extinction, as with so many species.

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  22. 22. hartson 3:31 pm 12/29/2012

    Why wouldn’t the hobbits look human? They are. Do you think that humans are not effected by the “island effect”? If islands can shrink elephants, why not humans? There are the pygmys currently in Africa. We have had the menehune in Hawaii and the leprechauns in Ireland.

    Link to this
  23. 23. American Muse 5:21 pm 10/23/2014

    Looks exactly like my friend Samson Muthumani!

    Link to this

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