Sunday, 9 March 2008
Hobbits Becoming More Human
Hobbit skull. Image: Wikipedia
A new study suggests that the hobbits, a diminutive people whose remains were found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and 2004, were real humans after all. They were originally classified as Homo floresiensis, a species distinct from Homo sapiens but the dispute about their status has never abated.
Named after J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth heroes, they became known all over the world after scientific journals published a drawing by Peter Schouten that describes a tiny ape-like man carrying a furry animal on his shoulder.
Many researchers think that the hobbits’ small stature (one meter or just over three feet) and small head were the result of microcephaly, a neurological disorder that still causes some individuals to have an abnormally small head. They maintain that it is not justified to classify them as a distinct species. For instance, in 2006 Pennsylvania State University published a study stating that the small head of Homo floresiensis was due to microcephaly.
As reported by ScienceNow, a new study conducted by Peter Obendorf and Benjamin Kefford of the RMIT University of Melbourne and Charles Oxnard of the University of Western Australia at Crawley concluded that the small stature of the Homo floresiensis was not the result of genetic defects. The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that the hobbits’ size was caused by a condition known as cretinism. This is due to a lack of iodine. Comparing the pituitary flossa in a hobbit skull with individuals suffering from cretinism, they found a significant match and thus suggested a new theory.
The remains of twelve hobbits were originally found in a cave in Liang Bua. Obendorf stated that it is an area where people still suffer from goiters that results from iodine deficiency. The new study even mentions that local myths include stories of tiny people who lived in caves.
While it may be too early to discard the microcephaly hypothesis altogether, the case for hobbits being real humans is much stronger than before. We should probably do well to forget the image of an ape-like man carrying a furry animal on his shoulder and start describing hobbits as real people. It seems that the distinction between hobbits and humans is found only in Tolkien’s Midde-Earth but not on this earth.
Read more about hobbits here.
Culotta, Elizabeth. 2008. Were the Flores Hobbits Really Cretins. ScienceNow Daily News 5 March 2008. http://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2008/305/3