Friday, 9 May 2008

The Hobbit Wars: Did An 18 000 Year-Old Hobbit See A Dentist?

Joel Kontinen

An Australian paleopathologist has raised a stir by suggesting that a tiny human fossil claimed to be 18 000 years old actually had a tooth filled by a dentist. Called hobbits because of their size (1 meter), the remains of H. floresiensis were found in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 and 2004.

As recently reported by ScienceNow Daily News, Maciej Henneberg of the University of Adelaide photographed the jaws of a H. floresiensis specimen (LB1) in 2005. When he later studied the photos he thought he saw evidence of a whitish cement filling, a technique dentists used in the Flores area in the 1930s instead of metal amalgams.

The hobbit wars have been raging almost continually since their initial discovery, with many researchers claiming that H. floresiensis is just a modern human suffering from microcephaly or some other condition that stunted their growth and should not be classified as a distinct species. Some scientists, however, remain sceptical of such claims.

It seems that the hobbit wars are far from over. Peter Brown of the University of Adelaide, who was part of the research team that initially reported the hobbit find, insists that he investigated the LB1 specimen (in 2004) and did not seen any signs of filling.

As is often the case with fossil finds, researchers tend to guard their specimens jealously and are reluctant to let their colleagues study the skulls. The Indonesians who have the hobbit remains in their possession are analysing them. They have denied Hennenberg’s research team access to them so he is not able to verify his claim.

Dating human ancestors has often been a vey tricky process. Different dating methods and starting assumptions can produce results that differ considerably from each other. For instance, In 1967 Richard Leakey found a skull now known as KNM-ER 1470 (which stands for Kenya National Museum, East Rudolph, museum acquisition number 1470) in the Lake Turkana area of northern Kenya. The skull looked very modern and very human-like but was initially thought to be 2.9 million years old.

Following the discovery, a heated exchange of ideas continued unabated on the pages of the journal Nature for over ten years. During that time, the initially published date fell from 2.61 million years to 1.88 million years in 1981.

Thus, if past struggles are any indication, the hobbit wars might well continue for a long time to come.

Read more abbout hobbits here.


Culotta, Elizabeth. 2008. Tempest in a Hobbit Tooth. ScienceNOw Daily News. 24 April

Lubenow, Marvin L. 1992. Bones of Contention. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.