December 2012, Week 3


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Portside Moderator <[log in to unmask]>
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Fri, 21 Dec 2012 22:57:56 -0500
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[Visit the link below to view the 'hobbit' face
reconstruction -- moderataor.]

Reconstructed Face of Extinct "Hobbit" Species Is
Startlingly Humanlike

By Kate Wong
December 11, 2012
Scientific American

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

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

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.

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


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