Hobbit Hullabaloo; June 2008; Scientific American Magazine; by Kate Wong; 2 Page(s)
She stood barely more than a meter tall and had a brain the size of a chimpanzee's. That is about all scientists can agree on in the case of the adult human skeleton known as LB1--popularly dubbed the hobbit. Unveiled in 2004, the diminutive bones hail from a cave called Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores. Based on analyses of LB1 and some other, more fragmentary remains, the discovery team concluded that the specimens belonged to a previously unknown human species, Homo floresiensis, that lived as recently as 12,000 years ago [see "The Littlest Human," by Kate Wong; Scientific American, February 2005]. But within days skeptics emerged, countering that the tiny remains instead belonged to a small-bodied population of modern humans and that LB1--with her tiny brain and other odd features--was a diseased member of the group.
In recent months researchers have published several papers favoring the minority view of the skeptics. Hobbit proponents, however, think that the evidence for the hobbit as a separate human species is stronger than ever. The stakes are high. Proponents now believe the finds suggest that the first human ancestors to leave Africa may have been far more anatomically primitive--and may have left far earlier--than previously thought. If they are right, the Flores remains rank among the most important paleoanthropological discoveries of all time, one that will revolutionize our understanding of human evolution. If they are wrong, "it will be worse than Piltdown" in terms of its effect on the field, as one anonymous observer put it, referring to the 1912 hoax that combined modern human and orangutan fragments.