|The characteristically small skull of the Homo floresiensis © Beawiharta / Reuters|
The 15,000 year-old remains of upright walking creatures, who were about 100 cm in height, and weighing 25 kg were dug up – still moist – in a cave on the Island of Flores, and dubbed Homo floresiensis by researchers, and “hobbits” by the media.
But behind the neat designations, a fierce academic debate had begun. One side said they were the descendants of the Homo erectus, a dead-end branch on the evolutionary path that produced modern humans, which died out about 70,000 years ago. Their small size would have resulted from "insular dwarfing" – a tendency of an isolated apex species to get smaller when marooned in an environment with few competing predators, but a poor food supply.
|A life-size drawing of Homo floresiensis, who may have been a relative of whoever made the newly-discovered instruments © David Gray / Reuters|
Of course this is mostly imagination.
But using primarily high-tech 3D scans, recently produced in Japan, of the best-preserved skull from the nine found specimens, two French scientists appear to have disproved at least one of these theories, without confirming the other.
“There is a lot of information contained in bone layers of the skull - there were no characteristics from our species,” Antoine Balzeau, a scientist at France's Natural History Museum and a lead author of a newly-published paper in Journal of Human Evolution, told AFP.
While smaller defects were detected in the structure, there was nothing to suggest these were genetically-disordered humans.
But neither did the study confirm that this was an offshoot of the Homo erectus, opening up an intriguing third possibility. That the Homo floresiensis may be an entirely different species, emerging from an as-yet-unknown origin.
“For the moment, we can’t say one way or the other,” explained Balzeau, who plans to continue studying the other skulls from the excavation.