History

'Hobbit Humans' Actually Might Not Have Been Human

The Hobbit Human descended from the more-ancient, pre-human group Australopithecus, argues one of the world's leading anthropologists. Continue reading →

Ten years after being discovered, the "Hobbit Human" remains a controversial figure, with some researchers now thinking that this diminutive human-like being might not have been human after all.

A commentary in the latest issue of Nature theorizes that the Hobbit Human could have descended from a more ancient pre-human group called Australopithecus, of which the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton "Lucy" is the most famous representative. Lucy might have to share the spotlight with the Hobbit, though, if the theory is proven to be correct.

PHOTOS: Faces of Our Ancestors

A quick refresher: The Hobbit Human, aka Homo floresiensis, was a 3 1/2 foot tall species with huge feet that lived on the remote Indonesian island as early as 13,000 years ago.

The prevailing theory has been that the Hobbit was a member of our family tree, belonging to the genus Homo and having descended from a population of Homo erectus that made its way to the island and shrunk in stature over evolutionary time due to the "island effect." (Because islands are relatively closed communities, evolution tends to lead to smaller forms.) Remains for a handful of Hobbits were found with stone tools and bones of a pygmy form of the now-extinct, elephant-like Stegodon.

Renowned paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum in London questioned some parts of this theory.

In his Nature commentary, Stringer wrote that the tiny brain of one of the excavated Hobbits as well as its body shape and individual bones "look more primitive than those of any human dating to within the past million years."

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The Hobbit jaw and chin are "most like those in pre-human fossils more than 2 million years old," Stringer wrote.

The Hobbit therefore shares traits with Australopithecus. This presents a real mind blower.

We've tended to assume that only Homo sapiens left Africa, interbred with locals in Europe and Asia (like Neanderthals and Denisovans), resulting in today's non-Africans.

But what if other species, like Australopithecus, also left Africa, made it to places like Indonesia, and successfully settled there until more recent times? The plot thickens.

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Stringer points out that if the ancestors of Homo floresiensis reached a place as far out as Flores, then they probably also went to places like Sulawesi, the Philippines and Timor, which would have been along their proposed route. It could even be that they accidentally rafted to such places "on mats of vegetation in such a tectonically active region," Stringer wrote. That might sound preposterous, but keep in mind that people wound up doing just during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Stringer explained the significance of the renewed look at the Hobbit Human.

"If the H. floresiensis lineage had a more primitive origin than the oldest known H. erectus fossils so far identified in Asia, then we would have to re-evaluate the dominant explanation for how humans arose and spread from Africa," he wrote. "It would mean that a whole branch of the human evolutionary tree in Asia had been missing."

A reconstruction of a

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.