Tiny "Flores Man" of Indonesia declared a new human species

Homo floresiensis was a kind of adorably tiny human being that lived on the island of Flores up until 18,000 years ago. Nature says "These astonishing little people, nicknamed 'hobbits', made tools, hunted tiny elephants and lived at the same time as modern humans who were colonizing the area."

There has been some debate as to whether or not the Flores Man was just descendants of Homo Sapiens "dwarfed by disease." But that debate has been settled, according to researchers from Stony Brook University Medical Center in New York who claim Homo floresiensis is a "genuine ancient human species."

200911191026Using statistical analysis on skeletal remains of a well-preserved female specimen, researchers determined the "hobbit" to be a distinct species and not a genetically flawed version of modern humans. Details of the study appear in the December issue of Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, published by Wiley-Blackwell.

In 2003 Australian and Indonesian scientists discovered small-bodied, small-brained, hominin (human-like) fossils on the remote island of Flores in the Indonesian archipelago. This discovery of a new human species called Homo floresiensis has spawned much debate with some researchers claiming that the small creatures are really modern humans whose tiny head and brain are the result of a medical condition called microcephaly.

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'Hobbits' are a new human species -- according to the statistical analysis of fossils


  1. I don’t think any scientific debate can ever be said to be settled. All that it takes is the discovery of new fossils to get things going again. Fascinating if true, though.

  2. Like nanuq says- just because somebody “says so” doesn’t mean the argument is over. The Stony Brook University Medical Center? Really?

    Taxonomy is plastic. Wait a few years and someone will recombobulate it, and the argument will begin anew.

  3. This really is amazing stuff. The wrist bones and other features suggest that the split from the clade that led to modern humans is truly ancient, possibly as far back as a million years. Where they were discovered is more significant than their existence as there is pretty clear evidence that our family tree is more of a bush anyway, but the fact that they were found on an Indonesian island means that our current picture of when populations of our ancestors and their cousins moved out of Africa needs to be revisited. Coupled with the recent suggestion that DNA dating techniques yield significant errors,
    the consensus views about where and when we came to be have been (once again) made much less clear. Fascinating stuff.

  4. It’s important to remember that biologists use multiple definitions of species.

    The most important definitions are closely tied to the biological species concept, and either concern gene flow, whether two populations can interbreed and have fertile offspring, whether two species normally interbreed, and so on.

    That doesn’t help paleobiologists. The biological species concept is useful for theoretical work, but fossil species may represent subspecies, species, or even multiple closely-related species. The evidence above shows that H. floresiensis represents a distinct morphological group. The details suggest very early divergence, perhaps early in genus Homo, which lends strong support to the interpretation that they were a distinct species in all senses.

  5. Of course things can change as more evidence is discovered, but evidently they now have fossils from nine distinct individuals, plus lots of tools sized for miniature humans. Claims that one specimen is diseased look less credible when you have to argue that all of them have the same disease.

  6. I think a DNA analysis would settle the question once and for all. But, at 18,000 years old, that might not be possible.

    I can see how some might be dubious, though. If the theory of H. floriensis as a different species from H. sapiens is based only on morphology, then we may never be absolutely certain. If scientists in the future found two different 18,000 year old dog skeletons, one a pug and the other an Irish wolfhound, they might see them as different species just on the morphology alone.

    I’d totally dig seeing a full body forensic reconstruction of her.

    1. If the evidence was based only on a difference between modern humans and H. floresiensis, I would be inclined to agree with you. To borrow your dog analogy, if we were to find two skeletons that not only differed from one another, but where one of them showed more similarity to foxes than to other dogs, it would strongly suggest a much less close relationship than if those differences were not seen someplace else. This is what is going on here. There are specific morphological traits in H. floresiensis that we see in some very ancient homo species that we do not see in the more recent lines more closely related to us. The evidence I’ve seen from a variety of sources is pretty strong that these guys were not us in any sense.

  7. It’d be pretty cool if few of these branching species of humans were still around. But then again, they’d probably be treated worse than garbage because of racism.

  8. “Of course getting their DNA is possible. We have a full DNA make-up of homo neanderthal.”

    Mitochondrial DNA from neanderthals has been identified but that was largely due to the colder climate in Northern Europe where the fossils were found. It probably won’t be possible to do the same for 18,000 year old fossils found in Indonesia where the climate is much warmer.

  9. No, they’ve actually got a full Neanderthal sequence now, and they’re working on a couple more. That sequence was from a 38,000 year old specimen, so 19,000 should be doable. The problem is that it’s a destructive process. We have a LOT less H. floresiensis material to work with than we do with Neanderthals (many orders of magnitude), so researchers are very reluctant to perform destructive tests on what little we have.

  10. If the Hobbit skeletons yield usable DNA, it will take all of 5 seconds before genomics person compares genome with modern inhabitants of Flores. Should be entertaining. Would also be a great techno-thriller plot line, with violence between multi-regionlists and out-of-Africa camps. Good clean fun.

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