Further support for Homo floresiensis (the ‘hobbit’)

English: Cave where the remainings of ' where ...
Liang Bua cave on Flores, Indonesia where fossils of Homo floresiensis were discovered in 2003 (credit: Wikipedia)

When they were first discovered in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores diminutive hominin remains sparked off a heated debate. Part of the reason for dispute was the age of the deposit in which they were found (18 to 850 ka), so young that it indicated possible cohabitation on the island with anatomically modern humans. On the one hand, the finders claimed that they represented a previously unknown hominin species. Other specialists considered that the tiny size (adults no taller than about a metre with brain capacity around that of australopithecines) indicated some congenital  dwarfism.

Homo floresiensis (the "Hobbit")
Homo floresiensis skull (credit: Wikipedia)

In the 9 years since the remains came to light, several anatomically features have been cited to support the view of a distinct hominin species: their lack of a chin and different arm and shoulder anatomy, which H. floresiensis shares with H. erectus and H. georgicus. The fossils are associated with simple stone tools and bones of a variety of prey animals that show cut marks and charring, suggesting that cooking was part of these hominins’ lifestyle; despite having small brains they were not unintelligent.

Substantial remains of nine or more individuals have been unearthed so that anatomical detail is almost complete. In 2007 details were published of three well-preserved wrist bones from the original find. They too were sufficiently different from modern and Neanderthal humans to warrant confirmation that H. floresiensis is indeed a distinct hominin species. Further work on wrist bones from other individuals has now more or less put the seal on this identity (Orr, C.M. et al. 2013. New wrist bones of Homo floresiensis from Liang Bua (Flores, Indonesia). Journal of Human Evolution, v. 64, p. 109-129), the authors  concluding that ‘The pattern of morphology … supports H. floresiensis as a valid taxon and refutes the hypothesis that these specimens represent modern humans with some kind of pathology or growth disturbance’. They take matters further by suggesting that their lineage was established before divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals. As with the shoulder morphology that of their wrists would have somewhat hindered tool-making dexterity, but nonetheless they did make tools.

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