The foot that may prove 'hobbits' existed

Unusual features suggest that remains discovered on Indonesian island did belong to new human species

A miniature species of extinct humans, nicknamed "hobbits", possessed unusual anatomical features explained by their complete isolation from the rest of humanity for thousands of years on their remote island home in Indonesia, studies have found.

The tiny people, who grew to an adult height of no more than three feet, astounded scientists in 2004 when a skull and partial skeletons were unearthed from a cave on the island of Flores. Radiocarbon dating suggested that the species, Homo floresiensis, had lived in and around the cave for tens of thousand of years before dying out about 17,000 years ago.

The latest research into H. floresiensis has found that they were flat-footed, long-toed creatures who could walk easily on two legs but would have found it difficult to run at speed. A separate study suggests that their very small heads, which were perfectly in proportion to their bodies, were the evolutionary outcome of living on such a remote island for so long.

Two studies published in the journal Nature also cast further doubt on the idea that the hobbits were ordinary people suffering from some kind of pathological condition, such as microcephaly – when the skull fails to grow normally. Many scientists believe there is now little doubt that the hobbits were indeed a human species who had evolved as a result of island dwarfism, when larger animals gradually become smaller over the generations.

"That evidence has been overwhelming for some time now. Our study provides additional and unequivocal confirmation that we're dealing with a new species. The pathology debate is officially over," said Professor Bill Jungers of Stony Brook University in New York, who led the study into the hobbit's foot bones. "Their big toe was surprisingly short and more similar to a chimpanzee's in relative length than to humans.

"However, like chimpanzees again, the free parts of the lateral toes were relatively very long and the bones within were curved, whereas human toes in this region are short and straight," Professor Jungers said.

The investigation of the hobbit's foot bones also revealed that the miniature humans lacked an arch. In other words, they were flat footed. "They still walked just fine despite having relatively long feet and funny proportions, but they needed to lift their feet a little higher off the ground to clear their toes, possibly by flexing their ankles or knees more. They were designed quite adequately for walking, but were poorly adapted for long-distance running," Professor Jungers said.

A range of small stone tools found alongside the bones suggest that the hobbits hunted and butchered local animals that lived on the island at the time, such as pygmy elephants, giant rats and reptiles, such as the Komodo dragon. But their ancestral origins remain a mystery.

The long toes of H. floresiensis suggest they could be the direct descendants of a hominin similar to an early human ancestor such as H. habilis, rather than the more recent H. erectus, a species known to have migrated out of African long before the migration of our own species, H. sapiens.

Alternatively, the hobbits may be the descendants of a dwarfed H. erectus that not only underwent a miniaturisation of its body, but reverted to more primitive features. Professor Jungers said that both scenarios are possible, although at present he favours the idea that the hobbits were descended from a bipedal hominin that had escaped Africa before H. erectus.

A separate study by researchers from the Natural History Museum in London investigated the problem of the hobbit's very small skull and brain by comparing it with the skull of extinct pygmy hippos that lived on the island of Madagascar. Like the hobbit, the hippo's skull had become smaller over time and in perfect proportion to the miniaturisation of its body.

Eleanor Weston, who led the study, said that the hippo shows for the first time that island dwarfism results in the miniaturisation of skull and brain seen in the hobbit. Dr Weston said: "Whatever the explanation for the tiny brain of H. floresiensis relative to its body size it is likely the fact it lived on an island played a significant part in its evolution."

Intelligence test: The concept of island dwarfism

A key difficulty with the idea that the hobbits are a new species of human is that their brains are so small. How could a brain about the size of a grapefruit provide the intelligence to make and use the exquisitely carved stone tools found alongside the bones of H. floresiensis?

Adrian Lister and Eleanor Weston of the Natural History Museum in London believe that their expertise in studying "island dwarfism" in other animals has resolved the problem. Their study of an extinct species of dwarf hippo on the island of Madagascar showed for the first time that skull and braincase do indeed become smaller in direct proportion to the miniaturisation of other parts of a dwarfed body. In other words, the exceptionally small head and brain of H. floresiensis can be explained by evolutionary pressures resulting from living on an island, rather than the result of some kind of medical condition. And they seemed to have lived happily with small brains.

Island dwarfism is a well-known phenomenon. Extinct pygmy mammoths have been found on Wrangel Island in Siberia, along with dwarfed elephants on Mediterranean islands. Dwarfism is a way of surviving the limited resources of an isolated habitat, Dr Weston said.

"We found that the brain sizes of extinct dwarf hippos were up to 30 per cent smaller than you would expect by scaling down their mainland African ancestor," said Dr Weston. "If the hippo model is applied to a typical H. erectus ancestor, the resulting brain capacity is comparable to that of H. floresiensis."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York